Joan Osborne Becomes a Lightning Rod for American Music

GOSPEL, COUNTRY, BLUEGRASS AND ROCK are all part of the quilt work that is American music. Each has a completely different vibe, but together they are drawing performers to explore their styles in one of Long Island’s most historic villages. This is not the music fest of flamboyant revelry and rebellion. It’s perhaps a more rarefied pursuit, something uniquely curated both for the individual parts and their sum. Over the past five years, New Orleans big bands have played in the park, bluegrass has emanated from the lawn of the Customs House and jazz singers have crooned at Bay Street Theater during Sag Harbor’s annual American Music Festival.

Back in 2009 Kelly Connaughton Dodds felt the old whaling town, freckled by American flags on nearly every façade on Main Street, was hungry for such an event when she was sitting at the crammed weekly jam session at Bay Burger restaurant, with the crowd hanging on the band’s every note. “Watching how the people of Sag Harbor were so engaged with the music,” she recalled, “I realized this town was ripe and ready for a music festival.”

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American roots was a way to find common ground among a vast array of genres. Since then, a legion of musicians have come to offer their particular perspectives, steeped in tradition, of what our country’s music is all about. And this year, Joan Osborne, who has traversed these and other genres, will ascend to the pulpit of the Old Whalers’ Church to set the weekend in motion. “In her career, Joan Osborne has seen and done it all,” said Dodds, festival co-founder. “With her deep roots in genres from folk to gospel to Motown, she is the perfect person to headline a festival dedicated to raising awareness of American music.”

American Music. It’s a term that’s close to Joan Osborne’s heart. The Kentucky native remembers listening to John Denver and Minnie Riperton on her transistor radio while she built tree forts in the woods. In her 20s, New York City became her classroom. “It was this great education in music to go to open mic nights and meet other musicians,” Osborne said. “I came up learning to emulate some of the great singers like Etta James, Billie Holiday and Mavis Staples.”

Osborne’s early interest in filmmaking informed her songwriting from the onset—she used lyrics to paint a picture through her songs. “You could put together meaning from the images that were coming to you in the lyrics,” she said. Van Morrison’s visual story-songs were another inspiration, even if she wasn’t always exactly sure of their meanings. It was the impactful emotional journey that compelled her.

After releasing a few independent recordings under her own label, Osborne came out with her first full-length album with Mercury Records in 1991. She released Relish four years later. Its single “One of Us,” written by Eric Bazilian, dealt with belief in God, earning it play time in churches and making it a focus of discussions in community centers. The record also earned triple platinum status. Controversy over the song was part of the road but less important to the artist than connecting with listeners, which Osborne found to be very fulfilling.

Since then, she’s toured with a spectrum of American music icons from The Funk Brothers to The Dead to Mavis Staples. “To have a grounding in American music, you can take it a lot of different places. The Funk Brothers took great jazz and R&B to make the Motown sound. The Dead took American music and looked at it through a new lens.” After Jerry Garcia’s passing, the remaining members of The Grateful Dead reunited for a tour in 2003 and invited Osborne to join them onstage.

Staples, with whom she toured last year, was a great influence to her creatively as well. “The Staples Singers have a particular place in American music and culture. They brought gospel to a wider audience in the 50s and 60s. They were there with Martin Luther King during the Civil Rights movement. They had a joyful, inclusive vision of who we could be as a country.” Osborne believes people are longing for that vision now, when in some ways the country is more divided than ever. In her most recent song, “Freedom,” which she hopes to record with Staples on her next album, she tackles this issue head-on. “The song hearkens back to that [time] in the late 60s. That kind of vision is something people are grasping for and trying to remember because it feels so threatened now.”

Performing at the Old Whalers’ Church, one of the oldest churches in the country, is a unique experience. Last year, the Fairfield Four brought its a cappella gospel to the space, evoking a sense of history and spirituality. Osborne, who’s performed in churches all over the world, looks forward to the opportunity to play there as the festival headliner on Sept 30. “There’s something special about being in a church,” she said. “Acoustically, it’s designed for people to join together and make music, and to have the music resound throughout the space. It’s about what it means for a community to come together to worship and be grateful.”

Musicians will perform at intimate venues and public spaces throughout the village. The lineup will also feature a film tribute focused on the festival’s theme and other events through Oct 2. Proceeds from the weekend will support a “local to global” vision that continues year-round through school music programs and free live performances.