JON BYRD FINDS COUNTRY'S SOUL
Updated: Aug 7
NASHVILLE — Jon Byrd is one of Nashville's best pure country singers and gut-string guitar players. He’s surely the only one to have begun a Ph.D., teach at historic colleges serving Black students, and work on the papers of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
No wonder Byrd's pedal steel-laden songs have so much soul.
Raised in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, he heard many 1960s country classics on the radio in his father’s shop, but it took Byrd many years of wandering to reconcile country music and where he's from with what he believes.
“I grew up listening to that (era of country music) in the auto-parts store, but I lumped it all together with racism and ignorance, poverty,” Byrd said.
Hipsters, truckers and a few tourists are drawn to the honky-tonk — which sometimes also hosts funk-music shows — in the Madison area of Nashville (where some musicians are flocking because the rent’s a little lower than in many other parts of this boomtown).
Donning a western shirt and hat, blue jeans, boots, a bolo tie and a Hi Records t-shirt, Byrd’s first song after my arrival at Dee’s was an upbeat, California-country take on the Beatles and Billy Preston’s Don’t Let Me Down, heavily influenced by Dillard & Clark’s 1969 country version.
Then he played his gorgeous new single, Golden Colorado.
“No comma,” he said.
Just like on many Byrd songs, the signature vibrato in his voice makes for a great dance partner with the pedal steel of Niehaus, an unassuming music veteran who has played with Iron and Wine, Justin Townes Earle, Calexico, Lampchop and others.
The beautiful studio version of Golden Colorado, released in June, features sweeping strings arranged by Chris Carmichael that feel like those on a singer-songwriter record from the early 1970s. From Byrd’s first full album in five years, coming later this summer, the lyrics evoke the deep chill of loneliness:
Well I moved to golden Colorado
chasin' a girl I thought I loved The mountains are cold in golden Colorado in the wintertime with no one to hold…
The sunlight on these mountains looks like gold but the miners put their claims in long ago They came here seeking fortune
from the unforgivin' stone
just to die on Denver streets out in the cold…
The mountains are cold in golden Colorado but a Georgia boy would be the last to know Yeah a Georgia boy would be the last to know
“When they define country music as narrative, as storytelling… that’s not what I write,” Byrd said. “I show a color or a moment. I call ‘em emotional snapshots. I write just a feeling, a moment… from one emotional feeling to another — usually downhill.”
On the recording, Byrd and Niehaus are also joined by Nashville stalwarts Chris Donohue on stand-up bass and drummer Brian Owings, with Joe McMahan on tremolo guitar and singer-songwriter Shannon Wright on harmony.
Stephen Simmons, Byrd’s friend and fellow songwriter, came up with the idea for the song — something about going to Boulder, Colorado, and “chasin’ a girl I thought I loved.”
With that kind of line, “the song is essentially written,” Byrd said. “I changed it to ‘golden’ without a comma. It’s the color, not the town.”
Byrd first began to change his tune about country music while still in college.
In 1977 at the University of Alabama right in his hometown, he took an American studies course on the history of rock ‘n roll, looking deeply at musical influences from Chicago, L.A., New Orleans, New York, Memphis, Kansas City, Atlanta and Nashville.
“It took a professor saying this is poetry for me to understand. We spent a whole day listening to Gram Parsons,” said Byrd, speaking of the young artist from south Georgia who’d shown The Byrds, the Rolling Stones and other rock ‘n rollers the beauty and meaning in classic country music — and its connections to gospel and soul.
Besides, Byrd’s Alabama twang lends itself well to country. “I sing with my mother’s accent,” he said. “I don’t say ‘cain-t.’ I don’t. It’s completely un-self-conscious on my part.”
Citing a story about the massively influential jazzman Charlie Parker as told in Ken Burns’ documentary series Country Music, Byrd recalled that Parker liked to play Hank Williams songs on the jukebox. “Why you playing that hillbilly shit?” some of his fellow musicians would ask.
“‘He’s telling a story. That’s what I do every time I play my horn,’” said Byrd, quoting Charlie Parker. “It’s poetic. It resonates.”
