J.S. Ondara Credit: Courtesy the Artist

The first time Kenyan singer-songwriter J.S. Ondara heard the music of Bob Dylan, he was blown away. As a bow-tie-wearing, poetry-writing teenager, Ondara often felt out of place among his peers, but listening to America’s most famous folk troubadour inspired him to set his own verses to music. In 2013, at age 20, Ondara won a U.S. green-card lottery and moved in with an aunt in Minneapolis, where he took up acoustic guitar (he chose the city in part because it’s located in Dylan’s home state of Minnesota). He refined his vocal technique in the solitude of midwestern winters, developing a potent, haunting tenor that occasionally flows into a falsetto. In February, Ondara released his debut full-length, Tales of America (Verve), which landed him a nomination for Emerging Act of the Year at the 2019 Americana Music Awards, and he’s now on the road in support of the recent deluxe version, Tales of America: The Second Coming, which features five bonus tracks (including covers of David Bowie’s “I’m Afraid of Americans” and Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold”). Ondara’s songs speak of life’s contradictions and often reflect his perspective as an immigrant. On the chorus of “God Bless America,” he contrasts his love of his adopted country with a sad awareness of its shortcomings: “Oh God bless America,” he sings, “This heartache of mine.”   v