“These songs were written to be performed by anyone,” veteran folk-pop giant James Taylor tells Apple Music of his covers collection of 14 American standards—called, naturally, American Standard (and not to be confused with the popular toilet brand of the same name). These evergreen tunes, including “My Blue Heaven,” “Ol’ Man River,” and “Pennies From Heaven,” are rarely associated with any particular artist, making them ripe for constant reinvention, which was the songwriters’ intention all along. “The songwriting was all there was in the era that these songs were written, because they would be sheet music—they'd be part of a musical, and who knew who was going to be cast singing these parts. All you had to carry a song was the melody, the lyric, and the changes.”
While it’s not a “guitar album” in the most familiar use of the term, Taylor arranged each song, whatever its origin or best-known iteration, in the laidback acoustic style he’s been famous for across six decades, as these were the kinds of songs he listened to while first learning to play. “They're my guitar arrangements from all my life, from the past 60 years playing these songs,” he says. “We didn't give it to a piano. And the process of interpreting with the vocabulary that I have, it starts to take on its own shape. Doesn't always work, but when it does, it takes the song somewhere new.” For example, “Teach Me Tonight,” which is best known for Dinah Washington's 1954 version, has what Taylor calls “kind of a Latin feel” in his interpretation. “I got a strong dose of Latin music early on, and it works with this fingerpicking style,” he says.
But mainly, Taylor is more interested in preservation than innovation. “Not that it's like preachy or educational, but I think it's important that these songs stay part of the conversation,” he says. “As part of the landscape.”