country music

Retro Quick Q and A with Jonathan Byrd

Jonathan Byrd has never been one to let grass grow under his feet—even during this insane COVID-infected time. He is a road warrior and he hasn’t stopped bringing his music to his fans. He knows that folks are craving respite and he’s providing plenty of streaming music on a regular basis.

The Chicago Tribune called Byrd “One of the top 50 songwriters of the past 50 years.” I suspect that Bob Dylan and John Prine are on that list too.

Take a listen to “I Was an Oak Tree” from his 2010 album, Cackalack. I think that one song will entice you to explore deeper into Jonathan’s catalog. Learn more about him on his website.

Not only is Byrd a songwriter, he’s a poet, essayist, and short-story writer. You can get a taste of a Byrd show by tuning into one of his “Lunch with Byrd” shows on YouTube. Jonathan and the Pick-Up Cowboys are sure to make your day special if you watch. You’ll feel a whole lot better if you donate to the cause since not only does your hard-earned money go to these fabulous artists but a percentage goes to a fund for arts education for kids with special needs in North Carolina.

Here’s an interview I did with Jonathan in 2007. He set me right about winning Kerrville or not winning Kerrville and what that means. Thank you, Jonathan!

You’re in some pretty heady company having been awarded a Kerrville Festival New Folk Winner designation: Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earl. Winning that kind of recognition must feel pretty darn good, especially since it came pretty early in your career as a singer-songwriter. Does it still feel a little surreal to you?

Neither Lyle Lovett nor Nanci Griffith won the contest, which goes to show you never know. I have friends who are brilliant who were never even finalists. The same people who turned their tapes down for the contest hired them for main stage years later. There are many winners who never actually played the festival or had much of a career.

It’s pretty easy to maintain reality around here (I’m at the festival right now). Every day and night, I hear incredible songs, mind-blowing songs, songwriters that push the boundaries of conceptual and poetic possibilities. That’s the heady stuff and it happens around the campfires, in the middle of the road, under the street light next to the porta-potties, strung out at sunrise after an all-nighter.

The needle-fine pursuit of an art that most people aren’t even aware of is surreal. Walking around the ranch is similar to walking around Harvard Square, overhearing heated conversations over minutiae that only a few hundred people in the world understand.

Your journey from your days in the Navy to those in various rock bands and then finding your way to the acoustic music scene is fascinating. Your blog entries and your self-penned biography on your myspace page contain so many great and lasting images. I couldn’t help but think of Bill Morrissey and his forays into writing novels. Have you ever toyed with that idea?

I’ve got stories to tell, for sure. A time commitment is essential and I haven’t done that yet. The blog helps me get the bug out.

You travel a lot and do gigs all over the country. Do you notice any differences in your audiences from region to region? Are the demographics more or less the same?

The demographics for anything called “folk music” or, God forbid, “singer/songwriter” are about the same everywhere in the US — older, liberal, educated. Texas has a more diverse audience for it, I think because there’s a culture and history of great songwriters here. Canadian and European audiences tend to include more young people than in the United States.

You really have a talent for encapsulating little vignettes and character studies in your songs. “The Waitress” is a perfect example of this. So, I’ve got to know — is this waitress fictional or a real-life encounter? Yes.
[Editor’s note: ha. . . have to love the one-word answer]

I just bought myself a copy of the CD, Radio Soul that you did with Diana Jones. You and Diana surely have a special bond and working relationship and it shines through on this recording. Did you work on these songs and arrangements as you toured together this past year? It’s a great piece of work.

We wrote the title track together at a festival in Grafton, Ontario. We had no idea that day that we would work together on anything but that song. Basically, it started with the idea that we had the same booking agent, John Laird of the Americana Agency. So, it was easy to book shows together. I suggested we record a quick few songs, just so we’d have something to get gigs with, you know? Pamela Cole, Diana’s manager, suggested we record a full-length and we did, rehearsing for a few days and then recording it in a day.

Most of the rest of the songs were pulled from our back catalogue. I wrote songs for the project and “Reckon I Did” was one that made the cut. The music fell together like we’d gone to the same guitar teacher or something. The combination felt pre-ordained.

What’s next on your musical agenda?

I may record a solo album. I have a friend whose house is a guitar museum. They’re under beds, in closets, down in the basement, all these ancient, rare guitars. The idea is to take my favorite engineer to his house and set up for about a week, playing all the songs on these instruments, figuring out which voices sing the songs.

There’s also a guy from Houston living in my head and we’ve written five or six songs together now. That’ll be something.

Right now, I’m producing a project for Stephanie Corby and mixing one for David Glaser. The production work is another creative process that most people are not aware of, filled with minute details for me to obsess over. It also keeps me home a little more, which is nice. I just found an old Otari 1-inch 8-track machine down in Florida and I’m looking forward to diving into tape when I get home from Texas.