‘Folk Music … It Ain’t for Sissies’
‘Folk Music … It Ain’t for Sissies’
A Q&A with Jonathan Edwards
By Geoff Gehman
The headline above appears on a T-shirt advertising Jonathan Edwards as a fierce, fiercely funny facilitator. For five decades he’s been promoting a healthier world through folk and pop, bluegrass and cowboy country; hits above-ground (“Sunshine”) and underground (“Shanty”), and lessons learned as an organic farmer and an organic father. All these elements have been united by an engaging vinegar-and-honey voice and a live show that caresses and claws.
On Oct. 19 Edwards will infuse the Mauch Chunk Opera House with his vivacious vibe. He’ll share the stage that night with Michael Martin Murphy, a fellow criss-crossing performer who celebrates the great outdoors and great potential. In an interview from his home in Portland, Me., Edwards discussed his admiration for John Denver, yet another musical ecologist; his role as the singing captain of a television series about American waterways, and his ravishing cover of a Beatles rave.
Q: One of the first songs I couldn’t forget was “She Loves You,” which made my head shake and my body quake. On your latest CD, “My Love Will Keep” [Appleseed Records, 2011], you dramatically slow it down and deepen it, making it more lyrical and meditative, a sort of cross between folk-country chamber music and sea chantey. Do you have a special relationship with the song? Has it been a touchstone for you?
A: No. A friend of mine did something different with “She Loves You” that opened me to taking it further and exploring the conversational possibilities of two guys talking about a woman. I do a typically upbeat, energetic show with a wide-open version of the song, one that has a lot of air. People are stone-cold quiet while I’m playing, and then they go crazy at the end. That always amazes me.
Q: “My Love Will Keep” also features “Johnny Blue Horizon,” your ode to John Denver. What impressed you most about him? Why is he a “kindred country boy”?
A: I admired his courage to stand out there and play for millions and millions of people. I loved the fact that his songs are so personal yet so universal. I loved his songwriting, his selection of musicians and production, and his energy. He brought it to every show I saw, and I saw a few, including ones I played with him. I loved the fact that he was able to take what we all do and launch it into superstardom without losing anything.
Q: Denver was incredibly ambitious; not many pop musicians, after all, get to star in a movie with George Burns as God. What’s the most ambitious you’ve been as a musician? Was it when you played six 40-minute sets every night with a band, or when you ran your own record company?
A: Well, I grew out of both those enterprises [laughs]. What has challenged me, I guess, is trying to maintain my artistry and stamina on the road, to keep my voice and spirit in shape and make the show sound new and unique every night. That’s why we sell this T-shirt that says: “Folk Music … It Ain’t for Sissies.”
Q: What was the lowest point of your career? I’m guessing it was in the early 1970s, when exhaustion, frustration and a dangerous illness took you off the road and made you settle down on your farm in Nova Scotia.
A: It was ’73 and because of managerial errors I suddenly moved from Warner Brothers to Atlantic. [Atlantic officials] pretty much ignored my second album [“Honky-Tonk Stardust Cowboy,” 1972], which I think is one of my best albums, because they had no idea what to do with a cowboy hippie from New England. It was a pretty low time. I was recovering from a severe allergic reaction to a penicillin overdose; I needed adrenaline to bring me back from the brink. I felt I wanted to do more than sit in a van and an airplane and a tour bus. It involved being closer to nature and the earth, getting off the power grid, embracing a self-sufficient lifestyle. All those things converged to convince me to live on a farm that had never seen chemical fertilizers or insecticides, and to get about the business of raising a family.
Q: You were the host-cruise director for the PBS series “Cruising America’s Waterways.” How did you get the gig and why did you sign up for it?
A: The guy who did it was a film professor at Syracuse University who was a huge fan of mine–and still is, hopefully. I became a class project, and he made this small movie that never saw the light of day. Then he dreamed up [“Cruising America’s Waterways”] and he thought I would make a nice host to play music in and out of scenes and sit on a river bank and watch the river flow. It was natural for me because I grew up on the banks of the Potomac River and literally water has been in my soul ever since.
