There aren’t many players and luthiers as inextricably linked as James Taylor and Jim Olson. Guitarists are a notoriously fickle bunch, greedy-prone and seemingly more wanting than most of your neighbor’s toys, but defying the stereotype, Taylor has been loyal to Olson since he found a way to get one of his guitars into the hands of the former in 1989 Jim has built eight guitars for James over the years, starting with an unsolicited cutaway SJ. This guitar inspired an order for a no-cutaway SJ and dreadnought, the demands and practical needs of touring prompted a second no-cutaway SJ, then Olson insisted on giving Taylor one of the three James Taylor Signature SJs he had built. and finally there is a nice little room. They all have cedar tops, ebony fingerboards and Olson’s standard 5-piece laminated neck, six have Indian rosewood back and sides, one of the signature model instruments and the saloon are made of Brazilian rosewood. Regardless of the occasional Telecaster sightings, you will have a hard time playing Taylor other than one of these Olson guitars for the past 30+ years.
Jonathan “JP” Prince, who started out as a tour rigger and set carpenter for Taylor in 2001 and has been taking care of his guitars since the beginning of the year A man Band tour in 2006, informed us in an email: “I usually take five Olsons with me on our bus and truck tours. [James will] play 90% of the show on two guitars. When touring conditions aren’t extreme, we are happy to bring the Olson Dreadnought out for the occasional drop-tuning song like ‘Country Road’ We like to have backups in the rack during the show, and I usually have a reserve in a trunk too. Jim Olson was a constant and unwavering lifeline when we had catastrophic breakdowns on the road. From gluing the tops together after a flight damage to sending parts and pieces to us, he’s always there. “
Olson and Taylor have the kind of relationship every solo farmer dreams of. Speaking to each of them, it’s easy to hear their mutual respect and affection – it’s comforting to see good people connect, and it should come as no surprise that Taylor cultivates those connections, even if it is for Olson was a little wrong. Olson was a fan first before he started making guitars. “When Sweet baby James When I first came out, I tried to learn all about it, ”he admits. Later “I read with” guitar player that the two things he said he admired were a boat builder and a guitar builder. I thought, well, I’d really like to show him one of my guitars. I wasn’t very optimistic that he would be impressed, but I thought I’d love to. ”He had one of those“ friends of a friend ”relationships: Jim mentioned this hunch to Lloyd Baggs, who had known Dan Dugmore for years played with Taylor. “Dan kind of wanted to mention it to James,” he recalls, “then Lloyd got back and said James would call me, but nothing ever happened.”
It took a little more courage than just saying a word to make this a reality, and it’s a great story the way Olson tells it (he even dives into a creepy imitation of JT) …
I opened the paper one day and James was in town for a concert – that was 1989, maybe ’88 – a concert for the environment. James Brandenburg, a National Geographic photographer, has a lot to do with the wolves of northern Minnesota [Brandenburg took the cover photo for Taylor’s Never Die Young album], so it was a concert for the wolves and the environment. I knew James Brandenburg, I’d met him before, so I thought, “Gosh, I wonder if I can bring a guitar and just show it to him.” I thought, “That’s ridiculous. I can not do that.”
But then I took courage and called the number given as the organizer for the concert. A lady answered. I said, “This is going to be a strange request. I wonder if there is some way to come down during the sound check or something and show James Taylor a guitar. ”And she said,“ Oh, I’m sorry. We don’t have insurance for that. We just can’t. “And I said,” I see. I see. I should never have brought it up “and” I’m sorry to bother you. “And then she said,” You’re not the type from Minnesota, who makes Phil Keaggy’s guitars, right? “I said,” Well, actually I am. Phil is a good friend. “She said,” Oh! I only saw him in concert last year. I just love him Well, let me call Peter Asher and see what he says. “And she called me back within two minutes and said,” Peter said you’d like to see the guitar. Just bring it down and leave it to him Concierge. “
So I thought wow this is great.
