Updated March 10, 2003 12:00 PM

The crunch you hear as you approach the wooden cottage on Martha’s Vineyard is actually ice underfoot. But once inside, where your vegan host sips yerba maté tea, sweetened with agave nectar and Vitasoy dairy-substitute before a wood-burning stove, it sure sounds like someone’s munching Granola. “If you’re remotely pagan,” Ben Taylor says with a beatific grin, “fire is a phenomenally elemental [form of] spirit worship.”

Such talk comes naturally to Taylor, 26, whose parents are James Taylor and Carly Simon, stars of that ’70s show, the Me Decade. Now their son, like older sister Sally, 29, before him, is following in their footsteps with his debut CD, Famous Among the Barns. With its title from a Dylan Thomas poem, the album features resonant vocals similar to another towering tenor, Papa James. “I couldn’t be happier with the comparison,” says Ben. (Taylor Sr. harmonizes on three Barns tracks, as does Simon.) “I learned to play the guitar by learning my dad’s songs. I don’t think anybody is going to say I sound like Stevie Wonder.”

“He’s not a copycat,” says Simon, 57, who raised the children after she and James, 54, split when Ben was 3. “James has been a very strong and wonderful influence on his life. He’s inherited a great many of the wonderful aspects of his father.”

There was a time, however, when Ben went to great lengths to duck the family legacy. After a sickly early childhood—he underwent surgery at age 3 to correct a kidney condition that plagued him from birth—and unable to fit in at a series of public and private schools, he was homeschooled by tutors. “It was the kind of education that, in part, made Ben who he is, which is tripped out,” says his mom. At 16, he traveled the world, backpacking through Asia and in U.S. wilderness areas he once explored with his father. “James did all sorts of outdoor activity with him, which I wasn’t keen on,” says Simon. “I get cold feet. I mean literally. I have poor circulation.”

Although his mother calls him “absurdly musical,” Ben, who at 10 sang “Itsy Bitsy Spider” on her 1987 HBO special, was contemplating a career in organic farming after stints as a wilderness guide and a New York City fitness instructor. Then, in 1996, director Mike Nichols, a longtime family friend, had a heart-to-heart with the prodigal son. “Mike said, ‘Who are you kidding? You’re a singer, a writer, a musician,’ ” Simon recalls. “I think Ben took that to heart.”

So much so that in 1997, armed with a guitar and a songwriting how-to manual written for him by his mother—”Rule No. 1 is start out with a phrase that compels people”—Taylor spent 10 days in the Caribbean, where he honed the craft that he would use to raise Barns. Now the once-reluctant musician, who lives with his girlfriend Bridge Taylor, 26, an actress, in the cottage on his mother’s property, is on tour with the Ben Taylor Band. Back home he and Bridge, who rates him “a really good boyfriend; he makes sure I feel secure,” spend their nights reading by the fire and their days preparing vegan meals and enjoying the other key to their holistic lifestyle—exercise. “When my body is limber and strong, I feel more confident about everything,” says Ben, extolling the virtues of “kung fu, kickboxing, bicycling, running up mountains—whatever I can find. I love endorphins!”

Steve Dougherty

Anne Driscoll on Martha’s Vineyard