Thursday, January 27, 2011

Sounding Out: Jonathan Byrd

I loved reading Jonathan Byrd’s bio. Open, honest, and descriptive, Byrd left no personal rock unturned. Upon finishing my read, I wondered whether Byrd was really such an open book about his life and music. Turns out after talking with Byrd, that he would not know how to close his book if he tried…and that is a good thing. It is what makes his music so good.

“I was nineteen when I went into the Navy. I took almost a year off after high school, and just worked at a grocery store and messed around town. And then went in. At that point I hated school. I realized that I was not a school guy. I knew I wanted to do something…and I sure didn’t want to go to college.“

I asked Byrd why the Navy. He told me that he had live in Europe with his family for a time when he was younger. His dad had been a preacher at a church in West Germany at the time. He said, “I wanted to go back overseas somewhere as an adult under my own auspices and explore the world a little bit. And the services allowed me to do all of that. It wasn’t really my place. The military is not really into creative people that much. But it was a cool extreme testing experience for me.” Ultimately he said, “I needed to see the world and live a life so that I could write the songs that I write.”

The Ballad of Larry   

Later in our conversation, Byrd talked openly about his childhood, his dad’s alcoholism and the empty relationship that he and his father shared. “We lived in the same house, but I did not really have a relationship with him. But he didn’t have a good relationship with his own dad, and he never learned how to have a good relationship with his son. He was 57 when he died. So we ran out of time.” Byrd said that his dad never got old enough to need him. “I think that I would have learned a lot more about him if I ever had to take care of him,” Byrd said. “We got to know each other a little bit and have some better times together towards the end of his life. That was what inspired my song Father’s Day. That day was the last time that I saw him. It was a blessing to me to have that final memory of him be so positive.”

Father's Day   

Byrd did not write the songs that he now writes when he got out of the Navy. Those songs would not come for many years. “Everyday I played my guitar regardless of what I was doing, but I didn’t even know how to do it for a living…I really did not know what my focus would be if I DID do it and I did not have a direction for it….it just wasn’t something that I thought about until I was 28 or 29.”

The turning point for Byrd came when he went back home to North Carolina. He said, “I discovered, very slowly, this really great scene of acoustic music. There is a lot of bluegrass here. And around where I live, there is a lot of old time, which is pre-bluegrass string band music.”  The scene that he discovered he went on to say, “was a bunch of folks that were really into old time, had all the old records, and learned the old tunes…and they got together on the weekends and at festivals and just had a good time playing this music.”

This Byrd said, was the turning point. “There are people who have really good tone and technique. And they can make records that are interesting to listen to. But really, the thing is to be there with everybody playing. That’s the deal. I find the same is true with Irish music. I listen to Irish music on recordings. Most of the music is really polished and perfected, but the thing to do is to go over there and sit in a pub with 12 people playing these tunes….i think that it is amazing and so magical that way….it is so much more than what a record can be.”

So Byrd sat in the circles and played. And quietly he began writing his own songs. And every once in a while he would throw one of his own into the circle. Byrd explained, “Jack Hardy once said, in the early 60’s before Bob Dylan came along and really changed everything for song writers, the thing to do was to play a bunch of old folk songs, slip one of your own songs in there once in a while and hope that nobody noticed. And that was kind of what I was doing….I was trying to write these songs that were so much in the genre that I would play them for people and they would say wow, where did you get that song. This got me really fired up to write more songs.” From that point on, Byrd had his musical focus and direction.

While Byrd’s first four albums mixed folk, bluegrass, and country music, Cackalack, Byrd’s latest album, takes him back to those music sessions that first inspired him. I told Byrd that in listening to his new album, there is a different kind of energy to it from his prior recordings. He said that he wanted to make an album about North Carolina and its music. “I wanted to get everyone in a room, around some mikes, and play this music, and get that feeling of everybody having a good time in playing music together.”

Chicken Wire   

Byrd is a wonderful songwriter. And I find the songs that hit closest to his heart are among his best. I asked Byrd about his approach to his song writing. He said that he processes things on a subconscious level.

“I am not a conceptual writer. What I mean by that is…..the guy in Nashville will say I have a title for a song…something with a clever twist in it….then they create a story to fit around the title, then they create some music that feels right for the song and they work their way from a conceptual place into a place that has some kind of feeling.  I really go the other way. I am a musician first, a guitar play first really. So when I am writing, I’m usually practicing my guitar and I stumble upon something that sounds good to me… starts with a feeling, which is what music is, its just a pure emotion, its all heart.” Byrd continued, “But eventually in the process some words will jump out of me, maybe remind me of someone that I use to know or a story that I heard or whatever has been in the back of my mind processing.”

At the age of 40, Byrd is the musician that he wants to be, writing the songs that he wants to write. Byrd says that he is glad for these past ten years. He said that it took a long time to figure out who he was. “I think that my dad did not know who he was…and I think that he passed that on to me a little bit. It took me until I was almost 30 before I started playing music for a living even though I was playing music every single day of my life since I was 14. It is just good to now know who I am and have spent ten years doing something that I enjoy doing and just figure my own head out.” Byrd has definitely figured out his own head and it comes across in every song that he writes and plays.

Jonathan hits the road in support of his new album in February. If you can, try to catch his show if he is in your neck of he woods

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