The only guitar I had was a cutaway, and I knew he didn’t want a cutaway. But I had nothing else to do; it was a spontaneous thing. I drove it down, I left it with the concierge at the hotel, all I put in my suitcase was, “If you’re interested, James, please give me a call,” and I keyed in my number. I didn’t write a big plea or sob story or tell him I’m a fan or anything.
I bought tickets for the concert that evening and went there. It was amazing. It was an acoustic concert with Mark O’Connor, Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer … It lasted two nights [Saturday and Sunday]. I saw the first show and felt about an inch tall. I thought, “This guy won’t want anything to do with me. Why would he want a guitar from me? ”On Sunday I had a confirmation for my brother’s daughter in Wisconsin; I switched my answering machine off because I didn’t want to be rejected. When someone calls, I thought, oh, I’ll just take my risk. Monday came, I hadn’t heard anything. Went to work. My shop was in a huge commercial building next to our church – they were upstairs; Downstairs we had a coffee shop and an outpost where we made music, and I had a shop in the same building in 1,200 square feet with three-phase power and high ceilings – not behind a confessional or anything. I did janitorial work for the church to cover my rent. I grabbed my cell phone just in case I heard from the hotel to get the guitar. I went up to the church toilets and knelt down cleaning the toilet and the phone rang and I said, “Olson Guitars,” and the voice said, “Is James Olson there, please?” And I said, “This is Jim.” He said, “This is James Taylor’s calling.” I said, “Seriously?” And he said, “Well, yes. Why? “I said,” Well, just a little shocked, you know? I mean, give me a second to collect myself. “He said,” Mark O’Connor and I played that guitar all weekend. We’re pretty excited about it. I don’t know what to do about it. ” I said, “All right. I’m excited about that. ”He said,“ I have a question: Why did you bring me a cutaway? ”I said,“ Well, it was the only guitar I had to show you ”. He said, “I don’t usually play a cutaway. Maybe I could put a plastic spider web in there or something … ”Joke. I said, “Well, if you like this guitar I can certainly make another one.” He said, “Would you? Could you make me a non-cutaway? And could you make me a dreadnought, too? ”I said,” I’d like to, James. ” And he said, “Well what do these cost?” And I had to tell him back then it was $ 2,150 for the cutaway I showed him. He said, “That is very sensible. Let’s do that. Let’s make myself a non-cutaway and a dreadnought. “I said,” How would you like that to be done? ” He said, “I’ll leave that to you. They do it exactly so that it sounds and plays that way. It doesn’t have to look like anything in particular. “I said,” Would you like the pearl on it? ” He said, “I’ll leave that to you. I think it’s best to leave that in the hands of the violin maker. ”He calls it“ loo-thee-ay ”.
I go with it for a long time, but the bottom line is he said, “So what should I do with it?” I said, “I’ll tell you something, James: pay me full price for it, take it with you, and when I finish the others I’ll take it back.”
Fast forward: I did the other two. It was around Christmas time ’89. I sent it to him. He called me back and said, “Absolutely wonderful … I love her, I love her. I really grew on this cutaway. We go to rehearsals, I take them to rehearsals and make a decision about it. ”In the end, he bought all three. He couldn’t give up the cutaway.
That was when we started this 31 years ago, and he still uses cutaway and non-cutaway as his main guitars, and both have suffered significant damage over the years – airlines crushed the non-cutaway once so they had to replace the part of the binding, the pearl above was partly in pieces. I sent it back to him in three days during the One Man Band tour. He didn’t even miss a show with it. He was on stage with Bonnie Raitt in Italy playing “# 1,” the SJ cutaway, and fell on the end socket and split the end block and sides to the neck block, and the tension on the strings cut the body in half for something. He was sure it was beyond repair, but I reassembled that for him too, and they’re still playing with it.
He always talks about the Beatles meeting taking him through a door and his life on the other side was completely different, well, that happened to me with him.
Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in Fretboard Journal # 47.
Guitar photos by Jim Olson. James & Jim uncredited photo.