The road less traveled has always held a certain appeal for Joan Osborne. Over the years, the adventurous singer-songwriter has taken flight -- for the mountains of India and the depths of the Delta in her quest for sounds that stir the soul. After a long period of mining the rich territory where country and soul -- the two most visceral American musical forms -- meet, she’s hit yet another vein of gold with the songs that make up her evocatively earthy Vanguard debut, Pretty Little Stranger.

“I think of this as my version of a country record,” explains Osborne, who admits that, although born and raised in Kentucky, she never really explored the genre until she relocated to New York in the early ‘80s.”I’m thinking about this album almost as if a film director decided to make a genre films -- a western, then a romantic comedy, then a detective film. It’s a little like taking these genres that have certain constraints built in, then putting your own sensibility into it.”

Osborne’s sensibility -- a restlessness of spirit and an unfettered purity of emotion -- is evident in every nook and cranny of Pretty Little Stranger, her first album of original material in six years.  Yes, she’s abetted by an impressive list of collaborators and fellow travelers, both in terms of performing (Vince Gill, for instance, provides poignant vocal counterpoint on the hushed “Time Won’t Tell”) and writing (like Patty Griffin, the source of the questing “What You Are”). But in the end, Osborne’s personality and voice are the fuel that helps the album motor so effortlessly down the blue highway she’s decided to set out on.

“In making this album, I learned how difficult it is to be simple,” says the singer, who wrote much of Pretty Little Stranger in the basement of the Brooklyn home she shares with her infant daughter before heading to Nashville to record with Grammy-winning producer Steve Buckingham (Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Loretta Lynn). “One of the things that I wanted to focus on when I was writing songs for this record, and choosing material to cover, was that a lot of country music is lyrically very direct and very simple. A lot of what I’ve written in the past has been more flowery, more abstract. I got a new appreciation for how hard it is to be simple and not be trite.”

There’s nothing remotely trite about the songs Osborne wrote for the disc -- a passel of tunes that run the gamut from lost to lusty, from beckoning to high lonesome. Whether she’s pondering the ins and outs of a potential sexual conquest (as on the title track, a slow-burning country-soul offering that recalls the Nashville forays of singers like Candi Staton or Ray Charles) or sifting through the rubble of a break-up (as she does on the organ-fueled “Who Divided”), her words and her delivery pack a strong punch.

The latter tune, Pretty Little Stranger’s first single, is particularly affecting, what with its litany of references to the callousness the clock on the wall displays to those waiting for that heartache to subside. “Just to get through the moments of the days after a breakup can be really hard because it seems like the days drag on forever,” she explains.  I wanted to convey that sense of time being this monolithic thing.”

“I read this article about our conception of time in the modern world, which wasn’t around in the time of pre-history. There was a time when someone sat around and made this stuff up and I thought about being the person who invented seconds and minutes and hours. I know how this person felt because every single second you live thru when you’re heartbroken is this monumental thing.”

Given the fact that she’s earned such widespread praise for her voice -- Rolling Stone called it “sexy and earnest” and marveled at the way it “conveys whole choirs of feeling” -- it’s something of a surprise that Joan Osborne never really intended to become a singer. She moved to New York City from her Kentucky hometown with the intent of becoming a documentary filmmaker, but dropped out of New York University after falling into a burgeoning roots-rock scene that would also spawn such artists as Blues Traveler and Spin Doctors.

She’s always been willing to take chances, dotting early independent releases with covers drawn from sources as diverse as Sonny Boy Williamson and Captain Beefheart. But as she proved on her 1995 breakthrough disc, Relish, she’s just as capable of tapping into an emotional sensibility that one needn’t have an extensive record collection to appreciate. That album introduced Osborne to the mainstream via the hit “One of Us” (later the theme song for the C-B-S drama Joan of Arcadia) -- and also afforded her the luxury of pursuing artistic and personal goals that went far beyond the standard pop-rock continuum.

“One of the things I’m most proud of is that I was able to travel to India to perform for the Dalai Lama at a benefit for Tibetan refugees,” she recalls. “I also studied qawaali singing briefly with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and that had a profound impact on me. I see a lot of similarities between that and American gospel music where it’s literally meant to take you higher spiritually and take you out of yourself. We need that in our lives.”

Her ability to do just that has earned Osborne fans in high places musically speaking as well, as borne out by her appearances alongside fellow vocalists like Al Green, Bob Dylan and Luciano Pavarotti. She’s also forged a fruitful relationship with the Dead in recent years, having been set up on the musical equivalent of a blind date in 2003 by the booking agent they share -- a liaison that helped coax her to cover “Brokedown Palace,” which originally appeared on American Beauty.”

“That particular song is one that I’ve never performed with them and have always wanted to,” she says. It’s either not in their rotation, or someone else sung it. I always coveted that song so I decided to do it on my own record.”

Osborne’s interpretive skills have always been unimpeachable -- as evidenced by the plethora of tunes she’s honed over more than a decade’s worth of live shows, not to mention 2002’s soul-drenched covers set How Sweet It Is. And while that talent is certainly on display here -- particularly in covers of Rodney Crowell’s “When the Blue Hour Comes” and Kris Kristofferson’s “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends” -- Pretty Little Stranger’s most lingering material comes from Joan’s pen, an instrument she wields with élan, dipping unerringly into the lifeblood of relationships -- romantic and platonic alike -- in order to paint the most vivid pictures of her career.

“They are by and large really personal songs -- things that have come out of my life and my romantic landscape,” she explains. “It’s kind of liberating to be able to let that stuff go out into the world. It’s more honest and more interesting way to do it rather than just make up something that could’ve happened to anyone. I wanted to delve into my own experiences with heartache and cheating and all those things that go into good country songs. To me, it was okay to do that at this point in my life. I don’t feel I have to be guarded about it anymore.”