Byrd didn’t write songs until 1985 when he joined a jangle-pop band in Atlanta, then started writing country songs as a hillbilly rock ‘n roller, playing lead guitar for Slim Chance and the Convicts. Ironically, Byrd decided his father should be the first to hear his originally country songs.
“He said, ‘Go to Nashville and play these songs for Ernest Tubb.’ I wish I had done that,” Byrd said.
During graduate school, while teaching at historic Morris Brown College in Atlanta, Byrd interviewed Charley Pride for Creative Loafing, the local alternative newspaper,. They met at the original Paschal’s, the famous Atlanta soul-food eatery that served leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.
“He said, ‘I thought I was going to be the Jackie Robinson of country music,'” Byrd recalled. “It broke his heart” that Nashville didn’t welcome more artists of color to follow. “He thought he was busting a door open, and almost no one came in behind him.”
Home in Alabama
Despite running away from country music as a young man, Byrd grew up within about 50 miles of Hank Williams’ boyhood home of Georgiana.
Adopted as a baby, Byrd spent his childhood in Frisco City, a little place in Monroe County. Byrd remembers his uncle sitting on the steps of his home with Black farm workers, all speaking in the same dialect. As a boy, Byrd couldn’t tell the difference in who was speaking.
His family moved to Tuscaloosa when he was 13. He married at 18 and became a father at 21. In the late 1960s and 1970s, Byrd witnessed an era of emerging liberation in the college town, even as racial segregation refused to die.
“I saw Abbie Hoffman speak when I was 14,” he said. His parents held (relatively) moderate views on race and religion, having lived in New York City during World War II in a neighborhood of mostly Jewish families.
He saw great performers play concerts on campus, including Linda Ronstadt in 1969 or 1970, soon to become a star and whose band would soon form the Eagles.
When he was 15, he saw Bonnie Raitt open for Neil Young in Tuscaloosa. During the show, Raitt cited the influence of blues master Robert Johnson, whom Byrd knew little about.
Then she invited local bluesman Johnny Shines to the stage. Byrd recognized him not as a veteran musician who spent time on the road with Robert Johnson, but as a regular customer in his father’s store.
Byrd’s Auto Parts was inside a white cinderblock building, situated near the federal government housing project in the part of Tuscaloosa where many Black families lived.
“Shines, you pick the guitar?” Byrd’s father asked him the next time he came by the store.
“Yes, I do,” Shines answered.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Mr. Byrd, I come in here for brake shoes and a fuel pump,” not to talk about music, Mr. Shines told him.
While Byrd’s parents were close to their many Black customers and neighbors as he grew up, “white supremacy was not in doubt” in their community.
“I didn’t have a black kid in my school ‘til 7th grade,” because of segregated schools in the state, Byrd said.
When Byrd was 10, his cousin returned from Baptist seminary in 1966 and talked about joining the second march from Selma to Montgomery. “My mother said, ‘Royce can do whatever he wants…. but his Momma has to live there.”
At the same time, Byrd “saw togetherness in sports and music in Tuscaloosa,” just like at times with the famed musicians of Macon and Muscle Shoals, he said. “The racial barriers kind of fall away for a minute. I really don’t think music and sports get enough credit” for building those bonds — the military, too.
To Chicago and Atlanta
In February 1980, Byrd saw Bob Dylan play a concert in Birmingham. Around that time, Dylan had released two of his gospel albums, 1979’s Slow Train Coming and 1980’s Saved!, both recorded in Muscle Shoals with some of the same backing musicians who’d played there with Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, The Staple Singers and many others.
“Half the band was from Alabama,” Byrd noted.
The Dylan concert gave him more context about Alabama music, but Byrd was ready to move on when he finished college. “I left Alabama as hard and as fast as I could.”
After graduating in 1980, he moved to Chicago, where learned to love baseball and landed a job at a little record store in Elk Grove Village. Few Black people lived in the neighborhood. Many folks were of Latvian descent.
