Jonathan Byrd has a new CD out. That means it’s time to rejoice. “You Can’t Outrun the Radio” is another spectacular example of why this humble man from North Carolina is one of the best songwriters in the country. He has a serious way with words; he knits his thoughts together and entwines them with old-timey charm and contemporary style grit. Jonathan’s music unfolds in an organic and rootsy manner and that’s especially true with this new CD. The playing and picking are first-rate and the vocals are beyond compare. I first heard the title song a few years ago and was instantly smitten with it. Not too long later, I heard someone cover it. You know it’s a good song when it’s not even recorded and musicians are already covering it.
Jonathan’s website includes a fabulous biography. Highly recommended reading.
Take a look at this video of “You Can’t Outrun the Radio.”
Here’s another favorite, “Wild Ponies.”
Your latest recording “You Can’t Outrun the Radio” is another brilliant addition to your discography. From what I understand, its genesis came about in a rather magical way. Care to elaborate upon how you came to record an album with strangers?
I toured several Canadian provinces one fall with Corin Raymond. We played a gig at a bar called the Green Room in Montreal (since burned down). I remember being on stage and watching two beautiful women dancing with each other in the back by the bar. They were singing perfect harmonies with all my songs. I could barely focus on what I was doing on stage. I’d never played Montreal. After the gig, Corin introduced me to Alexa Dirks and Andrina Turenne. They had been in a seven-piece vocal group called Madrigaia that I remembered from an Ontario music conference. When I met them at the Green Room, they had moved on to Chic Gamine, a Winnipeg-Montreal collaboration with four women singing and a guy on drums. We all spilled out onto the sidewalk and passed a guitar around. When I’m in a circle like that, I assess what the other musicians’ strengths are. I try to pick songs that empower the other people, so everybody has fun. I kept playing songs that lent themselves to harmonies. I couldn’t have imagined how good it would be. It was like church. No, it was what I always wanted church to be, like if I could have walked out of my church when I was a kid and gone across town to the black church. I envied the joy they had. The power. The fun. We didn’t have fun in church. It wasn’t music you could shout to. Singing with Alexa and Andrina made me want to shout. They took me across town where I always wanted to be. It made me a better singer instantly. I took every note more seriously because they would respond and take it to a higher level. It was like dancing with a great partner, when you realize, “Hey I’m better than I thought I was!” Chris Bartos, who produced another record of mine called “The Law and the Lonesome,” showed up at about midnight. He had moved to Montreal and just came down to the Green Room for a drink. Graham Playford was there. It was insane. At two inv the morning, the bartender came out and said, “Please don’t stop, but you have to come inside.” We went until about four a.m. before I realized three things. One, I was the only sober person in the room. Two, Corin and I had to drive to Toronto that morning to catch a plane to Calgary. Three, I was the only one with a driver’s license. So I played the grown-up and got us out of there, but I made a list of five songs before I went to bed. I thought, “I just need five more songs and I can make a record with these ladies.”
I thought maybe we’d all just been high and they wouldn’t be as into my music as they were that night. I don’t know, probably an insecurity hangover from high school. But when we talked about it, they seemed as excited as ever. Of course, they were busy winning Junos and kicking ass all over the world. It was hard to pin them down. I finally got a couple of days in February of 2011 when they would be in Winnipeg. Corin turned me on to Jaxon Haldane, who engineered the record, and Jaxon put the band together. I really had nothing to go on, as far as picking musicians. I knew nothing about Winnipeg. But I knew that Alexa and Andrina and I could probably make a record as a trio and it would be one of the best things I’d ever done. Well, when I walked in and heard Grant Siemens play the guitar, I was pretty damned excited to roll tape. Joanna Miller didn’t show up until one in the afternoon to set up drums and that made me nervous, because Grant could only be there the first day. But then she played and barely hit anything but the downbeat and backbeat — so heavy! Like John Bonham on an Al Green record. Rejean Ricard pulled basslines out of old spy movies and Beatles records. He was like a bass encyclopedia. Always the perfect line for the song. On ‘Working Offshore’ his part was so great, I didn’t play acoustic guitar so I could make more room for it. The whole song rides on it. We couldn’t have put a more compatible band together. It was a religious experience and I mean that sincerely. We all still get stars in our eyes when we talk about it. The rough mixes got bootlegged around Winnipeg for three years before “You Can’t Outrun the Radio” came out. People thought it was already out!
