Jonas Fjeld – Bluegrass Tumbling Through the Fjords
One of the most surprising musical developments in Norway recently has been an ad hoc collaboration between veteran Norwegian singer-guitarist Jonas Fjeld and American neo-bluegrass quartet Chatham County Line, which has produced an album that has gone gold (15,000 sold) in Fjeld’s home country and is on its way to platinum status.
Fjeld may be known to some roots-music fans for his work with the late Band bassist Rick Danko and veteran singer-songwriter Eric Andersen. The trio released a couple of albums on Rykodisc in the 1990s.
Amerikabesok — meaning “Visit From America” — was released in 2007 by RCA in Norway under the name Jonas Fjeld & Chatham County Line. It was recorded during a four-night stand at the Drammen Theatre in Fjeld’s hometown of Drammen, near the capital city of Oslo, between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve 2005.
Fjeld has invited his fellow Drammensians to concerts at this beautiful theater for the last ten years. Two years ago, he decided to realize a dream he had carried for a long, long time: to play bluegrass music with musicians who knew the genre.
Fjeld asked his old friend and occasional song collaborator Jim Sherraden, curator of Nashville’s famous Hatch Show Print poster shop, to help find him a group. Thus the four guys from Raleigh, North Carolina, known as Chatham County Line found themselves in snowy Norway when they might otherwise have been celebrating Christmas with their families.
The opening song every night at the Drammen was an old song, “Mr. And Mississippi”, which Fjeld first heard in the late 1950s in a version rendered by the legendary Gene Autry. At that time, he was about 6 years old, and still known only by his real name, Terje Jensen. He took on the alias Jonas Fjeld in the 1970s, when he was part of a rock comedy act in which everyone wore makeup and assumed fake identities. Terje stole his name from a famous Norwegian literary character, and later realized he was incapable of shedding it.
The young Terje played “Mr. And Mississippi” on a 78-rpm record several times a day, until one day the record was gone. His father, who had invested in a new record player, explained that the future belonged to the new record formats, 45-rpm singles and 33-rpm LPs. Making way for technical progress, he promptly melted down the 78s to be used as substitute ski wax. Real ski wax was an expensive commodity in Norway, which at the time was still a poor country in the years after the German World War II occupation.
“As a grown person, thinking back to my childhood, it was the only song I could remember,” Fjeld says. “In 1993 I strolled through a used market in a small town square. I noticed a stack of old 78s. They all looked the same, wrapped in thin paper bags with record company logos. Then an invisible hand led me to lift one out for closer inspection — and there it was, “Mr. And Mississippi” by Gene Autry & the Pinafores.
“When Chatham County Line arrived in Drammen, it was the most obvious song choice. The actual recording of these four concerts were mainly done for my own interest in getting the event documented. The cost of recording was less than two thousand dollars.
“Now, ten months after the release of the album, we have done more than 50 mostly sold-out shows,” Fjeld marvels. “We have decided to start preparations for a new studio album, based on new material written by both me and the Chathams. I am off to North Carolina in January for rehearsals, and we will this time record in America.”
It will not be the first time Fjeld has worked in an American studio. He had done three albums in Nashville already when he in became part of Danko/Fjeld/Andersen. He recorded two albums in Tennessee in the ’70s with the Jonas Fjeld Band, and his second one, 1982’s Living For The Weekend, was produced by Jimmy Tarbutton in Nashville.
The latter record brought Fjeld out of the closet as a serious country musician. “In my younger days I had to keep my interest in country music a secret,” he says. “In Norway, admitting to liking Buck Owens, or even Johnny Cash, was a major strategic blunder if you wanted to be seen as a rock ‘n’ roller.”
That said, the musical tastes of most Norwegians in the 1960s and ’70 definitely ran partial to country music. Buck Owens outsold the Beatles there in the ’60s; Jim Reeves did one of his last shows in Oslo (filmed for national television) before his fatal crash in 1964.
The impact of country music was so strong at the time that it became very unhip to young Norwegian listeners who gravitated toward rock ‘n’ roll — not unlike what transpired in the United States. Now Fjeld, with more than a little help from Chatham County Line, is bringing Norway’s understanding of the depth of American country and bluegrass to a new level.