One day, a young Black man walked in and asked for the latest record by Kool & the Gang. The other white store clerks couldn’t even understand what the young man was saying.
“C’mere, Jon,” someone hollered.
Byrd acted as a translator of sorts, then struck up a conversation. “My grandma’s from Alabama,” the young man responded with a smile.
In 1981, he moved to Atlanta to pursue music in a larger city and live closer to his daughter.
Byrd’s first national touring gig was with Tim Lee and the Windbreakers, which Byrd describes as like Tom Petty and The Byrds but even more southern. Then he toured across the country with Birmingham's Primitons.
Working at Wax 'n' Facts records in Atlanta’s still somewhat bohemian Little Five Points, Byrd met James Kelly, a regular customer, songwriter and fellow graduate student. He was originally from Nashville and unabashed fan of country music.
Byrd soon joined Kelly’s band, which played down the street at a dive called the Austin Avenue Buffet.
“We’d call it The Buffet for short,” Byrd said.
The bar was off Euclid Avenue, past the old Bass High School in the now-gentrified Inman Park neighborhood, the band’s favorite bar was next door to the Mead box plant.
“My understanding is the Austin Avenue Buffet opened at 6 and closed at 10 because they wanted to be open for guys getting off the overnight shift.” That way, people leaving work could stop by for a beer, even at 6:30 in the morning.
“It got popular ‘cause the Convicts were playing there,” along with other local acts such as Kelly Hogan, Byrd said. “It reminded me of a tavern up north, because children were in there.”
James Kelly chose Slim Chance as his identity. “My name (in the band) was Cecil Lawrence,” Byrd said, smiling. “I was working on my Ph.D.”
So was the bass player, now a psychologist, who attended Georgia State University downtown. “James was working on his Ph.D. at Georgia State, too, and we were playing George Jones songs.”
“The first time I played a Hank Williams song was with the Convicts,” Byrd added.
They’d play The Sex Pistols’ Pretty Vacant and George Jones’ The Race Is On in the same set. Sometimes people in the crowd would misunderstand why they were singing country songs.
“Y’all are hilarious,” some would say.
New-wave kids and strippers who’d just left the clubs also gathered at the Buffet. It was that kind of town in 1981.
“Atlanta was a pretty open and free and liberated” city, Byrd said. The Convicts once played The Otherside Lounge, a lesbian bar that was bombed seven months after a similar attack during the 1996 Summer Olympics.
“We had a gay fan, he liked to dress in cowboy stuff,” Byrd remembered. “A wonderful cat.”
Byrd is disturbed by the destruction of the downtown Atlanta building on Nassau Street where in 1923 Ralph Peer recorded blueswomen Lucille Bogan and Fannie Mae Goosby, hillbilly music star Fiddlin’ John Carson and others. The site’s now home to a high-rise Margaritaville hotel.
“I’ve always felt that Atlanta was estranged from its roots, both white and Black,” he said.
When Byrd's young daughter came to live with him in Atlanta, he stopped touring and began work on a doctorate in American Studies.
Through the field of Material Culture Studies, he developed an interest in what people build, what they sing, what instruments they use, and how those things can be as important as the writings of a founding father, king, or queen — especially when they’re expressions of marginalized or forgotten people.
Byrd realized how the mass production of musical instruments became “a tremendously democratizing force,” whether a banjo, guitar, mandolin or a piano. “So, we lost artisan quality and gained more pickers,” he said.
With the advent of the Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogue, people could order most anything they could afford, even in the darkest holler. As “aesthetically stultifying as Sears and Roebuck was, it was also a democratizing force for opening people’s minds to go outside of their race, class, gender, religion,” he said.
In his writing, Byrd loves the sense of place, often at the heart of country music and its roots. His studies of popular culture “gave me tools to look at both New York City art — Lou Reed — and (at the same time) Jimmy Suddeth and his folk art in Alabama.”
After he finished his doctoral coursework at Emory University and began work on his dissertation, Byrd taught at Emory and other local colleges. He introduced his students at Emory to Black classics such as The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois, which at the time many hadn’t explored.
