As a child, Andrea Zonn absorbed every note and lyric to James Taylor’s 1972 album, One Man Dog. Ever since, the acclaimed Americana fiddler and songstress has regarded Taylor as a hero, inspiration and, for 13 years, employer.
Though Zonn has amassed an extensive résumé of studio and performance credits that has brought her to Lexington in numerous musical settings — an arena-scale show with Lyle Lovett and his Large Band, a club date alongside banjo stylist Alison Brown, a set of her own last fall for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour — it is with Taylor and his remarkably enduring catalog of folk-pop songs that Zonn has reached her most substantial audience. She will be in his company again Sunday, when Taylor plays at Rupp Arena in his first Lexington concert in more than 42 years.
“James is not a guy who has a lot of turnover in his band,” Zonn said. “I’ve been with him for 13 years, and I’m still pretty much the new kid. There has not been a lot of people holding those positions over the years, so it felt like a pipe dream to want to sing with someone like that. When the phone rang and it was his office calling, it was such a surreal moment.
“It’s been remarkable to be part of his creative process all these years. I have learned so much from him, especially about songwriting. I love observing how artists go about creating their craft. Everyone seems to speak their own language. Everybody has a vision for the songs and the sound they want to create. Our job as sidemen is to figure out how to bring that vision to real life. I love the way James hears harmonies. I love the way he articulates what he wants from each member of the band. But I also love the space he gives everyone to bring themselves into this picture.”
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Observing Taylor at work has rubbed off on Zonn’s own music as well. Last year, she released a solo album, Rise, that sported a number of high-profile cameos from Taylor, veteran drummer Steve Gadd (also a longtime Taylor band member), contemporary bluesman Keb’ Mo’, country star Trace Adkins and dobro great Jerry Douglas.
“Most of my friendships with these players have been really longstanding,” Zonn said. “Most of them have come out of working relationships. In that, I think you recognize when the chemistry is right. These are really kindred spirits, so it was important to draw from that well. It is amazing to have that community around me and to be part of that creative mindset.”
Some of the inspirations of her high-profile friends have influenced her own music, but the affirmative slant of Rise also draws closely from her own life. Most of the tunes were written in the wake of a series of brain surgeries, along with resulting complications, that Zonn’s son, then 7, had to undergo. Such music was not necessarily cathartic, she said, but rather reflective of the time, and it was an acknowledgment of her son’s eventual recovery.
“The catharsis probably occurred before the making of the record and before the writing of the songs,” Zonn said. “It was more of a reflective process and, in some cases, just gratitude, just the joy of getting through it. While he was undergoing his surgeries and complications, everything else really took a back seat. This was more of a reflection on life and a sort of assessment of the aftermath.
“You can’t go through a life experience like that without it kind of being folded into who you’ve become as a person. So that stuff stays true forever. We just keep adding to it. I think that’s just part of the natural evolution of life. Nobody gets out unscathed. It’s just important to take stock every once in a while and say, ‘Wow. That’s what that was and here’s where we are now.’”
Where Zonn is now is back on the road for a summer tour with Taylor and a band full of heavyweight players (Gadd, keyboardist Larry Goldings and saxophonist Lou Marini, among others) playing a library of vintage hits, new works from the 2015 recording Before This World (curiously, Taylor’s first No. 1 album after a nearly 50-year career) and a few surprises.
“One of the things I love about James is he always seems to be in a state of being inspired,” Zonn says. “Part of that is the live performance. There are certain songs that are regulars to the set list, like Shower the People and Fire and Rain. But he likes to dig back in the catalog and play with songs that we haven’t done in a while. Some of them may be more obscure things.
“I’m just so happy to be back out with James and this band. I’m been really looking forward to it all winter while we’ve been off. I’m also happy that my record has some dirt under its heels and is getting a little traction. It’s a wonderful time.”