Jonathan’s latest outing features long time collaborator Johnny Waken and singer/songwriter Kyshona Armstrong. The trio will performs live on the Creek Stage at the Rookery Tuesday 12/5.
Jonathan Byrd has been a troubadour his entire life. He learned music as a boy in churches around the world, served his country in the U.S. Navy, and in 2003 his considerable songwriting skills made him a winner at the prestigious Kerrville New Folk Festival. Jonathan’s latest outing features long time collaborator Johnny Waken and singer/songwriter Kyshona Armstrong. The trio will performs live on the Creek Stage at the Rookery Tuesday 12/5.
Jonathan Byrd– North Carolina singer/songwriter… but you have been, literally, all over the world. Your family– you grew up in the church, your father was a minister, you got to Texas… Out of highschool you went into the Navy… How has all of that traveling in your early years made you the songwriter you are today?
Hmm.Well, I guess it gave me a bit more of a global perspective– being a kid and being in Germany, and then coming back to the States when I was about 10-years-old… It was a bit of a culture shock. Just a lot of things that are different– like most of the northern European countries are secular, and churches are kind of museums. My dad was a preacher, and we started Baptist churches in the fellowship hall or in the basement of other church buildings that were there. So, I grew up in this really intense church environment that was in mostly a secular country. We came back to the States, and the church environment was really more of a mainstream thing. So, that was really interesting. I also learned a lot about World War II history. My dad was a big World War II buff and wherever we went, he would visit important sites regarding World War II. So, I had a lot of historical knowledge that other kids didn’t have, and kids were kind of like– they thought the kind of shoes they wore were really important. There were things that really seemed incredibly trivial to me that seemed like they were really important to other kids. Sometimes it was hard for me to fit in that way.
You talk about that world view… I was talking to our mutual friend, Chris Moorman, who said he was introduced to you– I believe this was after you made a record with Neal Fountain in Athens (GA) with the group Dromedary which has a tremendous world influence to it.
Yeah, I met those guys in Asheville (NC). They were playing a show, and I was playing a show at the same time, and I just saw that group of instruments that they had– some of which I didn’t even recognize. I wasn’t able to go to the show, but my wife was with me, and she went to their show while I played mine. She came back and said, “Well, they’re awesome, and we should go down there and meet them.” We traded records, went home and listened to each others music… And I just thought, “How cool is that? How cool would that be to do some shows together? Not only I play a set and they play a set but to integrate our music.” They were playing traditional music from different parts of the world, and I was more or less playing traditional American music or American roots music– so, it didn’t seem like a big stretch of the imagination to put those things together– and it took us a couple years, but we did. And then the record that Neal Fountain played on was the record we made after that one. So, we all grew up playing rock n’ roll, and after we made this record that was mostly an acoustic record with all these different world instruments on it, we made an electric record with Jeff Reilly on the drums– who lived in Athens at the time, now he’s in California– Neal Fountain on the bass, and then Rob and Andrew from Dromedary played electric guitars on it.
What’s the next Dromedary project to come your way? Or is there one in the works?
No– Dromedary hasn’t made a project in years. Andrew lives out in California, for a while and was working out there… And now, actually his family has come back to Athens. So, I don’t know if there are any plans.
Oh, I just thought I’d try to find a scoop there! Well, let’s talk about that American roots music part. You have been described as a folk singer with a rock n’ roll soul, which once upon a time would have been a detriment in the folk music world… But now here you are in this time frame, where we have Americana music– it’s own genre, has it’s own charts… Singer/songwriters–who I think before might’ve bounced around pinball-like from label to label. Do you feel like you fit into that category?
I feel like I fit really well into Americana. I think Americana is a genre that attracts people who… They want to hear something different. They want to hear people who aren’t just sticking to a genre specific to a certain record. And I think I fit in really well with artists like Margo Price or Jason Isbell, people like that who kind of… The focus is on the songwriting, everything is revolving around the songwriting, but there’s a little more energy there. You can have a drummer, and it’s cool– you know? You can make a little noise and it’s ok. I think we all grew up listening to some music like that—so, why not express ourselves that way?
I totally agree with that, absolutely. Now, I want to bring this up, because this is very cool. In 2003, you actually were one of the winners at the Kerrville New Folk Festival. For folks that don’t know about that– past winners: Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith, Robert Earl Keen, Lyle Lovette, Slaid Cleaves, James McMurtry… I’m throwing names out there, but you are in that pantheon of songwriters. When you were there– what was that feeling that you had when they said, “Alright, Mr. Byrd, you are the best of the best today.”
Well, my friend Colin Brooks– who spent some time in the Band of Heathens, he’s a great guitar player, lives in Austin… He was also one of the winners that year. So, every year they have six winners which is cool because they don’t have to pick between apples and oranges. There’s different kinds of songwriters out there, right? So, they have six winners, and his name was announced before mine, and when they announced my name, I actually jumped through the air into his arms! That’s kind of how I felt about it! It was pretty cool. At the time, I was really just learning about the whole Texas lineage of songwriters, and for me the real fountain of honest American songwriting is the hill country of Texas where you’ve got people like Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Nanci Griffith… All these great writers who come out of that one little area of Texas. And if you keep going back– you go back to Buddy Holly and Waylon Jennings… It keeps going. I don’t know what’s in the water there, but they have certainly produced many of the greatest American songwriters– in my opinion. Now, I’m not talking about Nashville songwriting, or sort of New York Tin Pan Alley songwriting, commercial songwriting… I’m talking about artistic poetic people who are pushing the limits of the art form. I think that’s coming out of Texas.
We’ll I think it’s been said before by people smarter than me that if you want to be a songwriter for financial reasons, you go to Nashville and New York– but if you want to be a songwriter and respected for it, you go to Texas. And like you, I think that some of the best American songwriters have come out of Texas and that part of Texas. It’s also a state you can go to and never leave as a performer and a songwriter. It’s so vast, has so many opportunities in clubs… Where did you go in Texas that you sorta just felt at home?
We just got back from playing Fischer Fest in Fischer, TX– which is kind of like Luckenbach. It’s this little community, maybe three people live out there, but they have an outdoor stage– they have a couple different stages out there. People come from all over that area in the hill country to come to either the concerts they put on or the festival they put on in November. That audience is just… They’re there for every word, every note of what I do. It really makes you appreciate being a songwriter and working on your craft when people can just soak it up like that. It’s incredible. So, Fischer TX is great. We were in Austin… Austin, obviously– the live music capitol… There’s like six venues in the Austin airport! It’s incredible, the live music scene there. Dallas-Ft Worth is great! We really love playing this place called Shipping and Receiving in Ft Worth, and Ft Worth Live is a great room. Also, in Houston is the Mucky Duck, a really legendary room… And Houston also has the Old Quarter which used to be– or Galveston has the Old Quarter which used to be in Houston which is where, of course, Townes Van Zandt made that legendary Live at The Old Quarter record.
Yeah, we play a couple of those tracks here at the Creek. We’ll let me ask you this– have you ever been to play in Macon before?
I have never been to Macon, GA.
We’re looking forward to having you. You’ve got friends, you got fans here. We’ve got a brand new stage built. It’s called the Creek Stage at the Rookery. It’s going to be a fantastic listening room where I know you gonna be able to shine with your songs. Before we wrap this up, tell me about the new record you’ve got coming out.
So, we made a new trio record. We’ve got a great trio. Kyshona Armstrong, this really cool songwriter, great singer. I met her when she was working the bar at Hendershot’s in Athens, GA. Now she’s in Nashville makig records and touring around. I saw her again in England, and I was really impressd with her– just drivin’ herself around on the wrong side of the road, bookin’ her own tour… She got up and sang a song with us during the show and I said, “I don’t know if you play the bass, but we’re looking for a team member.” And she didn’t play the bass, but she just went and got bass lessons and joined the band… And she’s awesome!
(Laughing) Doesn’t that make you mad? Just picked it up like that!
It’s incredible, it’s incredible! I’m happy to have her in the band… And then my friend Johnny Waken plays electric guitar, mandolin, harmonica– he plays the musical saw, he plays the washboard during a song– he’s crazy and a really great performer! So, we’re touring with this trio, and we didn’t have a record that sounded like what we do… So, we just made one really quick. In a few days, we recorded eleven of our favorite songs we wanted to play during the show, and we just called the record Trio, and we’re gonna have that on this tour.
That’s the outfit that’s gonna be on the Creek Stage?
That’s right, we’ll all be on the Creek Stage, and I’m bringing my friend Corrin Raymond. He’s a great Canadian songwriter.
That’s gonna be awesome.