“This book will change how you read, how you see, how you think,” Byrd told his classes. Then he’d tell them to read Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique.
Byrd also taught humanities at Clark Atlanta University and neighboring Morris Brown College. He worked at The King Center as a research assistant for the King Papers Project, poring through Dr. King's letters and college papers.
Presenting at an academic conference, when he mentioned Black Americans’ ties to country music, some members of the audience protested. Who spoke up in Byrd’s defense? Harvard professor and author Henry Louis Gates Jr., now the host of the PBS show Finding Your Roots.
Moving for the music
After two decades in Georgia, Byrd moved to Music City a week before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. His younger musical friends Adam and Shannon Wright would soon follow, themselves becoming accomplished songwriters and performers.
In Nashville, Byrd started working the door at the Exit/In for Billy Block’s regular country-and-roots shows.
Like Tom T. Hall did when he came to Nashville a generation earlier, Byrd soaked up the city’s music and tried to learn about all of it.
He took in an event at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum that featured Billy Cox, a close friend and musical sidekick to Jimi Hendrix when the future legend played regularly in Nashville’s Jefferson Street district, along with Nashville bluesman Johnny Jones. With his Les Paul guitar, Jones claimed he’d blow Hendrix away every night.
“It’s Music City USA — not Country Music City USA,” Byrd contends.
A Curtis Mayfield nut, you’ll sometimes find Byrd on honky-tonk nights at East Nashville’s American Legion Post 82, a modest club where you might see old cowpokes over the moon, waltzing with young co-eds as some genius like Jim Lauderdale or Chuck Mead plays on stage.
Or at Santa’s Pub, a triple-wide trailer where Black and white Nashvillians alike sing along to soul and country songs with equal fervor.
Why’s it called Santa’s Pub? “Wait ‘til you meet Santa, and you’ll know,” Byrd said.
A night at the honky-tonk
On the recent Wednesday night at Dee’s lounge, Byrd also covered Suffer a Fool, by his friend (and author and musician) Peter Cooper and Don Schlitz (who wrote The Gambler), and I Can Dream, which Byrd wrote about one of his favorite visual artists. (More details and song clips in the albums section below).
Byrd thought for a minute before he recalled the lyrics of a lesser-known Hank Williams song, I Told a Lie to My Heart, released in 1947.
“It’s on his demo tape,” he said of the lesser-known Williams cut. “I often joke that that song could be used as evidence that Hank read Sigmund Freud.”
The duo followed with a faithful take on Williams’ 1951 classic I Can’t Help It if I’m Still In Love with You.
Byrd has played with Niehaus for about six years. He’s not certain where they first met. Maybe it was at Brown’s Diner or the old Family Wash in East Nashville. Regardless, Niehaus is his closest partner besides his longtime partner, Irina.
Later, Byrd said that his new album also will include City People, a song by the late Mats Roden, who led Primitons, a jangle-rock band Byrd toured with in the 1980s.
“Mats was an important cat to me,” Byrd said. “He was the first guy I ever knew who had a publishing deal.”
Byrd has also cut These Days, written by the late Buck Jones and his wife, for the new album. Jones was a young Texas songwriter killed by a drunk driver while he and Byrd were on the road together out in Texas.
Then he played some Johnny Paycheck songs: (It Won’t Be Long) and I’ll Be Hatin’ You, which Byrd has recorded for his new album, and Apartment No. 9, made a classic by Tammy Wynette gave the song a groundbreaking twist in 1967.
Then he played a George Jones song and Merle Haggard’s California Cottonfields, which, “like so many things, I learned through Gram,” Byrd said.
He sang Jackknife, the opener from Byrd’s first solo album, Byrd’s Auto Parts in 2007. Byrd wrote the song about his parents, who saw some things differently but loved him like crazy:
When I struck out down the road
I thought it wrapped around the world…
Son, don’t work too much on Sundays
And keep a dollar in your shoe
Try not to lie and steal and gamble through the night
Stay away from girls that do
Keep a Bible in your pocket
and a jackknife
Just in case you need a friend
And remember that the ones that love you most
are just back around the bend
Making music, making records
Byrd found the perfect guitar for his gut-string strumming nearly 30 years ago while visiting in Cuernavaca, Mexico, with his second wife. The couple stayed longer than they’d planned, Byrd decided to look for a guitar. He found one for $50, authentic gut strings and all.
It wasn’t until decades later, however, when he took the instrument to Nashville guitar wizard Manuel Delgado that Byrd learned many fine guitar makers call Cuernavaca home.
That guitar is how Byrd discovered his signature sound, playing with guitarist Milan Miller, who produced Byrd's Auto Parts, and Eddie Lange on pedal steel. “That gut-string cut right in between the Tele and the steel,” Byrd said. “I’m just lost in all that, otherwise.”
The album’s second track, Reputation, is a revival of a version Byrd song back in the late 1980s.
She’s got a reputation that she don’t deserve
She wanted me to tell you, she hadn’t got the nerve…
Take a look on the inside
Take a look on the inside
In the bridge, Byrd sings a phrase that I can’t imagine has appeared in any other country song — how the woman in the song let him know “in no uncertain terms” how she felt.
Making music, making records
Byrd was immediately sold on recording In a Perfect World, also from Byrd’s Auto Parts and written by Milan Miller and Glenn Simmons, when he heard the striking melody, sounding at once like a country classic and American standard.
“It’s the greatest Willie Nelson song Willie Nelson never recorded,” Byrd said.
The album also includes Byrd’s take on Don’t Bring Me Down, a song that was originally the B-side to the Beatles’ single Get Back.
When Byrd first heard Dillard & Clark, two hip 1960s musicians, sing a country version of the song changed everything for him. “Hearing them do it with a pedal steel, it was just liberating,” he said.
Byrd even had a chance to play the song in John Lennon’s childhood home.
Touring England for the first time, Byrd’s gig in Liverpool fell through. Peter Davies and Gabrielle Monk, a local couple known together as Good Intentions, organized a last-minute house concert for Byrd.
Only a dozen people could fit in the old house’s tiny rooms, so the audience cycled out and another dozen entered as the show continued.
“At the end of the night, this gentleman comes up to me,” Byrd recalled. The man was curator of Mendips, where Lennon lived as a child and teen. He invited Byrd, who idolized the Beatles, for an after-hours visit.
“We were in the glass foyer, which I knew McCartney and Lennon had sung in,” Byrd said. “I sang Don’t Let Me Down in the wrong key and Peter sang a song beautifully, and it was just magic for me.”
Also on Byrd’s Auto Parts, there’s the honky-tonk shuffle of Be Real, written by Texas troubadour Doug Sahm, who later formed the Texas Tornadoes with Freddy Fender.
“I love the last part of it… I think there’s a feminist thing in it,” Byrd said. “I love the idea … (that) a Texas redneck guy likes a woman that says what’s on her mind,” Byrd said. “Doug sneaks little things like that in his songs. He was a genius.”
In 2011, Byrd appeared on I Love: Tom T. Hall’s Songs of Fox Hollow, a tribute to Hall’s 1974 children’s album. The collection, produced by Peter Cooper and the wonderful singer Eric Brace (who led the band Last Train Home), was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Children’s Album.
Byrd joins other stellar roots performers on the record, such as Patty Griffin, Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale on the record,
He tackles How Do You Talk to a Little Baby Goat? “I’m the one on the record that has to make animal noises,” Byrd said.
Down at the Well of Wishes, 2012: He followed Byrd’s Auto Parts with Down at the Well of Wishes, produced by Byrd and R.S. Field, and emphasizing Byrd’s singer-songwriter side.
The title song feels like a poetic parable. “Those are not my words. I wrote that song with Butch Primm,” Byrd said. “Butch just slipped the words under the door, and I had this chord progression.”
“It’s a Southern rock chord progression… I got the melody for it, but of course it’s country as hell.”
Playing it for Primm, it reminded them both of a Waylon Jennings song. It seems like it’s about the life of a songwriter in Nashville. “Naw, it’s about panhandlers,” Primm insisted. “You know, same thing.”
