On Anders Osborne's right arm, there two butterflies. Typically short-sleeved on stage, they show when he plays guitar, assuring the audience that this otherwise grisly, long-bearded man is not going to bite.
Now 45, Osborne left his native Sweden at age 16, traveling Europe and the Middle East for three years before landing in New Orleans. His slightly lingering accent fits the creole stew in Louisiana, where he's made his home.
The song titles ("Darkness at the Bottom," "Echoes of My Sins") from Osborne's breakthrough 2010 release, American Patchwork, hint at the difficult, addiction-riddled road he walked for nearly three decades. Exacerbating that struggle, Osborne lost his mother at an early age.
"She mentioned on her death bed, in her poem she wanted for her funeral, she said, 'I'm going to come back as a butterfly every year, and look beautiful and pretty, so I'll keep track of y'all,'" recalls the songwriter. "After that, all you see is butterflies everywhere."
When his grandmother passed away 10 years later, Osborne added his second butterfly, so the two could hang out together. But the insect's metamorphosis is also a fitting metaphor for Osborne's own rebirth. It's not that he was only recently "discovered" or came into his talent. In fact, he penned "Watch the Wind Blow By," a number one hit for Tim McGraw in 2004. But Osborne kept a low profile, gigging around New Orleans without ever touring far from home.
"I was struggling with drug and alcohol addiction, and that can put a damper on anybody's life," says Osborne, who went to rehab and cleaned up two years ago. "I got a lot of different demons out of the way and started to focus on what matters, you know? Health and family and my profession and craft. It felt like the natural thing to do — to go out and be a part of this beautiful live scene that's out there."
Osborne started growing his trademark beard during rehab. It became a product of his sobriety.
"I had a little shorter cropped beard," he recalls. "I said, 'What the heck. Let's let this sucker grow and see what happens.'"
And like his facial hair, his career continues to flow. For American Patchwork, he teamed up with longtime friend, Galactic drummer Stanton Moore, for production and drum duties. Moore pushed Osborne to wring all of the energy he puts into his live shows onto the recordings, then joined him on drums to support the album on tour.
"We've been friends for almost 20 years," Osborne says of Moore. "It's been miserable, the amount of support he's given me to get me back on track and get me rolling again."
For Osborne, a personal resurgence paralleled his city's own turn-around after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. On the road this month, he's fresh off an epic two weeks at Jazzfest, where he was billed in projects with Luther Dickinson, Tab Benoit, and Bill Kreutzmann. The night before speaking with City Paper, he played "St. James Infirmary" with Warren Haynes and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
"That was really beautiful," says Osborne. "Every gig has its own little magic, but any time you get to play with guests, you kind of go outside the norm."
A four-piece on the road, Osborne's band includes Eric Bolivar, a drummer who has toured with Karl Denson and Papa Mali; bassist Carl Dufrene, "from deep down in the bayou;" and guitarist Billy Iuso, a cat Osborne "just hooked up with and it's been clicking."
In addition to the tracks off of American Patchwork, Osborne says he's apt to throw in an occasional Dylan or Jackson Browne tune, and even some Jerry Garcia. What's guaranteed is a performance by a man at the top of his game, building a reputation across the country, halfway through his fifth decade of life.
Aspiring middle-aged songwriters — put down the bottle and take note.