Saturday, March 22, 2014

Music Weird interviews Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards scored a million-selling hit in 1971 with "Sunshine" from his self-titled debut album. It was the era of genre-straddling singer-songwriters whose eclecticism added to their broad appeal but made them hard to classify. 

"During the early '70s," I wrote years ago, "many singer-songwriters were creating their own characteristic blends of folk, rock, and country music that did not fit into neat categories. Walk into your local music retailer today [if you have one!], and you may find Jonathan Edwards filed under Folk, James Taylor in Pop/Rock, John Denver in Easy Listening, and Jerry Jeff Walker in Country—distinctions that say more about the way these artists were marketed than how they actually sound." 

The success of "Sunshine" drove Edwards into an intense, three-year-long tour schedule that took such a toll on him that he retired from music for a couple of years. Emmylou Harris coaxed him out of retirement, and he has been active ever since. He still continues to perform regularly, especially around New England. 

I interviewed Edwards on July 27, 2001, when I was working on a reissue of his second album, Honky Tonk Stardust Cowboy, which spent almost two months on the Billboard album chart when it was originally released in 1972. Many of my questions are about that album. 

"Sunshine" had been a million-selling single. Did you feel a lot of pressure to create another hit?

No, I felt no pressure at all. My only drive was then—and is now—to make good music and play music with my friends. That's how I started and that's what I'm still doing. Whatever else is happening on the success-o-meter, I'm very proud of that concept and that fact.

How did you end up on Atco?

I was with Capricorn. The first album was with Capricorn, and Capricorn went to Warner Bros. in some sort of a trade, some sort of a deal. My contract stated that if Capricorn ever went anywhere but Atlantic, that I would stay with the parent company Atlantic. In retrospect—I don't know if you want to print that or not—it was probably a big mistake, because Atco really had no idea what to do with a sort of folk-country album. No concept at all.  

Stardust Cowboy seems a little lighter in tone than the first album. Was the songwriting or recording process any different?

We had learned a lot from the first album and we were progressing on to the next step of my development as a writer, as an artist. And certainly the recording techniques we learned a lot about, so I think it was a development process. I was enthralled and excited with the world of country music at the time—you know, the Merle Haggards, the George Joneses. I was living in the country. I didn't resonate too well with urban life. I was more of a country guy, riding horses, growing a garden, and I wanted my music to reflect the things that were going on in my life. So I kind of went a little more country than the first record.

Did you see yourself at the time as moving toward straight country? [Note: Edwards went on to have a few country hits in the late 1980s.]

Not really. I just did what I did, what I loved. I had grown up on acoustic music from Appalachia, and I'd grown up with bluegrass sensibities, and I wanted to use those instruments because I knew them, I loved them, and I understood them.

Lefty Frizzell had recorded "Honky Tonk Stardust Cowboy" in 1971.

That's right. And I heard that driving down the road in Boston of all places. I'd heard his version of that song, and I pulled over to listen to it. Pulled right over and listened to it and thought, wow—this is allegorical to my life in a lot of ways, and I'd sure like to hear that again and see about recording it. I got a copy by a couple different artists and went on my own way with it.

So why did you choose that as the title track?

Again, because I think it kind of reflected the development my life was taking at the time, the things I was interested in and engaged with. I think it spoke to a lot of the feelings that I was having, having had a major hit on the pop charts, and just kind of negotiating my way around where to go from here.

You recorded "Paper Doll" live on the radio. What was the story behind that?

Along with my roots in bluegrass and acoustic and country music, I also listened to a lot of black artists of the '50s that, strangely enough, my father had around, like the Mills Brothers. I loved that song from the Mills Brothers. One night we just decided to do it, Stuart [Schulman] and I, just for fun, and it stuck in the show. We learned the harmony, and we did it in the show as sort of a tongue-in-cheek encore. We did it on WLIR, I believe, on Long Island, in a live radio concert, and we ended up using that particular version because it was already done, and it had that live feel to it.

What about your remake of the Jesse Colin Young song, "Sugar Babe"?

I was a huge fan of the Youngbloods from the beginning, and we'd done many shows with them on Harvard Square in the Cambridge Common when there were free concerts in '68 and '69. I loved Jesse and the whole band, and I wanted to do something funky and fast.

Joe Dolce was a friend of yours?

Yeah, Joe Dolce was in my band [Sugar Creek] that came from Ohio. He was part of the band that traveled from Ohio to Boston to try and make it and instead ended up breaking up and ended up with a solo career. But Joe was always a friend and wrote great songs and was a great character. He wrote that song ["Shaddap You Face."] You remember that? Awful! So don't make fun of me for having "Sunshine" as a hit!

How did Bill Keith wind up onboard?

Bill was in my band.

Right, but he had had quite a history as a performer. He was one of Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys in the early 1960s. 

He was in a band called Great Speckled Bird and with Maria and Jeff Mulduar. Bill was amazing and still is an amazing player and an amazing personality to have in your band and to travel with. I went up to Woodstock and had a meeting with him and asked him if he'd like to be in my band and he said, "Well, it isn't a band."

A lot of the guys in your band played with Martin Mull too. What's the connection there?

That's right! You must be an ardent record cover reader! Martin Mull and I had the same manager and we worked out of the same stable of musicians in Boston. Marty was a friend of all of ours and we borrowed from each other ruthlessly. We had a lot of common friends.

Did you enjoy a lot of freedom at Atco?

Yeah, there was total artistic freedom, but, again, the promotional machine had no idea what to do with the kind of music I was making. I should have definitely been in L.A. I should have definitely been with Arista or Warner Bros., one of those L.A./country/Eagles-sounding labels.  

What happened after Stardust Cowboy was released? How did you promote it, and how was it received?

As I recall there was absolutely no promotion of any kind, and so I did a third album with more of the same, called Have a Good Time for Me, and used the same personnel and brought in a few other hired guns, but mostly it was my friends, which, again, is what I've known and loved my whole career.  

Billboard, December 2, 1972

Looking back, how do you rate Stardust Cowboy?

It's one of the best records I ever did, in my estimation, and a lot of my friends and fans agree that that's one of the nicest records I ever did. And there have been some 15 of them. I love the spontaneity of it. I love the fact that you can almost hear the friendship that was going on amongst us all: "Hey, one of us finally sprung loose to make some noise in the music business. One of us finally got out, so let's help him play, let's help him do this thing."  That's the feeling we had.

I don't suppose you ever talked to Darrell Statler, who wrote "Honky Tonk Stardust Cowboy?"

I did, actually.

Do you know if that title was inspired by the Legendary Stardust Cowboy?

I do not know. But again, that song spoke to me. It's been a mainstay in my show ever since, and it's been a highly requested song in my concerts ever since.

Is there anything else you'd like to say?

I appreciate the fact that whoever, in their wisdom, decided that this album was worth revisiting. I sure have always thought so, but I don't have any power along those lines. It doesn't belong to me. I'm sure glad that people are going to have a chance to hear it again.

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