By Denise Dunbar
Saturday night’s concert at the Birchmere is a homecoming of sorts for singer/songwriter Jonathan Edwards, whose hit “Sunshine” propelled him to fame in 1971. Edwards grew up in a home on the Potomac River in the Fairfax County section of Alexandria and has fond memories of roaming the then wilds of the area. He sang at open mike nights at the old Cellar Door in Georgetown with the likes of Emmylou Harris and Joni Mitchell in the late 1960s.
Edwards will be performing several songs from his latest album, “Tomorrow’s Child,” which contains autobiographical material about his experiences with adoption and reunion. Alexandria Times Editor and Co-Publisher Denise Dunbar recently caught up with Edwards by phone. Below are excerpts from their conversation.
DD: Is it true that the anti-war song ‘Sunshine’ almost didn’t make it onto your debut album, titled ‘Jonathan Edwards’?
JE: Yes, we were so new at recording… The world knew nothing about recording multi-track in the late 60s and early 70s. It was a brand new adventure to get the keys to the studio.
One of the songs we had been working on all day got inadvertently erased by the engineer…We were working all kinds of crazy hours because that’s the only time we could get in the studio. The engineer in his panic said, ‘Do you have anything else to put on here in this space?’ I said, ‘I just wrote this thing; I’ll just go out there and see how it sounds.’ And I picked up my guitar and just did Sunshine. And it sounded pretty good.
The bass player had left his bass in the studio so I picked that up and put that on and it started sounding even better. The next day we overdubbed drums…My dear drummer who’s gone now, he overdubbed drums onto the track. It’s done quite often now but back then nothing like that was ever done. And there’s the song, just the two of us.
DD: ‘Sunshine’ is a protest song. What were its origins?
JE: I wrote ‘Sunshine’ in 1970 in probably less time than it takes to sing it. It was the height of the Vietnam-Cambodia adventure there in Southeast Asia. I was really saddened by that and really angry… It’s an angry young man’s complaint about what was going on politically and militarily in our name. I was knowing people that were coming back from the war and they were never the same – if they came back at all.
I had just undergone a really violent draft board pre-induction physical, where I ended up in an emergency room and ended up in a sanitarium I guess you’d call it. It was all in the interest of not going to Vietnam, but it left an indelible mark on me for life.
We were in Ohio and I moved my band to Cambridge, Massachusetts and Boston. I sat down on the bed and that song just literally came out. If the disc jockeys as they were called at that time had any idea what the song was about they wouldn’t have played it. They couldn’t have played it. It wouldn’t have been in their corporate interest to play that politically vivid song.
Is ‘Sunshine’ still relevant today?
I’m in the midst as we speak of going in…and recording a brand new version of [Sunshine]. A little slower, a little lower in pitch, a lot blusier. And I want people to really hear these words because so many people didn’t really hear the verse about love and war and ‘he’s got cards he ain’t showin’.’ We’re up against that today.
I joke about this onstage. I never thought ‘Sunshine’ when I set out to write it in 1970 would have any relevance in 2017. Which is really bad news for us as a civilization, but really good news for my little song. I’m going to do a video about current events and include it with this song and post it online somewhere.
‘Sunshine’ was your only song that received extensive radio play. Have you thought about what your life would have been like without it?
If I had never had a hit it…would [not] have changed my passion for what I do at all. It’s made certain entrees a little bit easier in the world. But it was just a hit and then it was gone.
The song that should have followed that was ‘Shanty.’ The record company didn’t have the courage to do a song about getting high. I did but they didn’t. That was really the end of my radio career in 1971.
So you grew up in Alexandria? What was that like?
My mom and dad, my adoptive parents, and I had a house there along the river. That’s where I spent my first 17, 18 years, something like that.
I was a kid who loved to be outdoors and in woods and in the swamp. There used to be a swamp before they filled that in and put in high-rises. I watched all that happen. I watched them build the beltway — that’s how old I am.
It was so wild then. That section of Northern Virginia between Alexandria and Mt. Vernon. There were deer and fox and raccoons, and all kinds of frogs and snakes and reptiles and bats and birds. I just loved it.
My birth mother is an amateur naturalist. And she’s 98 years old. And I am so a product of her and not my adoptive parents. The similarities are astonishing. I’m writing a book all about it. I have no publishing date or agent or publisher but I’m still writing it.
I loved my time in Northern Virginia. And years later I fell in love with a woman who lived in…Springfield and couldn’t leave because of her kids so I moved back to Springfield and spent another 15 years there. I’ve got a pretty good perspective on Northern Virginia and on the Beltway, etc. The music scene in DC has always been fascinating to me and embracing of me and what I did.
Has music been a passion your whole life?
I started playing as a sophomore in high school. I found a guitar. I went to military school down in Waynesboro, Virginia. Fishburne Military School. The kid next door had a guitar and I asked if I could play it. He said, ‘Do you know how to play guitar?’ I said, ‘No, but I’d like to learn.’
I picked it up and he showed me a couple of things to play. I joke about it but it was like the clouds parted and the angels sang. I started writing songs almost immediately. I was writing poetry at that time, so what you do is you write poetry with music attached. Then I got a little band together and for three years I played guitar and drew pictures, basically.
Talk about the D.C. music scene in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
I met Joni Mitchell… because we were both doing open mike night at the famous Cellar Door. I’ll never forget that meeting… Wow, this vision walks out on stage, this absolute glowing golden aura California, life tan, angel walks out onstage, and starts to sing stuff like Leonard Cohen songs and some stuff she had started to write at the time.
I was like, ‘woah.’ I walked up to her stammering and stuttering; I could barely speak. ‘Oh that was the most beautiful song I’ve ever heard. Hi, I’m Jon… You want to get together and jam sometime?’ She looked at me like I had just grown three horns out of my head. She couldn’t quite believe this. I think she laughed at me.
So [later] every time she came to town wherever I was, I would always send her a dozen roses in the dressing room. I don’t know if she ever made that connection or not. I’ve never had a chance to meet her [again] but the day is still young.
You’ve called Emmylou Harris a big influence on your career. In what way?
I met Emmylou when I was 18 or 19. I was going to college. She was playing [in D.C.] a lot. She was involved in that scene; I was trying to figure out what that was all about when I’d come home from school. We hung out a little bit in D.C. when we were both living there.
In [the mid ‘70s] Emmylou said, ‘Jon, I’m in L.A. and I’ve got a deal with Warner Brothers and I can’t imagine anyone singing on this with me but you. So… grab a plane and come out to L.A. and record with me please’… And I thank her for that. She’s just a joy, such a joy to behold. It’s such an invaluable gift for me to have known her for all of these years.
I wish [I had] but I never toured with Emmylou. She sang on my next two albums, she and her Hot Band played and sang…and they’re among my finest studio creations for sure.
The songs on your most recent album, ‘Tomorrow’s Child,’ are beautiful. In what way is it autobiographical?
An old friend named Jon Vezner who happens to be Kathy Mattea’s husband… is an incredible songwriter – one of the best Nashville or the world has to offer… I ended up showing Jon my notebooks that I write in every night. I’ve got a stack of composition books [and]…I write ideas, prose, poetry, songs, you name it.
I showed him something about finding my birth mother when I was 40… And about giving up my own daughter for adoption when she was born and being reunited with both of them later in life. That was the perfect debeaumont to the end of the album. He took my scratching in the notebook and together we created these beautiful chords and melody [in ‘Jonny’s Come Home’].
What kind of impact do these songs have on your audience?
I hope people get a chance to hear this record and know where it came from. Because so many people are products of broken homes and divorces and have their minds on adoption and reunion.
That song especially [‘Jonny’s come home’] people come up to me every night when I have a chance to do it and say, ‘You’ll never know what that song meant to me.’…I listen to their stories… They have no idea how much it affects me, how much it means to me when I get to the feeling, well, I’m 71 years old, maybe it’s time to hang up the guitar pick for a while. But they keep me going and keep me engaged and I just love it.
A number of amazing musicians perform on this album with you, including Alison Krauss and Shawn Colvin. What was that like?
We waited for the schedules to clear out for Shawn Colvin, for Vince Gill, Jerry Douglas and the frosting on the cake of course was for Alison Krauss to come in and sing a harmony. That was such a gift to the universe.
[We’ve] known each other since she was like 11. She can sing high now but boy back then she could really scrape the paint off the ceiling. She played the fiddle so beautifully. She translated all of that musical knowledge and all of that musical history and soul into what she is now. She’s an angel of the first degree.
You’re performing with the Seldom Scene at the Birchmere. Don’t you go way back with them?
Emmylou introduced me to the late Mike Auldridge, the dobro player from the band. He’s on my albums that I did with Emmy out in L.A…. I got to meet the whole band. I think they were the Country Gentlemen at the time. Then when I moved back to Springfield, the Seldom Scene played every Thursday night at the Birchmere. They would say, ‘Come on up and do something.’ So I would start to sit in with them. After three or four times of sitting, I would say, ‘Hey, we should do an album together.’ We embarked in the early ‘80s on doing an album together. It’s called ‘Blue Ridge’.
What can audiences expect from your show at the Birchmere?
We [the Seldom Scene and I] each do a set and then a set together. From 18 different albums [that I’ve done] there are songs people want to hear so I trot them out… I hit my first album pretty hard, ‘Sunshine’, ‘Shanty’ and ‘Don’t Cry Blue’ and a couple other ones from it that I rotate in and out of the show…
I do what feels good at the time. I take requests. I kibbitz back and forth with the crowd. I love to engage with the audience. It brings me a lot of joy and it brings a lot of fun to the evening, and that’s what we’re about these days.
Jonathan Edwards will perform with the Seldom Scene at the Birchmere on Saturday. Doors open at 5 p.m. and the show starts at 7:30 p.m.