Change is hard to come by
If the well has run dry
And you are only some guy who needs some change
All the gods have spoken
To the man who’s broken
But still he keeps on hopin’
For some change
Alabama Asphalt, a slower song with Byrd doing some Piedmont blues pickin', reflects his conflicted feelings about where he’s from — a familiar sentiment for Southerners who’ve moved around.
“I found out that Alabama had reinstituted the chain gang, and that’s where it came from,” he said. “You’re supposed to be able to be proud of where you’re from… but then things happen.” (His Paw-Paw really was a railroad man, by the way.)
If you’re down in Alabama
you better watch your ways…
Yeah, they’ll chain you to your brother
and give a shotgun to the other
And there’s this Alabama asphalt
Giving off heat
I gotta keep moving, I’ve got a time to beat
I miss Tuscaloosa and I miss the Mobile Bay
and the Gulf of Mexico is calling me home
Byrd wrote Easy to Be Free about his daughter, Sara. She’s not a professional musician, although Byrd bought her a bass guitar when she was 13 from Atlanta rocker Linda Hopper (who sang with R.E.M. among others).
When he called Sara up to the stage on his 60th birthday at Radio Café’, with her back turned to the audience, she let her father have it. “She flipped me off. Double flipped me off,” he said with a laugh.
“The song is really about just not being able to stay home,” he said. I have this thing I can’t keep from doing, but I don’t do it without the consequences.”
She got a job in Birmingham
She had no need to roam
She wasn’t like her Daddy
who never stayed at home
But I wonder if she knows
just what she’s meant to me
and if she’s found it easy
easy to be free
Route 41, 2014: Byrd decided to record songs by other writers — mostly his talented bunch of friends — for this wonderful album.
“I named it for the road that runs from Atlanta to Nashville, right beside the Big Chicken,” he said. (Highway 41 passes a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Marietta, Georgia, that looks like, well, a big chicken.)
Five songs on the album are from Atlanta writers or ones Byrd knew there. The other five are from writers with Nashville ties.
Byrd came up with the idea with a little help from his friends. “Me and my friend Butch (Primm) and Mando (Saenz) used to sit at the Red Door West” and talk about songs and life. Their conversations barely made time for a beer or flirting with women at the bar.
He patterned the album after the 1960s and 70s records on which stars would record their friends’ songs: Waylon Sings ‘Ol Harlan (Howard), Willie Nelson Sings Kristofferson and the like.
“That’s as much a Nashville tradition as anything,” Byrd said. “Bobby Bare did two Shel Silverstein records.”
After the opener, James Kelly’s clever George Jones (Has Never Sung About My Girl), comes one of the most perfect country songs I’ve ever heard — Adam Wright’s Would You Like to Dance.
(Adam and Shannon Wright have recorded as The Wrights, and Adam’s songs have been nominated for Grammy Awards, including So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore by Alan Jackson and All the Trouble by Lee Ann Womack.)
“Adam used to play the Wurlitzer piano with me,” Byrd said, jokingly calling him “the bastard child of Floyd Cramer and Ray Charles.”
They first played the song at Norm’s River Roadhouse, later washed away by Nashville floods. “Shannon (Wright) was just weeping in the back corner” at the song’s simple, powerful storytelling. Fats Kaplin, who has backed John Prine, Jack White and many others, played beautiful pedal-steel on the track.
The empathetic In the Back of Your Mind, written by Mando Saenz and Will Kimbrough, reminds me of the part in Golden Colorado about the miners dying in Denver. Byrd said he loves the intro, which “sounds classical almost.”
Then there’s Going to Montgomery, written by Pamela Jackson and former prison guard Davis Raines, Byrd’s friend who plays most weeks at Brown’s Diner in west Nashville:
Rock me in the cradle
where the moss hangs off the trees
Where it's hard and hot and hateful
Where it's soft and cool and sweet
“I had to record that song. That just spoke to me in such a deep way. I write emotional snapshots,” Byrd said with modesty. “Davis Raines is a storyteller.”