Q: Is there anything you learned, or relearned, from watching “That’s What Our Life Is,” the 2008 documentary about your life and work?
A: To be more aware of how I embrace the experience of being onstage; to be more aware of my fans. I think I got a little better at listening to what I say onstage and what I say offstage, how I choose to articulate my ideas and ideals. I mean, I’m a lifelong student of many things. So [the documentary] was a classroom along the way.
Q: Any more recent classrooms along the way?
A: Well, I’m getting back into organic gardening, which makes pretty boring print.
Q: Do you have any dream projects within reason? How about making a record of songs about the water, or a record with your musical daughter Grace?
A: I’d love to do an album with her. I’m on her new record, “Made for Change” [Mercury-Universal]. And she’s here in my house right now, she and her guitar player. We’re playing shows, working in the garden, enjoying some long-overdue time together. It’s really a treat, an enrichment.
A record with her is in the dreamworks, and so is an album about getting back to the land. I’d like to relate to young people doing what I did in ’73: understanding what it’s like to raise your own food, to know where it came from, having respect for animals and the environment. Grace thinks the same way, that our only hope is sustaining a viable, respectful relationship with our world.
Q: I’m looking at the cover of your compilation album “Good Time Cowboy,” which has a ’70s photo of you wearing Western gear and looking like the Sundance Kid. What do you think when you look back at this dude that was you?
A: Well, that was me at the time. That was my life; I didn’t need any costume change. I was listening to country music, playing acoustic country music and living in the country. And I had some interests out West in terms of ranching. I’ve always been open to all sorts of lifestyles and different loves in this world.
Q: You share Michael Martin Murphy’s love of the great outdoors and cowboy culture.
A: I call our show “The Buckaroo and the Sailor.” Somebody joked that if we had some side men, we could call ourselves The West Village People [laughs].
Q: That would be great on a T-shirt, maybe on the flip side of “Folk Music … It Ain’t for Sissies.” Final question: How do you feel about not being asked a single question about “Sunshine”?
A: Very good, thank you.
Q: When was the last time that happened?
A: Never. On the other hand, I love the song still. It’s meant a lot to people over the decades. And I love the journey it’s taken.
Q: I’m always curious about the afterlife of songs, how they take unexpected journeys after you release them to the world. Any songs of yours besides “Sunshine” that have taken zigzag paths?
A: Well, there’s “Shanty,” which I wrote as kind of a joke. [Recites line] “…Gonna lay around the shanty and put a good buzz on.” People love it; I close every show with it. It’s become a Friday song in many cities around the country. Every week they play it around 5 o’clock, religiously.
Q: How does it feel to steal a bit of Jimmy Buffett’s thunder?
A: I think it’s great. He’s made a career out of party songs. I only have one, but it’s a choice one.
Jonathan Edwards: The Scoop
First songs he couldn’t forget: “It’s an odd choice, but I’m going to say ‘Day-O (The Banana Boat Song).’ It’s either that or ‘Watermelon Man’ by Tennessee Ernie Ford, which may be an odder choice.”
A scary pre-draft-induction physical spurred him to write “Sunshine,” a deceptively sunny protest against warped authorities.
Three more fast facts about “Sunshine”: Edwards’ original version hit fourth on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1972; the next year the Isley Brothers released a cover; in 2007 the song starred in a Jeep ad.
He toured in the musical “Pump Boys & Dinettes” with Nicolette Larson, the late singer and Neil Young muse.
He’s big in Holland, where spectators own a bootleg of his ’70s albums “Rockin’ Chair” and “Sailboat,” know all the words to many of his songs, and bicycle to his shows.
On his current tour he’s booked to play a synagogue, a 19th-century general store converted into a bed-and-breakfast and a horse retirement ranch.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa. His favorite tunes performed by Jonathan Edwards include “People Get Ready,” “She Loves You” and, yes, “Sunshine.” He can be reached at email@example.com.