Celebrating a Classic: James Taylor’s “Carolina In My Mind” Turns 50
When James Taylor was homesick, reflective, and missing the South, he turned that longing into a song. This month, “Carolina In My Mind” turns 50.
The singer/songwriter, who has earned 40 gold, platinum, and multi-platinum awards over the course of his career, may not be the first artist you think of when you think Southern music. However, thanks to a childhood spent in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, he is undoubtedly a Southerner and with just a line or two (“In my mind I'm gone to Carolina/Can't you see the sunshine? Can't you just feel the moonshine?/ Ain't it just like a friend of mine?”) he manages to distill his Southern childhood into a few humble bars.
Taylor wrote the song while recording his first album, destined for The Beatles’ Apple record label. He took a break from the challenges of the recording studio and headed off to an island off the coast of Spain called Formentera. There he met a girl (isn’t that how it always happens?) and they spent a day exploring the nearby island of Ibiza, having so much fun they missed the last boat back. The two spent the night on the street and there was something in the air that got Taylor thinking about the South. “She was asleep … and I was up and … I was thinking about my home in North Carolina and what it meant and stuff and that just sort of came down out of the air,” Taylor explained in an interview in 1992.
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Taylor returned to London and the recording studio with the song in hand, laying down guitar and vocal track. To help round out the song’s sound he conscripted a local musician, Paul McCartney (…perhaps you’ve heard of him?) to play bass and sing harmonies on the song, while George Harrison also sang a few uncredited bars on the album. Even in that illustrious company, Taylor was still longing for that warm Carolina sunshine, though. As he told Rolling Stone in 2015, “I realized how lucky I was to be listening to the Beatles playbacks and watching their process in the studio, but at the same time that I was surrounded by this holy host of my absolute idols, I missed my home.”
All that homesickness for the red dirt of home and wistful longing of being in one place while pining for another was channeled into the song, resulting in a redolent of the South. The evocative lyrics and winsome tune gave an early hint of the talent that would eventually lead to Taylor’s inclusion in both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame with multiple Grammy Awards to call his own. “Carolina in My Mind” became Taylor’s fist single and while it wasn’t quite a hit, Taylor still loves it. “It’s I suppose still my favorite song that I’ve written,” he said. “It means a lot to me that one.”