Byrd also covers Wine by Peter Cooper and Baker Maultsby, replacing legendary pedal-steel guitarist Lloyd Green’s memorable parts on Cooper’s wonderful original with gut-string guitar. On his version, Byrd gently pushes along the melody with a hint of flamenco:.
Wine don’t make me no dancer
Don’t give me no answers
It don’t bring you my way…
Wine don’t make this a party
don’t help me stay on key
it don’t throw me no bones
Wine don’t make no lover
don’t give me no cover
it don’t know my way home
it don’t make me feel better
but it makes me feel different
it’s something to hold
when I’m wondering where I went
fruit of a vine, bottle of wine…
Wine, sweet as a berry
bitter as envy
soft as a song
Then Byrd goes slightly modern, beautifully covering Chris Richards’ Brilliantine and Walk On By from Atlanta singer-songwriter Greta Lee, for whom Byrd played and produced an excellent record.
The Route 41 closer, Al Shelton’s Just Another Gun, is a murder ballad, but for Byrd is also a country lament on the current state of affairs. “The tragedy for me that Al captured, this is now completely mundane,” Byrd said.
I got it from my Dad
He said he got from his grandpa
who took it off a prisoner way back in World War I
The treasure of the family
What a beauty, what a rarity
For all the good it did me
I’d say it’s just another gun
At the bottom of the river
Just another river in the great Southland
She’s another cold case to the Carolina cops now
She never should’ve told me
that I was just another man
Dirty ‘Ol River, 2017: For this album, Byrd teamed with Nashville bluegrass singer-songwriter Thomm Jutz, whose own style actually escapes genre, to produce the record. Milan Miller returns on electric guitar, Duane Blevins on bass and Eddie Lange handles the pedal steel.
The album’s title cut is a catchy, poetic Nashville country blues. Written by Byrd alone, the song’s upbeat country nature belies the lyrics on how muddy the life of a musician can become:
Dirty ol’ river runnin’ through my town Used to take you somewhere, used to get you around Used to be a highway, then a byway Now it’s just my way of goin’ down Dirty ol’ river never makes a sound It just wears a mist like a wedding gown of a stood up bride ’bout to come unwound Dirty ol’ river, goin’ down
In move that few besides Byrd would try, I Can Dream is his tribute to the self-taught late-20th century painter Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Byrd sees a lot of himself in Basquiat, the many visual folk artists of the South, and the songsters who once played the streetcorners of many cities, including Mandolin Mike in downtown Nashville:
Sleeping in a cardboard box
waiting for the rain to stop…
falling onto what I find ‘Cause I dream, I can dream, I can dream They pretend to see through me
I don’t exist, I cannot be But they can’t see the crown I wear
It’s in my mind, I know it’s there
After Byrd’s and Davis Raines’s hard-driving kiss-off song You Taught Me How, another highlight from the same album is If Texas is So Great, by Byrd and Peter Cooper.
Byrd said he had the premise and melody. “Peter had to put in Guy Clark, and he had to put in Emmylou. I always follow with a Doug Sahm song.”
I like a Shiner every now and then
much rather have a whiskey blend
Say Guy Clark is your favorite son?
He moved to Nashville in 1971
If Texas is so great, then what are you doing here?
You wanna talk about TX, I wanna drink my beer
Port Aransas girls are pretty, but I like Panama City
And if Texas is so great, what are you doing here?
His particularly beautiful track, Silent Night, reminds me of riding as a child in my grandpa’s pick-up truck through my little hometown of Piedmont, South Carolina. Byrd said it’s about his own memories of growing up with his brother in Alabama.
As he sings, “I’m thinking about my mom, I’m thinking about the dirt road goin’ to my grandparents in Monroe County,” he said.
