Joan Osborne Feels Welcomed by Nashville

Vince Gill, Alison Krauss Lend Support to Pretty Little Stranger

Joan Osborne is primarily known for the 1995 pop smash, “One of Us,” a song about God being a stranger on the bus. But she hitched a different ride for her latest album, Pretty Little Stranger, temporarily leaving her Brooklyn, N.Y., home for Nashville.

“For me, this is a country record, and I just felt like going to the source was the smart thing to do,” she says. Her producer, Steve Buckingham, promptly made some calls: Vince Gill, Alison Krauss, Rodney Crowell, Sonny Landreth and a batch of the top studio musicians in town. Together, they crafted an album blending six Osborne originals and six inspired cover songs, including Tammy Wynette’s “Till I Get It Right,” Patty Griffin’s “What You Are” and the Grateful Dead’s “Brokedown Palace.”

A Kentucky native, Osborne recently talked to about being embraced by Nashville, what makes country music strong and the mark of a great song. What was a typical studio session like for this album?

Osborne: It went so quickly! Nashville players have this reputation of being really fast and very craftsmanlike, which I found to be really true. They would want to take a little break and tell stories and talk in between getting each one of the tracks, but I was a little more of a taskmaster. (laughs) I wasn’t used to working this quickly, and I thought, “Man, we’re on a roll. Let’s get this done! This is great!”

It was really easy. All the different references I brought up about the different styles of music, all the musicians knew exactly what I was talking about. They were right there with musical interpretations of the ideas that I had. It was such a pleasure. I have to say, I felt welcomed with open arms by everybody that I dealt with down in Nashville. Other artists and musicians and producers and engineers — everybody was so great to me. I didn’t know what to expect, and it was beyond even my best hopes.

What did people like Vince Gill and Alison Krauss bring to the project?

There’s a real depth in what all those people bring to it. They’re not only contemporary country artists, but they have a really deep history and a really deep appreciation for the history of country music and bluegrass music … back to the deeper roots of the music. I’m a huge fan of early country music and groups like the Louvin Brothers and the Carter Family. I’m a huge Bill Monroe fan and then also music from the classic country period of people like Hank Williams and Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn. I think the artists who were guests on the record were familiar with that and brought that kind of understanding and depth to what they did on the record.

On “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends,” do you think the person who’s singing it doesn’t really know how the story ends? Or that he or she does know, but just doesn’t want to think about it?

It’s like you know you’re living in a fool’s paradise, but you’re not ready to wake up yet. That’s the perspective that I had on that song.

Some of these songs are very emotional, like “Time Won’t Tell” or “What You Are.” You didn’t write those songs, so how do you get inside a song like that, to convey the emotion of the song?

I think of very specific people in my life and very specific situations that have happened to me. Even though those situations may have been from years ago, I seem to be able to connect the songs to the feelings I was having then. It’s really the mark of good writing when it can unlock something in you that you’re not able to say yourself. Even if you write songs, you may not be able to write a song just exactly like that. I find that that’s the mark of a great song — that it unleashes something in the singer that wasn’t able to come out before.

So many of the songs you chose don’t hide behind a bunch of words.

To me, that’s the strength of country music and great country songwriting. It’s very direct. It’s very simple language, but it’s able to convey these really deep emotions in these very personal stories. I love all kinds of music, but that to me is the strength of country music. It’s very direct, it’s very simple and it’s very heartfelt.

This album is getting a lot of favorable comparisons to Linda Ronstadt’s early albums. Are you a fan of those?

Yeah. Actually that’s one of the touchstones that I was going back to on this album — the early records that she did on Capitol, like Heart Like a Wheel. I really am a fan of that period of early ’70s country-meets-rock ’n’ roll, Southern California, the genesis of country rock that later became the Eagles and stuff like that. I’m a big fan of that period of music. I’m really pleased to hear [the Ronstadt comparisons] because that’s somebody that I really listened to a lot.

Which contemporary country artists do you enjoy?

I think Patty Loveless is a great singer. I really like Trisha Yearwood. And I don’t know if it’s the most popular opinion to have these days, but I think the Dixie Chicks are fantastic. I did a tour with them for six weeks back in 2003 when the whole uproar was happening over the comments about George Bush. I saw them put on an amazing show, night after night after night. I think they’re the real deal. I’m a big fan of theirs.

What are your tour plans for this record?

I’ll probably go out in the spring, but I’m waiting to see what the reaction is — if I’ll go down South at all and play more country music places or play my normal places. I don’t know. I’m reaching for a little bit of a different audience with this record. It depends on how many people are interested in hearing me.

Does it make you nervous to find a different audience?

No, not so much because I don’t think it’s a record that my normal audience would not be interested in. I think it’s something they’ll like as well. But I don’t really make records with that sort of thing in mind. I try to make records that I’m happy with, and then whoever likes it, great. Whoever doesn’t like it, that’s fine, too. It’s kind of beyond my control, and that’s fine.

Are you happy with the way this one turned out?

I am. I’m quite happy with it. It was such a great experience making the record. Like I say, I just felt welcomed with open arms by everybody down in Nashville. It was such a pleasure and such a great surprise. I’d love to do it again. I’d love to make more records down in Nashville.