Jonathan Byrd is known for writing songs that carry on the venerable rural North American tradition of old-time music. His music once brought a personal commendation from Tom Paxton, who wrote: ?What a treat to hear someone so deeply rooted in tradition, yet growing in his own beautiful way.?
Byrd collaborated with Canadians Corin Raymond (of The Undesirables) and Chris Bartos on his latest album, The Law and the Lonesome (read review this issue), which was recorded in Toronto and mixed by Byrd himself in his home studio in North Carolina.
The following are notes from a conversation between Byrd and Wanda Waterman St. Louis.
?Deeply Rooted in Tradition?
Old-time music is pre-bluegrass string band music. The music has more of a social purpose, for dances and for people to get together and play music and have fun. It’s sort of an oral tradition of music. Bluegrass is obviously more performance oriented. But there are very similar songs and repertoire between the two.
There’s this really fabulous deep tradition of old-time music around where I live. It was very engaging when I was younger and I enjoyed it but I never thought about playing it. I wasn’t hooked into the old-time tradition until I was in my late twenties.
A girlfriend of mine had given me an acoustic guitar. I’d never had one until that point even though I’d been playing electric guitar since I was maybe 14 years old. But when I was about 27 I started playing with people who played old-time. They invited me out to their festival and it just sounded like a cool party to me so I went. After a few days of being around this music I was really taken with it.
I heard the same songs over and over again (like, how many versions of ?Wayfaring Stranger? are there?). So I thought, ?These people need some new songs.? I thought I could write in that tradition, so I started messing around with that kind of writing. It really fired me up. It’s not an easy form of music; it just came naturally to me.
The Law and the Lonesome
The initial song idea was Corin Raymond?s. I met Corin in Austin. He’d heard about me and he came out to a showcase to see me. He talked to me after the showcase and said that he wanted to bring me to Ontario. He went home and set up the first gig, selling tickets out of his own pocket. I had a full house that first night.
The next tour I went up with Corin we were driving up to Sudbury and Corin had these lines: ?With the wrath of the law and the lonesome above you and all those who love you behind.?
Where he got that line from was a review of his own record where he had a song called ?Three Thousand Miles.? The reviewer had said that the character in the song was ?running from the wrath of the law and the lonesome,? and Corin just ripped the review out of the paper, said, ?Thank-you very much?this is going to become something.?
Later I changed ?the long way home? to ?the wrong way home? and the song was done.
The great thing about this was that it immediately became the title track to my next album, which I recorded on that tour in Toronto. At the time I had no idea I was going to be making an album.
The songs I came up with all felt like they were about the same character. While working on this song we were very inspired by the landscape as we were driving to Sudbury across the Precambrian Shield.
They were also inspired by the Texas songwriting tradition. That title track highlighted all those songs in my mind and sort of pulled them together.
Chris Bartos produced the record and played most of the instruments on it, and within a matter of a few days we had recorded an album. And of course we gave a copy to the reviewer who had originally inspired the line.
On the Global Small Pond
Everything we’re doing is small-time: small venues?getting the word out though email or word of mouth?and we’re making good money. The major record labels have gone under, radio is now a niche voice, and the venues are closing, but people still want to hear music and we still want to make music, and so there will always be a small-time. Music is coming back to people’s parlours.
On the Cost of Cultural Capital
If Woody Guthrie had had some financial means there would have been no reason for him to travel on trains across the countryside singing folk songs. The larger core issue is that an extremely wealthy, extremely civilized country is often culturally poor. If you go to Switzerland and then go to Bali It’s pretty obvious that when people don’t have a lot of money they get creative.
I do think that my tendency to obsess can be useful. I finish songs in a few hours. If it sucks, it stays in the notebook, but thank God It’s done. I hate going back to an unfinished song. Who can remember an unfinished emotion? It’s like answering the phone and then going back to making love.
?May the River Run Dry? came up in between recording sessions for the record. I told Corin, sitting at Aengus Finnan’s kitchen table, ?I’m recording the rest of this record tomorrow. This song belongs on it. We have to write it now.? Corin takes years to write a song. In some ways, he’s taught me patience, or at least a duller obsession, an obsession that disappears over the horizon for a while and returns when It’s ready for another spin. In some ways, I’ve taught him immediacy, the open-heart-surgery style of songwriting. We have to save this patient now.
I’ve thought for a while about how I could put this default behaviour to good use in other areas and I’ve decided to write a novel. It hasn’t formed a cloud enough to rain yet, but when it does, I bet I’ll be the two-week novelist. I don’t expect the first one to be good, mind you, just done. My point is to utilize my natural rhythm in a project where that kind of extended focus is practically required. I throw songs away, but I finish them first. I don’t see why novels would be any different.