Norwegian folk treasure and collaborator supreme Jonas Fjeld celebrates his 70th birthday with his first English language solo album in 23 years.
Release Date: 16th September 2022
Label: Vox Records
Formats: Download, Streaming
If you’d care to name it, Norwegian folk treasure, Jonas Fjeld has probably done it! Regarded as “The Doc Watson of Norway,” Jonas is currently enjoying what might just be the most successful period of his long career. It’s a career that started way back in the early 1970s when he assembled his Zappa/Beefheart-influenced combo, The Jonas Fjeld Rock ‘n’ Rolf Band, has taken in numerous high-profile collaborations and has won prestigious awards along the way.
Let’s examine that career a little closer… Born Terje Lillegård Jensen in Bodø, Norway in 1952, Jonas took his stage name from the writings of Norwegian author, Øvre Richter Frich. His first recorded material was the eponymous album with the Rock ‘n’ Rolf Band in 1973 and his first solo album, Take Two Aspirins and Call Me in the Morning saw light of day in 1975. Since then, Jonas has released 15 or so solo albums, mainly acoustic efforts, with lyrics in his native Norwegian language, but it’s – perhaps – for his collaborations in the Americana genre that he’s best known.
Jonas developed his liking for American roots music during the mid-1970s and his quest for authenticity in the genre led him to a fruitful collaboration with Eric Anderson and the one and only Rick Danko, with whom he formed the trio Danko/Fjeld/Anderson in the early 1990s. An introduction to Carolina-based Americana practitioners, Chatham County Line, in 2004 led to an ongoing collaborative alliance that persists to this day and which has yielded (so far) four well-received albums.
Jonas’s most recent collaboration-with-a-legend is, arguably, his most successful yet. Winter Stories, his 2019 album with none other than Judy Collins hit the top spot in the Billboard Bluegrass Chart and was nominated for the Spellman Prize, the Norwegian equivalent of a Grammy. Proof, if any were needed, that there’s plenty of life in Jonas Fjeld, even as he passes into his eighth decade.
And, happily, To The Bone offers yet more proof that the creative spark that has sustained Jonas over all these years is still firing brightly and regularly. Described as “A modern folk masterwork, flush with hard truths and sweet optimism.” To The Bone is a genuine delight. With a grounding in Jonas’s beloved country music, the album reaches out defiantly to drag in hefty chunks of soul, rock and roll, bluegrass, folk and blues. The songs are laced with fiddle, horns and pedal steel; Jonas’s gritty vocals are the perfect fit for the material and often provide a solid grounding where strings might otherwise lead the material into schmalzy territory, and the vocal harmonies, particularly those from Karen Pell, are delightful. To The Bone is a fine album!
Lead Single, Dust In My Wallet, gets things underway. It’s a “modern hard-luck troubadour’s tale,” with references to the effect that the pandemic had on the livelihood of working musicians. There’s a bit of an Irish feel to the song, with fiddles well to the fore; it’s bright, and, despite the lyrical subject matter, feels optimistic and it’s a great choice of opener.
The theme of lonesome travel is continued in the slower, intimate, Savannah. Jonas’s voice is right at the front of the mix, and a nice acoustic guitar figure and some tasty piano add to the intimacy. Then.. Things head in a different direction altogether! Punchy horns and a Memphis-flavoured organ give the wonderful I Can Dance an authentic Stax vibe, even though Jonas’s vocal injects grittiness, rather than soulfulness. Jonas demonstrates, too, that the humour of his early years has not dissipated with time, with lines like: “I ain’t no Fred Astaire… But I can dance like the devil in the dark,” and his spoken-word: “See that? Not bad, eh?”
We return to intimacy for Song For Rosie. Described as “A pastoral self-portrait,” Jonas uses his well-seasoned voice to offer the benefits of his life experiences, to a subtle, well-considered backing of guitars, soft bass and divine vocal harmonies – all slotted into the places where they really matter. There are hints of Joe Cocker and even Steely Dan in Love Strikes – without doubt the funkiest song on the album, whereas the smooth Little Bird avoids classification as a “country ballad,” despite the banjo accompaniment. Karen’s counter-vocal is fascinating and there’s some tasty trumpet licks to fill the gaps.
Norwegian author, Arne Svingen was drafted in to collaborate on Vi Veit Aldri. The song’s Norwegian title translates as “We Never Know” and it’s the only song on the album to be sung in Jonas’s native tongue. It’s a bluegrass number, full of banjo, fiddles and fast guitar and I was intrigued by the Nordic/Appalachian cultural juxtaposition. Next up, things get folky for the comforting A Place For Warm. The song’s lyrics are as reassuring as the title suggests, with lines like: “Let the healing water flow… Let it soak into your soul,” and I love the insistence that the world belongs to the future generation – not to us oldies, any longer. It’s a song that is written with the wisdom of Jonas’s years – and the pedal steel and slide guitar fills fit perfectly!
The evocative Distant Drums has nothing to do with Jim Reeves. It’s a slow piano ballad and a good example of how Jonas uses his gritty voice to temper sweetness, and the flute solo is as intimate as it’s possible to be.
The album’s press release explains that: “Jonas has spent his life literally and figuratively traveling dirt roads, seeking out the essence of folk music” and those experiences are expressed, perhaps most strongly, in the album’s title track. “The road is skin deep, truth is in the bone,” he sings, in a pleasant, gentle ballad that links his Norwegian homeland to his American heartland as guitars and more of that divine pedal steel emphasise the points he’s making.
Organ and trumpet take centre stage for the bluesy, anthemic Stubborn Flowers, before a spacy introduction gives way to a sweet country ballad for Simple Love. Acoustic guitar, elegant piano and yet more of that delicious pedal steel provide the bedrock for Jonas’s vivid vocals.
Sung from the viewpoint of someone on his deathbed, the lyrics to the (otherwise) laid-back Electric Lung are probably the most disturbing of any on the album. “Take me, take me, I’m ready to go; Hold me, hold me, I’m cold to my soul,” pleads Jonas, in a voice that contains convincing levels of passion and vulnerability.
Which brings us to Sansa’s Wedding Song, the closing track and the album’s classy showpiece. It’s described as a “stately piano ballad” and it’s laced with strings. Once again, Jonas sings with a grittiness and sincerity that dials back any tendency to over-sweetness and, to cap it all, the song makes what is almost certainly the first reference to Game of Thrones on an Americana album!
Happy birthday, Jonas Fjeld. You’ve made an album that you can be very proud of!
Listen to Dust In My Wallet – the album’s lead single – here: