Joan Osborne – In the shadows of Nashville
“I didn’t plan on jumping around from one arena to the next. But I love so many different kinds of music, I don’t find it difficult to go from one world to the next.” Joan Osborne
It was heard by far less people than her big hit, “One Of Us”. It didn’t put her on the cover of any magazines or issue forth from the opening credits of a TV series. But long after Joan Osborne’s shaggy God-on-a-bus tune has settled into one-hit wonderdom (its stature enhanced by her close re-recording of it for CBS’ acclaimed but shuttered Joan Of Arcadia), her show-stopping rendition of “What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted” may well be the performance for which she is best remembered.
The runaway highlight of Standing In The Shadows Of Motown, the 2002 documentary about the legendary, longstanding house band known as the Funk Brothers, it’s one those rare turns that transcends race, gender and genre. Osborne had never previously sung the tune, a mid-’60s hit for former Temptation Jimmy Ruffin, but seemingly accompanied in the heavenly fake fog by angels along with the horn players and backup singers, she claims ownership to the tune with her blend of cool, immaculate assurance and raspy, God-beseeching urgency (“Tell me!”). Four years on, when her name comes up, the first thing people talk about is that triumphant moment.
“It seemed like a Motown version of a great blues song,” says Osborne, acknowledging how often people comment on it. “I let myself get carried away, which wasn’t hard with that band.”
For her fans, the triumph confirmed that this 43-year-old New Yorker, a Kentucky native, is one of the great voices of her generation — not only in a pop vein, but in any vein she chooses. Having made a name for herself as a blues specialist on the New York club scene, she has thrived on the sisterly sing-songery of Lilith Fair, the gospel sound of the Holmes Brothers (whom she produced), the roots trawling of Phil Lesh & Friends (for whom she toured as featured vocalist), and, on her new Nashville-made album Pretty Little Stranger, amid the influences of country.
Being a voice for hire has its perils; you can end up playing second fiddle to the likes of self-adoring American Idol byproduct Bo Bice, which Osborne had to do as his duet partner on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” on an Oxygen channel special. (With a coiffed smile to match her elegantly coiffed hair, a departure from her natural look, she made the most of the moment.)
But during the five trying years it took for her to get past differences with her former label and release a bona fide follow-up to Relish, the acclaimed 1995 disc containing “One Of Us”, she was happy for any opportunities to sing her woes away. She laughed when it was suggested she used her voice like a weapon after the momentum of Relish was squandered by the stopgap repackaging of her early indie recordings and the underachievement of 2000’s Righteous Love, the Relish sequel. “It was more of a life raft to me,” she said.
But here she is now, sitting pretty with Pretty Little Stranger (released in November on Vanguard Records). With songs by Harlan Howard, Kris Kristofferson, Patty Griffin and Rodney Crowell, it may strike some listeners as a greater departure than her move into soul. (She followed the Motown documentary by releasing How Sweet It Is, an album of soul and rock classics, in 2002 on Compendia.)
The restrained approach she takes on the country covers, as well as on the six songs she wrote or co-wrote, adds to the sense that we are hearing a new Joan Osborne. If “What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted” was a classic example of a singer taking ownership of a song through the force of her personality, Pretty Little Stranger, produced by Nashville veteran Steve Buckingham, finds her trusting in the personality of the songs.
“Steve put together a whole bunch of songs from the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s for me to listen to when we were putting my album together,” she says. “I was struck by the plainspoken nature of the vocals and the beautiful stories they conveyed. I tried to emulate their simplicity and directness.” In the writing as well as the singing.
Osborne had ventured previously into country with her bluesy recording of Dolly Parton’s “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind” for the 2003 Parton tribute album produced by Buckingham, Just Because I’m A Woman. Buckingham, who said he recruited her as a direct result of having been “killed” by her performance in Standing In The Shadows Of Motown, lobbied her to do a full album for Vanguard. It took some convincing, but Osborne, who wasn’t signed to a label, said she liked the freedom of doing a one-shot and came around.
For all its Nashvillisms, including vocal appearances by Crowell, Alison Krauss and Vince Gill, the album tilts agreeably in the direction of popular music. Osborne identified its primary role models as Rosanne Cash’s King’s Record Shop and Linda Ronstadt’s Heart Like A Wheel. Those albums influenced her not just by the ease with which the respective artists moved in and out of their native genres, but also by their distinctive styles. Osborne’s catchy “Who Divided”, the first single off Pretty Little Stranger, is straight out of the Rosanne school of full-hearted pop hooks, as exemplified by Cash’s own numbers-playing tune, “Rules Of Travel”.
Ronstadt’s lush, yearning vocal approach can be detected on tunes such as Osborne’s beautiful, spiritually tuned original, “Holy Waters”, and “When The Blue Hour Comes”, a collaboration between Crowell, Roy Orbison and Will Jennings recorded by Crowell in the mid-’80s. Before Osborne recorded it, she was driven past the studio where Orbison recorded hits such as “Cry” and “Only The Lonely”. When they got to the studio where Pretty Little Stranger was recorded, recalls Buckingham, a Grammy-winner who has produced artists ranging from Parton and Loretta Lynn to Shania Twain and Mindy Smith, she quickly nailed “Blue Hour”.
“Joan just doesn’t mess around,” he says. “On a lot of the songs we used scratch vocals or first takes. We recorded to sixteen tracks with a stripped-down band built for speed, and she stayed right with them. Those were a few magic days. The band [including guitarists Steve Gibson, bassist Michael Rhodes and drummer Eddie Bayers] hadn’t worked together in twelve or fourteen years. After we recorded ‘Brokedown Palace’ [the Grateful Dead classic] in one take, there were tears streaming down her face over the way the guys were playing to her.”