The addition of Alexa Dirks and Andrina Turenne from the Canadian band, Chic Gamine worked out well. The sound of their voices combined with your strong vocals is pure bliss. I’ll bet you smiled an awful lot when you were laying down those tracks, eh?
They were three feet from me in the same room. They were so great, I’d forget lyrics because I was waylaid by something they’d just done. I like to think I’m pretty cool, but they were killing me.
Do you feel like there’s an overall “theme” to your music? What inspires you the most to sit down and write something?
There are themes to my albums. I enjoy albums. I never shuffle my music collection. So when I record, I create a long-format experience, and part of that is theme. “You Can’t Outrun The Radio” is about transportation — internal and external. Freedom, escape, transcendence and self-destruction. The road. ‘Mama’s Got Wheels,’ ‘A Big Truck Brought It,’ ‘Pale Rider.’ ]Working Offshore’ is the human cost of all that fuel. Even the title is an old police joke.
You are a seventh generation Carolinian. What kind of tales about your family have managed to trickle down throughout the ages? Knowing that your roots are so deeply entrenched must have made an incredible impact on you growing up. Does it make it impossible to even entertain the thought of moving away?
I never thought about it until I wrote my bio for my own promotional materials. I kept writing bullshit like, “Jonathan Byrd is an award-winning blah blah blah…” I couldn’t stand it! Who was I? Couldn’t I just speak for myself? I dug around and wrote a real autobiography. My brother had discovered my grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather’s birth certificate in Caswell County. It blew my mind. I was in my thirties and had this endemic American state of mind — “who cares where I’m from? I’m in the melting pot.” But suddenly I did care. What did it mean to me? That was the beginning of my 2011 release, “Cackalack,” a tribute to and exploration of my North Carolina roots. If I had discovered Austin in my twenties, I might have moved there. The knowledge of my heritage does raise the challenge and say, “Hey. Let’s keep it going.” Cackalack was a way of planting my flag.
When you were young though, your dad was a preacher in Germany. Did you feel like a stranger in a strange land? And what was the culture shock like when you returned to the United States? Do you feel that those moves impacted your life in any way?
I was four or maybe five when we moved to Germany. I felt at home. I loved it. I loved the bakery. The butcher shop. Titties on magazines right out there on the street. Everything was so open, which I realize now deeply disturbed my parents, but kids just want you to be straight with them, you know? Kids understand sincerity. Kids are not afraid of mortality or being human and kind of funny-smelling. They enjoy all of it. Farts are hilarious. Scars are badges of honor. People have sex and make babies — isn’t that cool?
I felt like a stranger when I came home. I had seen the ovens at Buchenwald and the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. I’d met people from all over the world simply because they spoke better English than German, so they came to our church and we worshiped together. Back home in North Carolina, kids made fun of me because I wore the wrong brand of shoes. No one my age talked about anything that mattered. My parents got divorced and I didn’t have the internal resources to get what I needed out of school or my social scene. I was awkward and yet expressive and I just got shut down by my peers. Like, this was supposed to be the land of the free, but nobody was allowed to be themselves. Church was even worse. In Germany, very few people went to church; we felt like the early Christians, outsiders meeting in a basement and speaking a foreign language. Religion was, and still is, regarded with suspicion. Back in America, I was politely persecuted if I didn’t go to church. As if your regular physical presence was required for salvation. There was no need for outreach. There were no outsiders with different cultures and different ideas. Black folks and white folks went to separate churches, sometimes right across the street from each other. I just went more inside myself and kept to the fringes of society. There were dangerous people out there, but at least they weren’t full of shit. Music became my best friend, sometimes my only friend. It took me twenty years to get myself back, to be able to walk around with my head up and just be who I am without being all iconoclastic about it.
There aren’t many folk singers who can claim that they’ve spent time in the Navy. Were you able to nurture your love of music during that time?
The only time I didn’t have a guitar with me was in boot camp. We sang to keep time when we marched — you’ve all seen it in the movies and that’s pretty much how it is — so boot camp was very musical. We had room for Marines on board my ship, but if we weren’t actually deployed those spaces were empty. I knew where the Marine berthings were because I had to clean them occasionally. I’d go down to an empty berthing with my four-track and make weird tapes. Backwards stuff. Half-speed harmonies. There were other musicians on board, too. The reefer decks (huge walk-in refrigerators down in the belly of the ship) were a good place to go late at night and get your jam on. We were off the coast of Liberia once for 96 days. A little-known policy states that when a US ship is at sea for 90 days, every sailor can have two beers. The USS Milwaukee brought us cases of Old Milwaukee and we had a ship-wide party. Somebody had a drum kit and set it up on deck with guitar and bass amps. I never saw the drums before or after that day. I had no idea they were on board. We played half of Zeppelin songs, whatever we could remember. It’s amazing how drunk you can get on two beers after three months sober.
According to your bio, it sounds like your life changed in a big way when you discovered music festivals where everyone spoke your musical language and played their hearts out. Is this when you truly decided to make music your life or was that something that you had been carrying with you for some time?
It wasn’t my musical language at all. I was a rock ‘n’ roller. I was still angry and I needed music to say “Fuck you” for me. The festival was the Rockbridge Festival, an old-Time string band music festival in the hills of Virginia. Everybody was weird! The music was weird! People got drunk and played all night. It was like rock ‘n’ roll, only even more authentic. There was no money in it. When there were lyrics, somebody died. When there weren’t, the damn tune went on for twenty minutes until all the players were tranced out like dervishes. Like acoustic EDM. ADM, I guess. Hey I just coined that.
I started writing songs that I hoped would disappear into the genre. I hoped that people wouldn’t ask me if it was my song, but instead ask me where I’d heard the song, where I’d learned it. That led to meeting more people who played Old-Time and acoustic roots music. I met a good recording engineer, Jerry Brown, and helped him build a studio. He convinced me that these songs were very special. That I was special. That I could make money playing guitar and singing my songs. He kept asking me if I had more songs and pushing me to write more. We recorded as we built the studio. The songs eventually gathered themselves into my first record, “Wildflowers.” It was organic as only a first record can be. I didn’t even know I was making a record until there was so much material it couldn’t be ignored.
What do you consider to be the absolute best things about the music scene these days?
We can reach our fans. Our fans can reach us. The curtain is pulled on the Great Oz. I stay at people’s houses sometimes. Some days I hate to admit that, as if I should be lavishly accommodated wherever I go for being a pretty good songwriter. That’s the old model. The fact is, the new model is beautiful and thousands of us can do it. Back when the Beatles were cutting records, you couldn’t make a record in the US at times because all the duplicators were swamped with orders for The Beatles. One band controlled the whole scene! The Beatles were and will always be one of the greatest bands in history, but I’m glad they can’t Bogart the scene now. Huge bands sell a mere thousands of records now and so do I. It’s hard to feel sorry for the Metallicas of the world when I can finally support my family for the same reason they can’t charter a second jet.
Do you get antsy when you’re not on the road? Are you self-disciplined enough to write or practice every day?
I love being home. All the self-discipline in the world won’t help you write when you have a six-hour drive, a two-hour ferry, a hour-and-a-half soundcheck, thirty minutes to get dinner, a two-hour show, an hour to sign CDs and break down your gear, find time to call your wife, breakfast, a six-hour drive… When I’m home I can actually get some work done.
Are there any places in the world that you haven’t played at which you’d love to play?
I haven’t figured out the four corners yet, and I’d love to. I just love that landscape and the cool people. Colorado has been opening up to me, but I’d love to see more of Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada. I’d like to go back to the UK. I haven’t found the right sponsor/promoter.
Are you touring to support this new CD? Do you plan any Canadian shows in which you’ll team up with any of the players who have gone from being strangers to friends?
Alexa, Andrina, and I did a trio tour of the prairies — Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta this past spring. We’ve done two shows with the whole band at Times Change(d) High and Lonesome Club in Winnipeg and filmed one of them. There will be DVD of that show available soon. It was an incredible night and I’d love to do it again. I’d love to tour that band, even for a week, anywhere. It’s logistically difficult because they’re all so good, they’re all involved in great projects. Grant plays steady with Corb Lund. Joanna tours with Scott Nolan and Mary Gauthier. Rej has a family and an incredible band in Winnipeg. And of course Chic Gamine plays Prairie Home Companion, New Orleans Jazz Fest, The Reepherbahn Festival in Hamburg — a bucket list of every gig you’d ever want to play. I’m shocked we pulled off a trio tour this spring. Now I’m constantly looking out for opportunities to tour with them. Nothing on the books right now. Keep an eye on my website or Facebook page. . I’ll shout it from the digital rooftops. Chic