Some people think of Jonas Fjeld as a singer/songwriter. The guys in Chatham County Line, the popular American bluegrass band with whom he’s collaborated since 2005, regard him as a “Norwegian superstar.” The late, great Rick Danko of The Band, with whom he collaborated together with singer/songwriter Eric Andersen throughout much of the 1990s, preferred to think of Jonas as a “Norwegian national treasure.”
However you think of him, and whether he’s writing, playing, or performing rock, folk, or bluegrass, one thing is certain: in the 40-plus years since he formed his first “real” group, a “three-chord band” called The Frogs, Jonas Fjeld has developed into—and become internationally recognized as—one of the most talented, versatile, intuitive, and innovative genre-spanning recording artists in the world today.
Born Terje Jensen in Bodo, Norway, a small city above the Arctic Circle, in 1952, Jonas moved with his family to Drammen, near Oslo, as a young child. It was there, says Jonas, “that my musical roots took hold.”
At the age of 14, Jonas performed in public for the first time, with a friend at a local church, where the duo, calling themselves You and Me, sang a rousing rendition of the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer.”
By the time he was 15, in 1968, Jonas knew that music was going to be not only his career path, but his life path. Jonas and The Frogs began performing covers of the rock and pop hits of the day, one of which was “The Weight” by The Band, a group that would become one of Jonas’s greatest influences. Soon, the group began getting gigs at Oslo’s premier rock club, Club 7, but a record deal still eluded them.
In the early 70s, the group switched gears and The Frogs morphed into a rather unlikely glam/kitsch band called The Jonas Fjeld Rock ‘n’ Rolf Band which was, Jonas recalls, “somewhere between Salvador Dali and the New York Dolls.” The group’s quirkiness and raw energy caught on and, in 1972, The Jonas Fjeld Band was signed to Phonogram Mercury Records.
But Jonas wasn’t interested in camp and kitsch; he was interested in making music, in writing and performing serious songs, songs close to his heart.
In 1973, he heard the now-classic Eric Andersen album, Blue River, and fell in love with its raw yet gentle energy, and its acoustic beauty. The music scene was changing, and Jonas found himself at a crossroads. At the height of the glam-rock craze, when artists like Bowie and T-Rex were exploding, a new era quietly was beginning to emerge: the age of the singer/songwriter.
Jonas Fjeld had found his niche, and this time, it was a completely natural one. Word began to spread about Jonas’s unique rough-hewn yet melodic singing, his talent as a musician, and his charismatic stage presence. In 1975, Jonas released his first solo album, Take Two Aspirins and Call Me in the Morning under the name Dr. Jonas Fjeld.
In 1977, he teamed up with producer Audie Ashworth, known for his work with singer/songwriter and “Tulsa Sound” legend J.J. Cale. Jonas traveled to Nashville, where the Jonas Fjeld Band recorded The Tennessee Tapes (1977) and Back in the USA (1978), both produced by Ashworth.
It was also at this time that he met someone who would figure prominently in his life and his career: Nashville-based lyricist Jim Sherraden. Jonas and Jim began collaborating on songs almost immediately, and Jim, who is known in Nashville and beyond as a printmaker, wrote many of the lyrics for Jonas’s songs in the ensuing years, and remains his best friend—and a frequent writing partner—to this day.
In 1980, a seemingly serendipitous encounter with one of Jonas’s musical influences, Eric Andersen, who was on tour in Norway and would soon make the country his home, foreshadowed the direction Jonas’s career would take in the ensuing decade. “Eric was doing a big radio show for NRK, which is like Norway’s NPR,” recalls Jonas. “We were picked to play with him on that radio show.” The two chatted a bit, hit it off well, and that was that—or so it seemed.
In 1982, Jonas recorded his second solo album, Living For the Weekend, in Hendersonville, Tennessee, and in 1985, the Jonas Fjeld Band released Neck ‘n’ Neck, (featuring the songwriting and playing talents of Steve “Little Steven” Van Zandt) followed by Time in Motion in 1986. Both albums won the coveted Spellemans Pris, the Norwegian equivalent of the Grammy.
In addition to writing and recording his own songs, Jonas also produced the work of a number of other artists in the 1980s, including Tom Russell (“Poor Man’s Dream”) and Steve Young (“Look Homeward Angel”). In 1987, Canadian songstress Anne Murray recorded the Fjeld-penned “Perfect Strangers,” and the following year, Jonas disbanded the Jonas Fjeld Band and moved to Nashville to write songs. For the next couple of years, “the acoustic guitar,” Jonas recalls, “was always on my lap.”
As the decade drew to a close, Jonas returned to Norway, where he teamed up with Norwegian songwriter/poet Ole Paus, forging a partnership that would produce a number of musically and lyrically rich songs and albums over the next decade, starting with 1989’s Svaert Nok For Meg (“Tough Enough For Me”) and the song “Engler I Sneen” (“Angels in the Snow”), a major success and, says Jonas, “a real turning point for me.” The album went gold in Norway.
