It has been too long since his last outing, but the impatience with that wait has instantly dissipated with what has just come. Released on November 16, 2018 (on Waterbug Records) Jonathan Byrd & The Pickup Cowboys comes from a deep well of emotion which is conveyed with clarity and purpose to the listener.
Originally from Fayetteville, North Carolina, Jonathan Byrd has already left some impressive musical footprints – eight albums in a run from 2001 to 2014 (all solo, bar a collaboration with Chris Kokesh under the moniker The Barn Birds).
Byrd is renowned for his heavy touring schedule and, to gain a well-earned break, returned home to Rubber Room Studios in Chapel Hill NC, a recording studio he helped build by hand and one in which great things have happened over the past twenty years. Byrd brought with him his closest musical friends, the Pickup Cowboys – guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Johnny Waken and cellist Paul Ford – to make the album. On the very last day of recording with the studio’s Jerry Brown, Ford stayed home, complaining of feeling like he had the flu. He called at the end of the day with the news that the doctor had discovered a terminal brain tumor. Ford never went back to the recording studio and passed away the next year. The Pickup Cowboys played for seven years and this is their only recording. After that last day in the studio, The Cowboys never played again.
The shock of losing such a close friend put the Pickup Cowboys recordings on hold for a year, but ultimately Byrd felt that the songs and recordings deserved to be heard. He and Waken took the songs to Winnipeg to complete the album with Joanna Miller on drums, and Alexa Dirks and Andrina Turenne on backing vocals.
Byrd is fervent about word craft and improving the lot of the songwriting community, particularly those that are little heard and outside the mainstream. “There’s this underground musical community that travels around the country,” Byrd says. “We see each other at festivals and conferences. It’s a rich, authentic life of music that I wish more people could discover, because I think they’re actually looking for it. This is a golden age of songwriting. Community songwriting. It’s person-to-person music. Songs get picked up and passed around and end up around the campfires. We wanted to bring some of that to the record. That kind of authenticity, and the real people and real stories in the songs.”
On his new album, Byrd opens up this treasure chest to his audience for us all to hear. There’s the crisp, lilting “Pickup Cowboy”, a hard-worn song Byrd wrote for a South Dakota construction worker, his friend and fellow songwriter Matt Fockler. In fact, there are two of Fockler’s songs featured in this collection – the wistful lullaby of “Do You Dream” and, a high point of the record, the stunning, pressing crescendo of “Lakota Sioux”. Other notables are the droll humour of petrol-fumed and muddy love in “Tractor Pull”, the bittersweet love lost of “It Don’t Make Sense” and the homage to those in the boom-and-bust business of “When the Well Runs Dry” which he co-wrote with his friend Charles Humphrey III (a founding member of Steep Canyon Rangers). Then there’s “Taking It Back” – says Byrd “I stopped at a gas station in Ontario one day and walked by a 30-gallon trash can that seemed to be filled entirely with lottery tickets. I dug down a ways and still saw only spent lottery tickets. I kept digging and found only more! When I got to the bottom, I found this song.” “We Used to Be Birds” sparkles and “Fish Out of Water” dominates with its thumping drumming and distorted cello.
Somehow, what I have neglected to mention thus far is just about the key to this record. Jonathan Byrd’s voice is as beckoning as you can get, a timbre so warm and articulation so precise that sets a standard so high for others to follow. Jonathan Byrd & The Pickup Cowboys is one of my glorious favourites for the year.
(The album is dedicated to the memory of Paul Justin Ford 1966 – 2016).
Here’s a sound clip of “We Used to Be Birds”: