The 2002 Kennedy Center Honors Gala was a mixed bag. The honourees were Elizabeth Taylor, James Earl Jones, Chita Rivera (actress, dancer and singer best known for roles in West Side Story, Chicago, and Kiss of the Spider Woman), conductor James Levine, and Paul Simon. Different reviewers had different favourite moments, but the critical consensus was that the highlights were Steve Martin’s introduction of Paul Simon and our first video, James Taylor and Alison Krauss’s take on Simon’s The Boxer.
Speaking of the Kennedy Centre Honours events, the Washington Post observed: “The pattern is always the same: a speech by a colleague of the honoree, a short filmed biography, and then tribute performances by lesser stars — bracketed by two standing ovations for whoever’s being honored.” I would hesitate before saying that Taylor and Krauss are lesser artists than Simon, but they may be lesser stars in the sense of being less well known. Taylor and Kraus certainly did a fine cover of The Boxer:
Isn’t it great when Krauss and Taylor sing together? Jim Hansen comments on YouTube: “I love James Taylor and Paul Simon with every fiber of my being, but Alison Kraus, wow. Every song she sings she makes it sound like it was made just for her to sing in that angelic voice of hers. Hearing her voice literally brings tears of emotion and joy.” James Ryan says, “Alison is one of the finest voices in the business and a fantastic musician, this is a great version.”
The Washington Post asserted “Taylor’s duet with Alison Krauss on The Boxer is haunting.” The paper was less complimentary about the covers of Simon songs by Alicia Keyes (“She tries shriekingly to ignore the song’s melody”), John Mellencamp, and Taylor’s solo, but it raved about Steve Martin’s introductory comments. Martin, it said, belatedly brought the gala event to life during the last half-hour of the show with a parody of the windy, overblown tributes the other honorees get. Let’s watch:
For those Music Man readers who don’t know Alison Krauss, the singer and fiddler is the queen of bluegrass-country music. Her acclaimed movie soundtrack performances include O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Cold Mountain. Her audience was significantly broadened by her collaborations with Robert Plant including Raising Sand (2007) and Raise The Roof (2021). Raising Sand, a platinum-selling album, was rated Album of the Year at the Americana Music Honors Awards (2008) as well as at the 2009 Grammy Awards.
As for The Boxer, the boxer in the song is the decidedly non-pugilist-looking Paul Simon. Interviewed by Playboy magazine in 1984, Simon said the track was an allegory for his “tacit bouts with the music critics who began to attack his reputation in the late 1960s”. He elaborated: “I think the song was about me. Everybody’s beating me up, by that time we had encountered our first criticism. [Critics realised] maybe we weren’t real folkies at all!” Those who know The Boxer well will have noticed that Krauss and Taylor’s version is truncated. That’s normal for Kennedy Centre Honours performances, apparently.
Now the juiciest bit of the story. Paul Simon was a last minute replacement as honouree. As the Washington Post puts it, “Paul McCartney, who isn’t American in the first place was rude enough to say he’d be busy the night the awards were given out.” Thank goodness Steve Martin was there to cheer Simon up, and that Alison Krauss and James Taylor were there to visibly move him.
To play out, here’s the trailer for Paul Simons’ brand new album, Seven Palms, which is making the top ten in numerous Best Album of 2003 lists (it’s #2 in Uncut Magazine!):