This time of year takes me back
to when I was a child
Singing’ carols with little brother
just to make our momma smile
Standing on the front seat
holding on with all our might
She drove us home for Christmas
and we sang Silent Night…
No voices in my head
just peace on Earth instead
And a silent night…
I may be glidin’ down the road
on a hot summer day so bright
headin’ for the next show
and hummin’ Silent Night
Byrd closes the album with two covers. He was born to sing Tammy Wynette’s ‘Til I Can Make It On My Own, written by Wynette, George Richey and Billy Sherrill. Then he ends with Steve Young’s Many Rivers, a midtempo ballad and the album’s closing prayer.
Me & Paul, 2021: More recently, Byrd released Me & Paul, an EP of performances by just him and Paul Niehaus. The title’s a nod (of course) to Willie Nelson’s classic song Me and Paul in 1971.
Byrd wrote his stunning opening track, I’ll Be Her Only One, with singer-songwriter (and true poet) Kevin Gordon. “A stone-cold country song,” Byrd said.
Say she’s walking Tchoupitoulas
With a stranger, looking free
You say that’s got to be the cruelest
But what’s that got to do with me?
Yeah I might have cried a river
But my old levee’s made for flood
‘Cross my levee she’ll come walking
And I’ll be her only one
Ballad of Jr. and Lloyd came from the pen of Byrd’s Atlanta friend and mentor James Kelly. It’s about the fast lives of Appalachian moonshine runners whose dashes from the law led directly to the sport of racecar driving. It’s like a hillbilly version of Pancho and Lefty.
“It explains NASCAR in one little song,” Byrd said. “I recorded a version with The Convicts in 1993. We made a cassette, and it was called Letters to Momma. On that record, I think I sang (Faron Young’s) Wine Me Up. It was my first time being recorded singing.”
Byrd also pays tribute to the Louvin Brothers, one of country music’s most popular duos in the 1950s, fellow Alabamians and writers of some real stunners. On the classic Cash on the Barrelhead, Niehaus’ pedal steel has an old-time analogue feel, like from an old Hank Williams record.
“I’d never recorded a Louvin Brothers or a Charlie Louvin song,” Byrd said. “I’d met Charlie Louvin a couple of times. As much as he mess as he was… he was nice to his friends.”
That got Byrd started talking about country music today these days. “Harmony. Harmony. Where is it? I’m not hearing any harmony. It’s like taking away a pedal steel… I don’t have a harmony singer, but I tell you what, I’d add a harmony singer as soon as I’d add a drummer.”
Byrd said he started writing Why Must You Think of Leaving? the real weeper on Me and Paul, heading to shows in Scotland.
“There’s a world-famous train ride from west England to Inverness from York… from the west coast of England to northern Scotland,” he said. “It was like the North Carolina mountains, then the California coast, then the coast of Maine, then Lake Superior,” all stone houses and sheep. “Every 15 minutes was a postcard.
“You know if I lived there, I would never leave. Why leave?”
He brought the chords and melody back to Shannon Wright in Nashville to help him finish the song. She had great advice about circling back in each stanza to a minor key, she suggested G, a major chord.
“It wouldn’t be a song without her,” Byrd said.
“It’s about touring and how much fun touring is, except when you actually like being home and with people you love,” Byrd said.
It’s also one of Byrd’s softest vocals, and his range goes deep. His gorgeous fingerpicking draws on folk and pop record from the early 1970s, and Niehaus’ pedal steel is high and lonesome. Together, they sound rich and full, and starkly blue:
Clouds kiss the mountains
They don't wanna fly away
They're hugging the hillside
‘Cause they wanna stay
Where the waters roll and tumble
Past my door as if to say
Why must you think of leaving
When you know you wanna stay
Byrd closes the EP with J.J. Cale’s Don’t Go to Strangers, a mysterious, bluesy song that allows his gut-string playing plenty of room to breathe, from Cale’s 1971 album, Naturally.
“I’ll bet you I bought Naturally because it was on Shelter Records, and it turned out to be monumental,” said Byrd, who recalls first hearing Cale on college FM radio back in Tuscaloosa. “That record has always been important to me.”
Byrd’s singing recalls Hank Williams and Niehaus’s steel adds a voice of its own. The song seems like it could go on forever.
“We can do a three-minute version of that song, a seven-minute version of that song, if we find the groove,” Byrd said.