Jonathan Edwards Finds Perfect Balance


By Bob Keyes
Staff Writer

“We were surprised that we could find this much privacy and seclusion so close to town. And yet, we can get on our bikes and in 20 minutes be on a beach that no one knows about. We love it here,” says Edwards, the affable folk singer who has just released his first studio recording in 14 years.

Tucked among the canopied trees of Cape Elizabeth, Edwards’ home is a testament to his creative life. His basement recalls the past — black-and-white photos from his heyday in the Boston folk scene in the 1970s, sharing the stage with James Taylor, Jon Pousette Dart and others; framed LP jackets; copies of his CDs.

The rest of his home captures the present and portends the future: hand-crafted, painted mirrors that Edwards likes to make; an unfinished painting of Marilyn Monroe; an elegant living room piano that indulges Edwards almost every day. He proudly shows off a new pine floor in the kitchen that he recently installed.

Edwards, 65, endeared himself to a generation of music lovers with his Vietnam War-era crossover pop hit “Sunshine” in 1971 — then spent the next 40 years dodging the call of fame. He’s lived in a lot of remote places, including many years on a boat, and made decisions that rewarded him personally but did not benefit his music career.

After moving to dry land in Cape Elizabeth about two years ago and plugging into Portland’s collegial music scene, Edwards has rediscovered his love of music, and relaunched his career with the CD “My Love Will Keep.” It’s a comfortable collection of acoustic songs, mostly falling into the folk-country-bluegrass genre.

It sounds like what we have come to expect from a Jonathan Edwards record over the years: full of energy, hope and an infectious feel-good spirit.

Edwards recorded in Portland with mostly Portland musicians. Jim Begley helped produce and engineer the disc. Grammy Award-winner Bob Ludwig mastered it. This fall, Edwards is touring to support the CD with a combo that includes Portland musicians Tom Snow on piano and Joe Walsh on mandolin.

Edwards has released many CDs over the years, although lately they’ve been live albums. He has toured enough to maintain his fan base, but not enough to return to the level of chart-topping popularity he enjoyed in the early 1970s, when he played concerts coast to coast and across the globe.

Then again, Edwards didn’t particularly enjoy those days.

He never embraced the chaotic travel required of a popular musician — he was playing 200 or more shows a year back then — and never felt he was doing what he calls “honest work.”

“It was time to follow my heart, and I wondered what it was like to do honest work,” he says, seated on a sofa with guitar in hand. “There was a part of me that wanted to be respected and known for skills that you could really admire — like raising horses, raising a crop or raising a family.”

After the release of his second album, “Honky-Tonk Stardust Cowboy,” in 1972, Edwards told his manager to stop booking shows. He moved to Nova Scotia, bought a farm “30 miles down a dirt road,” and began working the earth with hands and horses.

The dramatic move wasn’t made on a whim, but it certainly was made without concern for his commercial viability. Edwards made no apologies for his decision then, and does not today. He looks back without any hint of regret.

“I’m really a product of convergences in my life, for better or for worse. I try to listen to all the forces that come to bear in a person’s life,” he says. “I’ve always followed many different paths.”

Up in Nova Scotia, Edwards lived as self-sufficiently as possible, and came out of the woods only long enough to make records and stay connected to his friends. He even joined a local band, The Pitcou County Woodchippers, but never revealed his fame. He just answered an ad in the local paper for a guitar player and showed up at the beer hall for the gig.

In 1975, Emmylou Harris recruited him to sing backup on her landmark second album, “Elite Hotel,” so he hopped on a plane to Los Angeles. Since then, he has struck a balance between having a life and having a career.

His desire for both brought him to Portland.

Edwards has known Maine pretty well over the years. He’s played here a lot, has made a lot of friends here, and keeps his boat at a marina in Harpswell.

“I’ve always admired the honesty of people’s endeavors here,” he says. “And besides, I get recognized a lot in Maine. I don’t in Connecticut or Massachusetts. It felt very welcoming and comfortable to put down roots here, as much as you can put down roots anymore.”

Edwards has lived in the Caribbean, Texas, New York, Boston — always moving, always on the go. He compares Portland and its music scene to that of Austin, Texas, but on a smaller scale.

He likes the politics of Maine more than Texas. In concert, he quips that he decided to move after “I woke up one morning and found out that Austin was right smack dab in the middle of Texas.”

When it came to finding a base from which to operate the next phase of his career, Portland presented itself as a logical option. After he settled and set the course for making a record, Edwards began his association with Begley. A mutual friend introduced them.

At first, Edwards wasn’t so sure about the match. Edwards is no slouch, but Begley is a big man, and he struck Edwards as an imposing figure.

“I thought, ‘Uh-oh, this could be a short session,’ ” Edwards says, “but Jim turned out to be the sweetest, most capable producer and most creative guy I’ve ever worked with.”

They began making “My Love Will Keep” last winter. Some of the songs are those Edwards had stowed away for years; a few are new.
He wrote five of the CD’s 12 songs, including a tribute to the late John Denver, “Johnny Blue Horizon.” The two men knew each other and played a few shows together, but they were not close.

Nonetheless, Edwards views Denver as something of a mentor and an example of someone who blazed a trail for singer-songwriters who came in his wake, including himself.

The record also includes an outrageous arrangement of The Beatles’ “She Loves You” and a song by Edwards’ buddy Henry Gross about unemployment, called “Everybody Works in China.”

A friend’s niece wrote the title track, a beautiful song about the enduring nature of love.

Edwards wants to get this record out nationally. Appleseed Records, based in Pennsylvania, is distributing the CD. Edwards is committed to the record, and is touring to promote it. His fall schedule is full of dates mostly across New England, and he is in the early stages of planning a spring tour of the Midwest.

“This record has definitely energized me,” he says. “I feel new energy for the gigs, and I find myself listening more and am more aware of other people’s music.

“I’m really enjoying this, and glad to be doing it here in Maine.”

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