"It was a totally positive experience," says singer and songwriter Jonathan Edwards, referring to the recent album he recorded with the Seldom Scene. "Especially when you consider what we set out to do -- a pop artist doing a bluegrass album?
"We thought all the traditionalists would be waiting in the alley with baseball bats . . . we're talking folk Nazis here," he says, laughing.
The Seldom Scene, the Birchmere (where Edwards performs tonight and tomorrow night) and the local acoustic music community in general all played a role in luring Edwards back to the Washington area 4 1/2 years ago. Until then, a lot of people around the country had good reason to think Edwards was raised in New England. That's where he lived throughout the late '60s and much of the '70s, years in which he recorded his Top Five hit "Sunshine" and songs such as "Shanty" and "It Don't Cry Blue" that became staples of progressive radio over a decade ago.
But in reality Edwards, 39, grew up "between Alexandria and Mount Vernon," a self-described child of the '60s.
Fascinated by acoustic music, not only the more commercial folk of Peter, Paul and Mary and the Chad Mitchell Trio but also the recordings of older musicians -- Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, to name but two favorites -- Edwards picked up the guitar when he was 15. Bob Dylan and Donovan inspired him to take up the harmonica, and soon he was writing songs and performing around town at any place that would have him, "a one-man band."
"I was it," he says, confirming his erstwhile hippie status. "I was right here for all of that. My father was an ex-FBI agent, so there were some hard times, but some funny times as well . . . there was this club in Northwest, I think it was called the Blue Parrot, and I had the good sense to call my parents one night and say, 'Listen, it's late. I don't have a ride or money for a cab, so I'm going to sleep here tonight.' Well, my father freaked. I thought he was going to run over and bust the place. I expected any minute for Elliot Ness to come running in, guns blazing."
Happily, Edwards says his parents are a lot more supportive of his music now, but he adds, "I think they still secretly wish I would rediscover the world of ties."
No doubt they were pleased when Edwards went off to Ohio University, presumably to study painting and sculpture, but all the while playing guitar and writing songs he thought no one would ever hear.
'I wasn't thinking of a career in music," he recalls. "Today was all that mattered. Yesterday was fun to think about, but tomorrow didn't even exist. Music was such a big part of life then."
Edwards joined a band in college, gained some local notoriety and eventually moved to the Boston area, where the band began recording. Eventually he went out on his own, and his first album, containing the hit single "Sunshine," changed his life overnight. He spent the next 3 1/2 years living out of a suitcase, playing five nights a week and flying from one city to another.
In 1973, however, after his next two albums went nowhere, Edwards finally threw in the towel. Discouraged by his badly managed recording career (he blames himself for much of that) and the political climate in the United States, he bought a farm in Nova Scotia, Canada, where he lived until returning to New England in the late '70s.
With Emmylou Harris' help, he then joined with Warner Bros. to cut a couple of albums. He's still proud of those recordings, as well as his earlier ones, but they failed to catch on with the public, and Edwards has recorded infrequently since then.
Part of the reason for that, he says, is that he doesn't feel driven to put out albums any more. "My only interest is putting out a record that is going to be worth putting on the turntable years and years from now. These things last forever." Still, Edwards plans to get back into the studio soon. He recently produced an album by Cheryl Wheeler, a young and talented singer and songwriter, and the experience of working with the Seldom Scene has renewed his interest in recording more of his songs.
For now, though, Edwards said he is enjoying his independent status on the local music scene. "I really feel part of this community, something I've never really felt anyplace else, to tell you the truth."
Along with his wife and three children, Edwards lives in Northern Virginia and has discovered that returning home has another advantage as well: It's convenient to both New York and Nashville, where he frequently records commercial jingles.
His voice has been used to soft sell Roy Rogers, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Lowenbrau, among other brand names, but even though he performs a couple more of his better-known jingles at concerts these days, he isn't exactly comfortable speaking about the subject. "It's embarrassing," he says, rather sheepishly. "I'm not sure how I feel about it, really. I do know how it feels to go the mailbox and get a check for something I've learned to do well over the years. That feels great . . . actually I think it's improved my singing overall. It's a real challenge to sing the way someone else wants you to sound. Basically, it's a nice sideline to what I really love doing -- which is to perform."