Search the web for Jonathan Edwards and what pops up to the top of the list? Not quite what you might be expecting—the 18th century American revivalist, preacher, theologian, philosopher, and New England native. Well, that could partly describe the artist we all know and love as Jonathan Edwards, American singer-songwriter, and musician.
In 1967, at age 21, John (as he went by then) and his band bought a van and trucked off to Boston and began performing at clubs throughout New England under such names as Headstone Circus, Saint James Doorknob, and The Finite Minds before settling on the name Sugar Creek. Sugar Creek recorded an album released in 1969 on the long-since defunct Metromedia Records entitled, ‘Please Tell a Friend.’ The album featured mostly driving and blues-influenced rock tunes. Edwards’ vocals back in those days sounded a bit grittier and quite different from how he would eventually deliver on such familiar hits as ‘Sunshine’ and ‘Shanty’ and his continuing recordings today as he remains an ever-present and influential solo artist within the folk and Americana genre performing regularly in venues large and small throughout the greater New England area and sometimes beyond.
Born in Aitkin, Minnesota and eventually moving to Virginia where he grew up, he began his musical career learning to play piano and singing in church, before getting caught by the captivating sound of the guitar. With a $29 guitar in hand and a few chords mastered, he began composing and performing contemporary folk tunes in front of live audiences. While studying art at Ohio University, he became a fixture at local clubs, playing with a variety of rock, folk, and blues bands. Music proving a stronger draw than painting, he made that trek to Boston by selling his father’s car to buy the van that brought him here to Boston to follow his dream. Influenced by Bob Dylan going electric, so did Jonathan and his band playing both originals and covers and, under the band names mentioned above, they toured all over the New England area.
After several grueling years of touring with a band and playing six forty-minute sets per night, Jonathan grew tired of the grind and opted out of that scene and began migrating toward a more intimate one of just himself, an acoustic guitar, and a PA system, performing solo at dormitories throughout the plethora of New England college campuses and began attracting a following. It was around this time in 1969-70 that Jonathan, pursuing the woods as his muse with bottle-of-wine in hand, penned one of his most well-known tunes “Sunshine” which was included in his debut solo album on Capricorn Records simply titled Jonathan Edwards. Notable local musicians to appear on that album included drummer Richard “Shtix” Adelman and guitarist Eric Liljequist, both members of the local band Orphan.
In a somewhat ironic and accidental twist of fate, there was a song intended for that album titled ‘Please Find Me’, that for some reason the engineer rolled over it and erased it. Failing to rescue it, the engineer was fired and “Sunshine” was recorded instead. That song was also released as a single which got lots of airplay on Boston radio stations before reaching the top five nationwide. This was just the kind of song and message that people needed to hear with the Vietnam War raging and with antiwar protest perfectly prominently portrayed; “He can’t even run his own life I’ll be damned if he’ll run mine.”
The achievement of ‘Sunshine” proved life-changing for Jonathan and catapulted him into an instant and overnight success story. The trappings of a commercial triumph like that, especially on the young, innocent, and impressionable can cause huge distractions and can lead an artist down a destructive path. But Jonathan liked and believed in himself so much and was intent on keeping that situation at a distance by remaining true to his core values and nurturing who he was inside and doing what he believed was right. That decision paid off.
After the success of ‘Sunshine’ Jonathan sought a more idyllic and inspiring setting – a farm in western Massachusetts – where he wrote songs about his life in general and what would become his second album, Honky-Tonk Stardust Cowboy (1972) on Atlantic Records. These were acoustic and country-influenced offerings and this led shortly thereafter to a second Atlantic Records release titled; Have a Good Time for Me (1973). That album featured Jonathan performing songs written by others that were influential earlier in his career and that he felt were key to his development as an artist. According to Jonathan, “It’s never been really important to me as to who wrote a song. It’s about the song itself, the flow of the lyrics, and how the lyrics are married to the chords, the melody, and the rhythm. That’s why over the course of my recording career, close to 50% of the songs on my records have been written by somebody else, and I’m OK with that.”
Even performing as a solo artist, the demands of the road can test the endurance of the best of them and Jonathan found the endless trail of travel taking its toll when he faced a life-threatening illness prompting him to abandon his career and relocate to a farm, he purchased in Nova Scotia for recovery and reassessment of his priorities in life. However, owing Atlantic Records one more, he released Lucky Day (1974) recorded at the Garage in Cambridge before his retreat to Nova Scotia and, as Joni Mitchell would say, “camp out on the land and set get my soul free.”
Not too long after that move, an unexpected invitation came from Emmylou Harris leading to his flying to LA and adding background vocals to her then album Elite Hotel album. That proved more successful than anticipated as his newly formed relationship with the album’s producer Brian Ahern led to two more albums for Jonathan – Rocking Chair (1976) and Sailboat (1977). Jonathan moved back to the USA in 1979 and settled in many other places along the career path mostly driven by sitting in with and collaborating with other musicians which led to a steady flow of recorded output with a few gaps along the way—Live (1980), Blue Ridge (1985), Little Hands (1987), One Day Closer (1994), Natural Thing (1997), Man in the Moon (1997), Live in Massachusetts (2007), Rollin’ Along (2010), My Love Will Keep (2011), Tomorrow’s Child (2015) and his latest release Right Where I am (2021).
Now, after nearly 50 plus years into his career and 19 albums, this most recent album by Jonathan is particularly noteworthy as it is the first album he’s ever recorded that features all his own songs. Jonathan describes it this way; “This inspired collection proudly offers eight new pieces of music to help us all navigate through these different and challenging times. The title song is, ‘Right Where I Am,’ and, like the whole album, it was planted and grew organically, mostly during the locked-down summer of 2020. It is certifiably grass-fed, free-range, homemade and a lot of fun.”
Today Jonathan lives in Portland Maine and can be found performing regularly in venues throughout the New England states including the Iron Horse and many of the venues closer to home including One Longfellow Square (Portland, ME), Stone Mountain Arts Center (Brownfield, ME), Jonathan’s (Ogunquit, ME), Tupelo Music Hall (Derry, NH), Rex Theatre (Merrimack, NH), Bull Run (Shirley, MA), Narrows Center (Fall River, MA), Stage One (Fairfield, CT). Given his wide popularity as a performer, Jonathan does venture outside of New England to noteworthy venues such as The Birchmere (Alexandria, VA) and Café Lena (Saratoga, NY). When asked if he ever gets weary of singing “Sunshine” or “Shanty” or any of his earlier compositions, he replies, “Every night is a new night, every crowd is a different context and every performance feels like the first time.”
(by Karl Sharicz)