After the unexpected success of his self titled debut album and the two hits it spawned Jonathan Edwards left the city and took himself off to a remote farm in western Massachusetts to write the material for his second album. Subsequently “Honky Tonk Stardust Cowboy” is a far more laid back and mellow album than the first one. Most of the tracks being country tinged acoustic ballads. Eight of the thirteen tracks are sole Edwards compositions and this gives us a real insight into the mind and soul of Edwards at the time. Hugely personal and heartfelt lyrics have always been one of Edwards strengths and this album is so packed full of emotion it manages to bring a smile and a tear in equal measure. Edwards gentle voice and superb phrasing ably assisted by his accomplished guitar, mandolin and harmonica playing make the whole album an exhilarating listening experience. Credit must also be given to the musicians Stuart Schulman on bass and piano, Richard Adelman on drums, Eric Lilljequist on guitar and Bill Keith on the pedal steel and banjo.
The album opens with a fast paced acoustic country strummalong feel good pop tune ‘Stop and Start It All Again’ which would not have been out of place on the first album. ‘Everything’ is slower paced, features some nice pedal steel from Bill Keith and has a simply beautiful melody. This is country bluegrass folk at its finest and it is not difficult to imagine Edwards sitting on a porch writing it. ‘Longest Ride’ is a little more stacato but is once again a pleasant singalong tune that brings a smile with it. ‘Give Us a Song’ has an almost gospel country feel about it and conjures images of settlers working on the land and bringing in the harvest singing along whilst they work. ‘Dues Days Bar’ is an uptempo country shuffle in which Edwards yodels as much as sings but is still pleasant enough. The first half of the album ends with the longest offering ‘Morning Train’ which is a traditional old country blues tune which was arranged by Elena Mezzetti. It has a different feel to the rest of the album not least because Edwards gets the chance to display his exceptional talents as a harmonica player and Dean Adrien and Chandler Travis chip in with some excellent Conga drum and maracas playing.
The second half starts with another uptempo number ‘Ballad of Upsy Daisy’, full of banjo and strummalong guitar it is easy to hear Edwards country influences. Maybe its the use of the name Daisy but the image in my head is always of the end segment to an episode of Dukes of Hazzard when I hear it. Boss Hogg doing his daft dance in the Boars Nest after a country star had been caught in a fake speed trap and ordered to play a free gig. ‘It’s a Beautiful Day’ is a slower dreamy track which is classic Edwards. Jesse Colin Young’s ‘Sugar Babe’ is the perfect contrast with its fast paced guitar and banjo picking. Edwards again gets a chance to show his worth on the harmonica. Along with the opening track it is probably the closest in style to the material on the debut album. The album highlight for me follows in the form of ‘Dream Song’. An absolutely outstanding song it has a beautiful melody and a lyric that just totally hits home to me. Maybe its a personal thing but to me it is just perfection and remains for me Edwards best ever composition. Again there is a lovely slow harmonica solo midway. ‘Paper Doll’ is a quirky little number that was recorded live at the A & R studios and broadcast on WPLJ radio. It is probably still best known as a hit for the Mills Brothers in the forties. Title track ‘Honky Tonk Stardust Cowboy’ is a pretty standard bluegrass country tune but is still a great toe tapping experience. Album closer ‘Thats What Our Life Is’ could almost form a dreamy laid back trilogy with ‘Its a Beautiful Day’ and ‘Dream Song’ as it has the same kind of feel about it and is the perfect ending to a superb album.
“Honky Tonk Stardust Cowboy” may not have the hits of the debut album but it is only marginally inferior in my opinion. It is possibly less accesible to a mainstream audience as Edwards has gone right back to his country and bluegrass roots. The influence of the likes of Merle Haggard, George Jones, Lefty Frizzell and even Waylon Jennings are all over this album and whilst fans of the hits ‘Shanty’ and ‘Sunshine’ from the debut album might struggle at first with the purer country/bluegrass sound it is well worth the effort of perseverence. Edwards may even have realised this as the note on the back of the sleeve says “Thanks for listening”. My reponse to that is “No Jonathan thank you, for letting us in and sharing”.
© Martin Leedham. First published on RYM June 2011