Some musicians are storytellers.
Anders Osborne is the story.
He left his native Sweden at age 16, thumbing his way across Europe, the Middle East and Northern Africa.
“I was looking for nothing,” he says from the back of a van on its way from Atlanta to Charlottesville, Va. “I was just basically traveling. When I started out, with the head and heart of a 16-year-old, you don’t know what you’re doing, you just do stuff. And once you keep doing stuff, it keeps going and going.
“You’re hitchhiking, you need money sooner or later, so you have to work. And you meet people and they say they’re going somewhere, or there’s a cool place you should go, or there’s jobs harvesting olives or bananas, it gets cold. You’re just moving, moving, moving.”
And so it was he found himself living in a cave in Crete, staying on a kibbutz in Israel, bumming through Cairo.
“It just goes and goes and goes,” he says. “You could stay out there for the rest of your life.”
He first hit the city of New Orleans 25 years ago, and it all came to a halt… or was it just the beginning?
With his worldly spirit, searing guitar style and aquiline Nordic looks, Osborne quickly became a favorite son in the Crescent City and he eagerly set about learning the sounds of the city and internalizing the music in its soul.
His debut release, 1989’s Doin’ Fine, broke him onto the scene with a clamor and he spent the next decade gigging heavily in the city’s notorious clubs with the heaviest of hitters. By the time 1998’s Live at Tipitina’s dropped, he had cemented his place in the pantheon of New Orleans music royalty.
And still the story unfolds. New Orleans can change a man, break him down, test even the hardest traveled among its denizens. Osborne was not immune to the city’s seductive ways, and his story includes a wayward detour through the underbelly of a city largely considered itself to be among the most sordid places on earth. His story wends through broken hearts, disappointment and, eventually, rehab.
But Anders is the story, not the storyteller.
His music has always had deep autobiographical roots, and he’s able to tap into his vulnerability and pain just as he is able to work a slide like a bluesman Delta born.
“That’s the only way I know how to write,” he says. “I approach my writing from different angles, but they’re clearly just autobiographical. I think there are a lot of things that happen: people dying, the birth of children… it awakens emotions you didn’t have before. That’s your playground as far as songwriting goes.”
He made a name for himself outside the confines of the New Orleans circuit as a songwriter, stringing in Nashville for Universal for
15 years. He counts among his songwriting credits two cuts, “A Better Man” and “I Was Wrong,” from Keb Mo’s 1999 Grammywinning Slow Down and “Watch the Wind Blow By,” which earned Tim McGraw a No. 1 spot on the country charts for two weeks in 2004. And he’s contributed on tribute albums for Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, the Beatles and “Mississippi” Fred McDowell.
All the while life unfolded around him — elation and loss, consequential heartache, fabricated bliss. And the story could have ended here. Fortunately for us, it has not.
Once again Anders Osborne has made a dramatic entrance, now hidden behind a shag of blonde hair and a prolific beard. Back in New Orleans, he exploded onstage with his old friend Monk Boudreaux and the 101 Runners at the French Quarter Fest in April, followed the next day by a blistering set of his own. His appearance at this year’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival kept all who saw it dazed for weeks — ensconced as he was in a supergroup with Galactic drummer Stanton Moore’s trio and Pepper Keenan, former member of Corrosion of Conformity and current owner of Le Bon Temps Roule on Magazine Street in New Orleans. Damn right they’re still talking about it.
His latest release, American Patchwork, produced by Keenan and featuring Moore, is another chapter in his work and his life. He’ll play songs from the album with his trio — and his crazy new beard — on July 9 at the Empire Room for his EMF Fringe show.
“It’s a big set,” he says, “a rocking set.
That’s where we are right now.”
Anders Osborne by Jerry Moran. (courtesy of Alligator Records)