Like peanut butter and chocolate, Jonathan Byrd presents an appealing blend of flavors, combining the hill music of his native North Carolina with the narrative style and sway of old-school Texas country. A reformed rocker, Byrd has been writing songs since he was a kid, but only awakened to Americana a little more than a decade ago. The greater lyrical playfulness and sophistication of roots music proved revelatory. "I had never written songs before that went off and had a good time," Byrd says.
Having embraced the singer/songwriter mien, Byrd's next big discovery was Kerrville's legendary songwriter fest, which he attended in 2002 at the suggestion of musician Chuck Brodsky.
"Texans really appreciate classic songwriting. It's just a culture, like bluegrass is a culture in North Carolina," he says, describing Kerrville as Disneyland for songwriters. The feeling was mutual: "People just falling in love with me en masse was something that had never happened before and hasn't happened much since. If Kerrville was a country, I'd be big in Kerrville. Those were my first followers."
Jonathan Byrd performs with Butch Morgan Friday, December 9, at Uncle Calvin's Coffeehouse.
Byrd has released six albums since that fateful first visit. In 2008, he released The Law and the Lonesome, his fifth album, one wholly dedicated to the vibe of Texas country. It ranges from "Diana Jones," a murder ballad informed by Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty, " to the honky-tonk stomp of "Houston Window Blues," about a hotel abutting the highway, to the loping drug elegy "Clean."
"What happens with me is I'll get five or six of these songs that feel like they're from the same place and I'll get inspired to write a bunch more songs," Byrd says. "'Clean' was one of the first songs, and the first verse mentions [a truck jackknifed on] Highway 10, so I knew it was in Texas, and it felt like a song in the Texas songwriting tradition."
After exploring the Texan within him, it was time for Byrd to return home. That's the subject of Byrd's new release, Cackalack, taken from a local idiom for Carolina. The album's songs dip deep into the region's flat-pickin' bluegrass traditions. It's rife with Byrd's wry humor, such as "Chicken Wire," which poses a solution for a wandering mate, and the old-timey "Reckon I Did," which treats the widening tale of heartbreak with the same unflappable response. Other songs, like the pretty folk historical "I Was An Oak Tree" and haunting gospel bluegrass "White Oak Wood," embrace native history and traditions.
"I'm writing about white oak wood and the trees where I grew up. That self-sufficient country lifestyle. I grew up with a great respect for that," he says, suggesting that themes of sin and redemption are also tucked into the songs. "As an artist, whatever's broken in your life is going to be a constant theme, and for me I grew up in the church and I'm still trying to get my head around what the church is. It shows up on every record in various places. These spiritual themes of what it means to be a good person and what it means to be a bad person."
As he takes his new album around the country, Byrd's particularly excited to bring it to Texas. He genuinely loves the people and their attitude, which connects back to his Southern upbringing.
"I find Texans to be very tolerant and very curious about anyone's opinion and the world in general," he explains. "It's like the South — they have that hospitality and politeness but they had a revolution and they won. ... In the South, you have to work pretty hard to get people to talk about political or religious issues. I find Texans will give you their opinion and listen to any opinions you have."
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