Upbeat Jonathan Edwards hits Ogunquit for birthday show
Though born in Minnesota, raised in Virginia and college educated in Ohio, Jonathan Edwards is a New Englander all the way. He came here in 1967, hoping to get a record deal with his bluegrass band Sugar Creek. “We didn’t know at the time that we were about three years too late for that,” Edwards said in a recent phone interview; the scene had peaked. “But we stayed here anyway.”
Their first show after a long drive from the Midwest was on the Harvard Green; a humbling experience, Edwards recalled.
“We found a place to park right in front of the stage, and there was Earth Opera playing,” a seminal Boston band including David Grisman and Peter Rowan. “We had never seen nor heard anything like that in our little parochial life in Ohio… it was like, ‘uh oh, we’re in some high, deep cotton here, boys.’”
Sugar Creek did make, 1969’s Please Tell A Friend. Other than that, though, the band gained little traction, and Edwards went solo in the early 1970s. “I liked the sound of bronze strings on rosewood better than steel strings on magnets,” was how he explained the decision in one interview.
It’s that spirit Edwards is bringing to his shows of late. All are solo, apart from longtime piano player Tom Snow joining him on his birthday July 28 in Ogunquit – “he’s giving me himself,” Edwards said with a laugh.
“It brings me back to how I started out,” he continued. “The first night I walked out on stage, I wasn’t 20 feet from the microphone and somebody yelled out, ‘you suck!’ I figured I no place to go but up from that point.”
That he did – his first record spawned the monster hit “Sunshine,” and found him opening for the Allman Brothers, B.B. King and other greats. Edwards has made 15 albums since, including the buoyant Honky Tonk Stardust Cowboy and four other 70s LPs, a bluegrass collaboration with Seldom Scene, and a children’s collection called Little Hands.
His most recent is Tomorrow’s Child, which came a relatively short time after his first studio collection in over a dozen years, 2011’s My Love Will Keep. What sparked the creative burst?
“I had taken some time off to be on the road and enjoy that aspect of creativity, but the stars all fell together,” Edwards said, crediting songwriter and producer Darrell Scott for inspiration. “We got together and he made this amazing dinner; we started talking songs and playing guitars and pretty soon we had an albums worth of tunes right there on the table.”
Many were deeply personal songs, touching on Edwards’ experience as an adopted child, and his public revelation that in the mid-1960s, he’d given up a child for adoption. “They all fell into this category of family and love and reunion… all these things that I was going through pretty hard at the time,” he said. “It all fell together really magically and that’s what you’re left with on the sound of that record.”
Few interviews with Edwards fail to touch upon his biggest hit. “‘Sunshine’ was a perfect song for the Vietnam era and what my generation was going through,” he said when the subject came up. “It’s still clinging to it today, and I’m proud of that. I’m glad that my one hit song in the world wasn’t ‘Yummy, Yummy, Yummy, I Got Love In My Tummy.’”
Were it not for a producer accidentally erasing a song called “Please Find Me” (seriously), “Sunshine” wouldn’t have been on the record at all, causing all manner of cosmic dominoes not to fall.
“It probably would have come out on another album, had I had a chance to do another album,” Edwards said, adding that if a first record stiffs there’s no guarantee of a second. “These are the hands of fate that come in and mix up the pot, and point you in a direction that you have no control over… you have to be aware of those course corrections, and take advantage of those moments, because they’re important.“