Joan Baez is celebrating her 50th anniversary in the music business this year, and she's doing it in surprisingly fine style - with a hit record.
Her new album, "Day After Tomorrow," produced by Steve Earle, was No. 1 on Amazon's Singer-Songwriter chart this week, ahead of Jewel and Eva Cassidy. It was No. 2 in traditional folk and No. 3 in contemporary folk.
At age 67, looking lovely as ever, Joan happily finds herself with one of the hottest albums in the country, which she's dedicated to her 95-year-old mother.
"I told Mom that if I don't watch out, I'm going to be famous," she joked to my wife and me the other night over dinner at Greens in San Francisco.
Joan is a friend, and this was our chance to spend some time with her before she went back out on the road on her second world tour this year.
She'll be back in the Bay Area for a Nov. 15 concert at the Wells Fargo Center in Santa Rosa, followed by shows Nov. 18 and 19 at Herbst Theatre in San Francisco.
Months ago, in our living room in Mill Valley, she played us an unmixed version of the title track, a heartbreaking lament by Tom Waits about a soldier longing to come home from Iraq.
She sings it in her now burnished alto, accompanied only by her acoustic guitar. We were so emotionally moved that we suspected that this album would resonate with the reflective mood of the country at this critical time in our history.
I won't forget listening to the final product, sitting together at Joan's home one golden summer afternoon. With its literate, intelligent, compassionate songs of peace and hope and homecoming by Earle and Waits, Elvis Costello and T Bone Burnett, Eliza Gilkyson, Thea Gilmore, Diana Jones and Patty Griffin, the album touched us just as the title song had. And we were pretty sure we wouldn't be alone.
As one of the citizen reviewers wrote on Amazon: "Joan Baez, my hero. More songs of rebellion, coal miners, soldiers, God. I enjoyed this just this morning and I'm always happy to hear her voice."
Joan recorded "Day After Tomorrow" in Nashville with an acoustic string band that included Earle and bluegrass aces Tim O'Brien and Darryl Scott.
"It's going back to my roots, but with contemporary songs," she said. "It speaks to the essence of who I am in the same way as the songs that have been the enduring backbone of my repertoire for the past 50 years."
Joan was back in Nashville last night, where Earle presented her with the Spirit of Americana Free Speech Award at the Americana Music Association's seventh annual awards show.
Then she was off to the U.K., where she's a sought-after guest on radio and TV talk shows.
I asked her what the Europeans want to know. She said they always begin by asking her about Barack Obama, the first candidate she has ever endorsed for president, whether America is ready to elect an African American to head the country.
She said she tells them that it all boils down to whether America is smart or not. By the time she returns home in November, after the election, we'll know the answer to that.