The 90s kicked off with a musical union that would change Jonas’s life and career. “By chance, pure coincidence, I met Eric [Andersen] again in a guitar workshop store in Oslo,” says Jonas. “We started to hang out together a little bit, and started writing songs.” In the late summer of 1990, Eric invited Jonas to come to New York, where Eric was recording some new tracks for his newly rediscovered Stages: The Lost Album. While playing guitar on the sessions with Eric, Jonas met American singer/songwriter Shawn Colvin, who was on the cusp of stardom, and Eric Bazilian of the Hooters. Eric also introduced Jonas to one of his biggest musical influences, Rick Danko.
Rick, Eric, and Jonas sang together for the first time at a gig at the Tinker Street Café in Woodstock in September, 1990, and there was instant chemistry or, as Rick once said, “magic in the air.” A new collaboration was born.
The three voices melded perfectly, with Jonas’s voice veering from rough to richly mellow; when singing in tandem with Rick and Eric, he proved the perfect balance, tempering Eric’s coarse, old-school, gritty folk singing and grounding Rick’s melancholy tenor and often other-worldly “on top of the melody line” harmonies.
Personally, a deep bond was formed, too. On stage and off, Jonas often was the humble, softspoken straight man, acquiescing to Rick’s good-natured, naturally comedic and larger-than-life magnetism, and Eric’s bohemian charm and intellectual and often acerbic wit. When it was time to make music, all three checked their egos at the door and became a tight, cohesive, and virtuosic unit. “Still,” says Jonas, “sometimes I had to pinch myself.”
Jonas, Eric, and Rick spent a month together in Norway in early 1991 performing and recording. The result was a gorgeous collection of mostly original roots-oriented songs that showcased the group’s individual and collective vocal, musical, and songwriting chops, Danko Fjeld Andersen, released that year on the Stageway label—and earning a Spellemans Pris. Two of the songs on the album—the moody and very singable “When Morning Comes to America” and the stark and atmospheric “Blue Hotel”—were written by Jonas and Jim Sherraden. The album was picked up in the United States by Rykodisc and released in September, 1993 amid accolades and universal critical acclaim, including a four-star review in Rolling Stone.
That same year, Jonas’s third solo album, a well-received collaboration with Ole Paus called Texas Jensen, was released. DFA, or “the Trio,” as they were known by their fans, toured the United States and performed when their busy individual careers would allow them to (during this time, Jonas “squeezed in a live solo record,” Nerven I Min Sang, which won a Spellemans Pris) and, in 1994, they got together in Norway to record a second album, Ridin’ On the Blinds (Rykodisc), which was, like its predecessor, released to critical acclaim in 1997.
In early 1999, Jonas released a compilation album, Jonas Fjelds Beste (BMG). Sadly, Rick Danko passed away in December of that year, and though that was, of course, the end of DFA, in May, 2001, Jonas joined Garth Hudson, Eric Andersen, and Eric’s daughter Sari and toured as Hudson Fjeld Andersen, and, in 2002, the two-CD set, One More Shot, a re-release of Danko Fjeld Andersen (Appleseed) coupled with a bonus live DFA CD, was released.
That year, Jonas released Tidevann and co-wrote with Ole Paus one of the most beautiful songs of his career, “Rick,” a heart-rending tribute to Danko.
The last four years have seen one of the most productive and successful periods of Jonas’s career. In 2005, Jonas was introduced by his friend Jim Sheradden to a North Carolina-based bluegrass group called Chatham County Line, and he was instantly drawn to their music. “I invited them over here to Norway for the annual Christmas concert in the theater in Drammen that I’ve been doing for eight years,” he says. “We had four sold-out shows and I recorded them. It went so well and it sounded so great that we decided to release a live album, Amerikabesøk (Visitors from America) (RCA Sony/BMG). The album, released in 2007, went gold in Norway in three weeks, and was followed by a sold-out tour. “Playing bluegrass is something I’ve wanted to do for many years,” says Jonas. “It’s been a dream for me to hook up with guys that had that kind of music under their skin.”
In February, 2009, Jonas Fjeld and Chatham County Line released their second album, Brother of Song (RCA Sony/BMG), which went gold in Norway almost immediately. In April, it became available in the United States via iTunes.
Currently, Jonas is preparing for a new tour of Norway with Chatham County Line, to commence in August, 2009, followed by a record and tour with his old friend, Norwegian singer/songwriter Henning Kvitnes.
When he’s not on the road or writing and recording, Jonas, who proudly describes himself as a “big-time family man,” spends his time with his wife, May Britt, and their two children, Sigve and Carly Maria. Jonas and his family divide their time between Konnerud, Norway, and Kungshamn, Sweden. “It’s a good life,” he says, adding humbly, “I hope I deserve it.”