His name recalls the early American preachers of olden times, and Jonathan Edwards has often reached back to essential spiritual themes and reflected on the natural world. His big hit from 1971 was ostensibly about a bad boss, but its complaint felt right in tune with the iconoclastic ethos of the times – and it was called, of course, “Sunshine.”
Edwards’s new folk-Americana album Tomorrow’s Child begins with a cover of Malcolm Holcombe’s gritty “Down in the Woods.” Wisely, rather than trying to emulate Holcombe’s grittiness – really an impossibility for the grittiest among us – Edwards emphasizes the prayerful aspects of the song with its appeal to perhaps the most primitive theme of all: the human relationship to the mysterious forested world in which we evolved.
The nature theme arises again in Edwards’s own piano-centric “Ain’t Got Time,” whose narrator hears “Mother Earth…calling out my true name…Open up your arms to me, green pastures.” And the related devotional feel persists in the sparkling title ballad, written by Marcus Hummon and featuring Alison Kraus on harmony vocals. When the narrator sings that he “will always have faith in tomorrow’s child” he means an actual child who is bound to grow up and make her own life. It’s a lovely piece of music but a touch too earnest for my taste.
However, despite the feel-good hippie vibe in Edwards’s voice, these songs don’t usually overreach in that way. The bright, smooth-cruising “Sandy Girl,” with Vince Gill on harmony vocals, brought James Taylor, CSN, and Dave Cousins all at once to my mind.
The crisp energy of the album’s expertly performed acoustic arrangements, produced by the great singer-songwriter and all-around instrumentalist Darrell Scott, makes the songs feel both timeless and timely, even the traditional “(I Wish I Was a) Mole in the Ground” (listen at The Bluegrass Situation) with its traditional banjo-driven arrangement and mandolin solo by none other than Joe Walsh.
Like the songs I mentioned at the beginning, “Mole in the Ground” evokes mankind’s ancient and eternal connection to the rest of nature. With its rainbow of vocal parts it suggests a chorus of men calling on the spirits of the natural world. Again, this connection to the natural world goes all the back with Edwards. Recalling the genesis of that big self-titled album from 1971, he has written that “I just went out in the woods every day with my bottle of wine and guitar, sat by a lake near Boston and wrote down all those tunes, day after day.”
Edwards leads a fuller chorus of male and female voices in his ecstatic take on the iconic “Hard Times (Come Again No More),” a peak of the album’s musical imagination. As other greats have done before, he takes Stephen Foster’s 160-year-old song and turns it into a gospel sparkler,
The imagery isn’t always so symbolic. In Edwards’s “The Girl from the Canyon,” a chestnut he recorded with Emmylou Harris in the 1970s (and that Johnny Cash later covered), the focus narrows onto a wounded outlaw thankful to a woman who’s taken him in, just like in an old movie.
Less effectively, “This Old Guitar” is a well-played but rather self-indulgent bluesy love song to the singer’s instrument; like poems about poetry, it doesn’t convince me. Fact is, it’s awfully hard to get away with a song about the songwriter’s musical life – many of the best have tried and failed. Much more touching are “Mamaw,” a paean to the memory of a beloved grandmother from the score of Pump Boys and Dinettes, sung with Shawn Colvin, and Edwards’s own “Gracie,” where the singer’s soft prismatic tenor shines like Don Henley’s.
The spare but theatrical “Jonny’s Come Home” closes the album with another family portrait, this one on the theme of adoption, carrying both a happy ending and a tinge of sadness. It’s an impressive artistic statement both musically and lyrically, and a fitting coda to a set of songs realized with top-notch arrangements and musicianship, and recorded, as the liner notes say, with “No click track, no autotune, no effects and very few overdubs.” Which just goes to show that solid songs and great musicians are all you need.