Jon Byrd is a singer-songwriter who is a native to Alabama and currently resides in Nashville, TN. A well-known guitarist, for the past few years he has been working solo and has just released his second album, Down at the Well of Wishes. Byrd co-produced the record with well-known roots music producer R.S. Fields (Billy Joe Shaver, Sonny Landreth, Justin Townes Earl) and this project solidifies Byrd's position as a strong contender on the Americana music scene. The inspiring rhythmic guitar, contemplative and clever songwriting blending with Byrd's warm, yet gritty voice led the Telegraph UK to declare "This Byrd is more than a sideman. He can fly." Jon Byrd stopped through Los Angeles to play a few shows and was gracious enough to take the time to answer a few questions for us.
I was happy to hear that you’ll be playing in Los Angeles. Do you have any previous ties to this city?
None. Except I was there for a week for AFI (American Film Institute) because of an Elvis documentary I worked on. That, and I like actresses.
I know that you were friends with (late LA/Nashville) guitarist, Duane Jarvis, who is one of LA’s roots music heroes. Did you ever collaborate together?
No, but his inimitable positivity and genuineness helped me decide to move to Nashville. Over ten years ago, after a gig we shared in Atlanta, we had a long conversation about the incredible writing, playing and singing that is found in Nashville-- that has nothing to do with the radio. That's probably when I first heard about EAST Nashville. Have you heard Amelia White's Beautiful and Wild about Duane? Wonderful.
You are well known in Nashville as a guitarist, but on your new record, Down at the Well of Wishes Milan Miller is playing electric guitar with you on acoustic. Did you feel a conscious need to hold back on the guitar and let the lyrics shine through?
Not really. Milan is simply a much better guitarist. And I wanted to concentrate on producing/arranging and yes, vocal performance. Besides, that's me laying down the gut-string solo on I Once Knew a Woman and the B-bender on A Fond Farewell!
Nashville is known as a songwriting town—is writing lyrics a solo venture for you or do you like writing with partners?
It depends on which Nashville you're talking about. Music Row Nashville is a songwriter-committee part of town. I can count on one hand the folks I've ever written with. So it's much more personal than sex? It's more like painting for me. Not collaborative at all. That said, I had an unfinished song for over ten years and without my pal Davis Raines, the single best songwriter in Nashville, it would still be incomplete.
Is there ever a feeling of pressure to conform song-wise to write for the mainstream commercial so that you reach a wider audience, or do you consider yourself a musician for art’s sake?
Pressure? Not at all. None. It's not a play with re-writes after the audience yawns or walks out. And I was raised too working class to ever be very comfortable with considering myself an artist.
What can you tell us about the song “Chest of Skin & Bone”? The lyrics are so picturesque. “In a chest of skin and bone is where I keep her stepping stone”. Do lyrics come easy for you?
They did on this one: my best bud Butch Primm slipped me the words and I put a melody and arrangement to it. I played him what I came up with and we agreed that the words and music fit like a glove. There ya go: co-write. No office, no coffee, no rhyming dictionary. The only other co-write on the record is also with Butch. He just handed me the words to Down at the Well of Wishes one day. I made it sound like it was from my home state. Or maybe the panhandle of Florida.
I read a quote from you about the state in this digital age of the music business, “You have to make the popcorn and you have to sell the popcorn.” Do you find this age of DIY music empowering for musicians?
I don't know about too many other musicians. For me? No. Not at all. But then nobody was ever gonna tell me what to do anyway. I think DIY actually crowds the landscape with mediocrity. Personally, I never wanted to be P.T. Barnum. I'm not a good business person. Okay, I'm a terrible businessperson. I don't want to sell the popcorn, make change or take credit cards. I don't want to sell stickers and coffee cups. I don't want to book flights and rent cars and talk to cd manufacturers. I don't really want to talk about my personal shit with music loving strangers for the hour before the 'house concert.' I've never had a recording contract; a manager; a booking agent; a publisher. Never. Pretty easy to see why when I lay it out there. I just want to write and play. Every thing else is a distraction.
Are you a fan of ‘hitting the road’ and playing live? What’s a Jon Byrd show look like?
Playing live is what I live and work and write to do. Especially with a band. The last gig I had was at the legendary Station Inn in Nashville and as I introduced the band, I realized I'd known all of them for 10 years, from the first week I moved to Nashville. Some of them-- Adam and Shannon Wright-- years longer, from my Atlanta days.
Lastly...what are you listening to these days?
I'm am always and forever listening to real country music: Merle, George and Tammy. I still adore and revere Gram Parsons. Modern? Band of Horses; Delta Spirit; Dan Auerbach. But I'm not kidding when I say none of them are better than my friends: The Wrights, Davis Raines, Mark Huff, Amelia White, Kevin Gordon, Mando Saenz, Otis Gibbs, Amy Lashley, Walt Wilkins, Eric Brace & Peter Cooper... and those are just the ones that'll buy me a drink!
This article was originally written/published for Southland Serenade blogspot.
(photo credit: Deone Jahnke)