Every Wednesday night, Jonathan Byrd has a residency at a little roadhouse called the Kraken, just down the road from his house in North Carolina. “I passed it all the time, but I had never wondered whether they had music, so I talked to the owner one day about the idea of a weekly residency, and we joked about it lasting for the next 20 years.” Byrd is a poet of the people — like his poetic heroes, Robert Frost and Billy Collins — and those Wednesday nights (a good bit shy of 20 years — so far) have given him a chance to connect with a diverse audience. “I like songs that have an audience,” he says, “and the audience is everyone.”
Byrd is a cracking good storyteller and the songs on his new album, Jonathan Byrd & The Pickup Cowboys, are crystalline miniatures of the ragged ways we live our lives, the quiet desperation that shapes us or the unexpected love into which we stumble or the missed opportunities that fill us with regret or longing or unexpected joy. The title track of the album hauntingly evokes, for example, not only the loneliness of the road but also the wistful resignation (“driving to Sioux Falls with two bald tires”) and hopeful expectation (“fishing for breakfast in the muddy Missouri”) with which the cowboy lives his life. The mournful ache of a musical saw flows under Byrd’s vocals, evoking the whine of the tires on the road and the reflective freedom of life: “Good dogs get better ‘till they die / ’til they die.”
“Tractor Pull” dances across the floor, with a nod to “Ain’t Living Long Like This” in the musical structure, in good old rockabilly fashion. It’s the story of two people who meet at a tractor pull, and Byrd’s tongue-in-cheek lyrics illustrate his way with a story. In the penultimate verse, the singer’s words describe the tractor and his new love: “It aint’ how fast. It’s how far. We got a love that’s built to last / Can’t nobody compete with her. She’s the only model in her class.” And the chorus reinforces this metaphor: “I met my baby at a tractor pull / She dropped the hammer on my heart and soul / I met my baby at a tractor pull.” Byrd provides just enough ambiguity in his lyrics to allow us to wonder whether the singer’s “new baby” is a John Deere or a woman.
“The challenge as a writer for me,” says Byrd, “is to bring bigger ideas into bite-size packages. When Aretha sings ‘Respect,’ for example, everybody can vibe with that, but it has a powerful message. Sometimes in my songs I paint a scene of a certain reality and let the listener think about what it means. ‘When the Well Runs Dry’ is one of those songs; it’s a story that depicts a certain reality and you can see it happening as you hear it.” The song tells the simple story of an oil town’s boom and bust and paints a picture of the town in the good times (“The whole town’s made of trailers and the trains run two miles long”) and the bad times (“there ain’t no need to wonder what’ll happen when the well runs dry”).
The spare and haunting guitar and harmonica on “It Don’t Make Sense” mimic the singer’s desolation and his attempts to come to terms with loss of love and loss of life. Even little mundane activities can’t console him: “I tried to tidy up the house today / but I couldn’t find a place for all those dreams we had / Now you’ve gone and taken all your stuff / you’d think there’d be room enough.” The urgent “Lakota Sioux,” written by Byrd’s friend Matt Fockler and propelled by Johnny Waken’s screaming electric guitar on the bridge, mourns the fate of the Sioux tribe, whose land and lives the government yanked away from them: “The blood began to flow and they went down.” The album closes with the beautifully ethereal dreamscape of “Do You Dream?”, whose lyrics float along the strains of Waken’s musical saw and Byrd’s guitar.
Byrd doesn’t revel in conceptual or abstract songs: “The thing is I write a lot, and I write a lot of garbage that doesn’t make it anywhere. I don’t mind being abstract and surreal sometimes but I don’t want to stay there. I like stories that I can play in a waiting room of a doctor’s office; I like songs that connect with people.” The songs on Jonathan Byrd & The Pickup Cowboys connect with us in ways that we can’t avoid and resonate in our hearts and touch us deeply.