Folk icon Jonathan Edwards engages his audience

This story originally appeared as an online exclusive in the summer of 2010.

By GEORGE AUSTIN

Jonathan Edwards, at the Cotuit Center for the Arts, Friday, July 23, 8 p.m.

Jonathan Edwards took a break from a recording session on July 8 to talk to a writer about his upcoming show at the Cotuit Center for the Arts. He says the album, his first of original material in 15 years, will have a rockier and more energetic sound than past works. But he said there will still be some songs addressing the social problems of the world, as he has been known to do with his lyrics over the past 40 years. But while Edwards wants to send a message with some of his music, he also wants to entertain.

“It’s a tricky balance between having a cause and art,” Edwards said. “You have to know when to articulate. It’s a tough balance. You don’t want to be all about social issues and not about your personal life. I like to write about what’s going on around the kitchen table and hopefully you can relate.”

Edwards, who will be at the Cotuit Center for the Arts on July 23, is of course most well known for his song “Sunshine,” which was written when he was an angry young man during the era of the Vietnam conflict, anti-war rallies and controversial President Richard Nixon. Many years since “Sunshine” was written, he says the song applies today with the United States in the Iraq War and War on Terror in Afghanistan.

“The relevance is still there to sing against and speak against wars that people think are wrong,” Edwards said. “These are still some of them.”

The difference between now and then, Edwards says, is young men were forced to go to Vietnam with the draft. He thinks if there was a draft for the MIddle East wars, they would be over sooner. Edwards talks about the big military effort that the U.S. has made overseas, yet can’t clean up the oil spill in the Gulf.

“You can’t fight insurgency and that’s what we’re trying to do,” Edwards said. “We’re trying to bring democracy by fighting tribes in the desert. It doesn’t make sense.”

But enough of the serious stuff. While he may address some of those issues during his concerts, Edwards said he wants to entertain the people who come to his shows. He will be part of a quartet at the Cotuit Center for the Arts. Edwards is the lead singer, but he also is a multi-talented musician who can play the guitar, bass, piano, harmonica and percussion, when needed. On the left side of the stage will be Taylor Armerding, a mandolin player and vocalist who founded Northern Lights. On banjo, bass and mandolin will be Charlie Rose. On the right of the stage will be Stuart Schulman on bass, piano and fiddle. Stuart played on the early records of Edwards, is the chairman of the Board of Selectmen in Groton and has performed on and off with Edwards since 1969. Edwards has been traveling with the quartet for a couple of years.

“I love playing with all different kinds of lineups,” Edwards said. “I’ve played solo, duo and everything in between. People love the quartet. I kind of got into this business to play music with my friends and that’s what we’re doing.”

Edwards said the quartet allows him to expand his vocals and instrumentals. He said it gives him a chance to go deeper into his songs. He said the quartet allows for more spontaneity during a concert than when he is solo.

After being born in Minnesota, growing up in Virginia and attending Ohio University, Edwards went to Boston to enter the music scene. He has lived on a farm in western Massachusetts, briefly in New Hampshire and now lives in Maine.

“New England has a pretty young population with colleges and schools,” Edwards said. “I’ve always sorts of resonated and gravitated toward young people and their energy and outspokenness.”

But Edwards has some special connections to Cape Cod and said one of the happiest times of his life was in the 1980s when he was looking for a place to live and decided to live in Cotuit.

“I just rented a house and enjoyed the town and went to the beach and had a wonderful summer,” Edwards said.

Edwards also did the soundtrack and appeared “for about a minute” as a preacher in the movie “The Golden Boys,” which was set in Cape Cod and shot in Chatham.

From providing backup vocals for Emmylou Harris, to recording a children’s album that was inspired by his daughter, to scoring the 1996 film “The Mouse,” to touring with a Broadway show and hosting a PBS documentary series on the waterways of America, Edwards has displayed his talents in a variety of venues. There is a 90-minute documentary of his life called “That’s What Our Life Is.”

But playing his music is what he likes the most. The folk icon said he enjoys performing in theaters that hold 200, 300 or 500 people and interacting with audiences.

“More and more, I’m engaging myself and getting to know them,” Edwards said. “It’s a richer experience for me. I love it more and more.”

Edwards has opened up shows for the Allman Brothers Band and B.B. King. He has also worked with local folk singer Cheryl Wheeler, of Swansea, producing the songs “Driving Home” and “Mrs. Pinocci’s Guitar” for her. He said Wheeler is one of the most creative musicians he has worked with and said her songwriting and singing is phenomenal.

As far as the difference between when he started out in folk music during the 1960s and 2010, Edwards said there were a lot less musicians with acoustic guitars showing up to play for crowds many years ago. He said there are many more folk musicians today and more venues for them to display their talent. In the digital age, he said a lot more people can make an album in their kitchen and record it. But Edwards said musicians are not addressing social issues as much today as when he was starting out on the music scene, which is “kind of troubling” to him. He said he writes songs about social issues that he does not play live in concert because people want to be entertained. But he said the wars, immigation and dependence on fossil fuels are issues that musicians today could address with their songwriting.

“It’s difficult to make it interesting and fun to laugh at because because they are such difficult, in-grained problems,” Edwards said. “It’s difficult to make art out of it that people are not going to be depressed by.”

For tickets, visit http://www.brownpapertickets.com, call 508-673-3637 or go to the box office at 4404 Falmouth Road (Route 28) in Cotuit. This is an all ages show.

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