VOL. 41 | NO. 33 | Friday, August 18, 2017
Songwriter’s education: Byrd learns from the best
“I could not stop playing music,” Jon Byrd says of his move to Nashville. “I had this voice in my head that said, ‘you know you’re a grown man. This (music) is not working. You’ve got responsibilities. You need a job.’” -- Submitted Photograph Courtesy Of Michael Pittman
Even beneath his Acme Feed & Seed ball cap, Jon Byrd looks as much like a professor as any other white-haired, balding man in spectacles as he sips coffee and checks his smart phone while enjoying a warm afternoon in the al fresco dining area of a Vanderbilt-area caffeine and pastry dispensary.
And it’s really not an illusion, since Jon interrupted a comfy, respectable future in academia by casting aside his unfinished dissertation about Elvis worshipers and joining the horde of dreamers drawn to Nashville, like so many guitar-picking lemmings, pursuing the promise of our honky-tonk “Hollywood.”
Now 61 – “I’m of 1955 vintage,” he tells this 1951-vintage columnist – this studious fellow pulls off his specs and describes how, in his case at least, the dream was birthed when he was part of a schoolboy drum-line in Frisco City, Alabama, where his dad owned Byrd’s Auto Parts (now the name of John’s backing band) and his mother tried to instill in him the qualities of a Southern gentleman.
“It was a classic small town, where you know everyone,” he says of the little city in Monroe County, where his grandfather’s attorney was the father of local eccentric and sometimes beatnik, Harper Lee, who drew from her own experiences to write the great American novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“My mom told this funny story that whenever Harper Lee came to Monroeville (the county seat), she was wearing jeans and a black turtle-neck T-shirt. All the ladies in the town were aghast.
“I never met her,” says Jon, as he relaxes at the table out front of Provence in Hillsboro Village, a hotspot for university students from both Vanderbilt and Belmont. Proximity also makes it a hangout for Music Row folks – like the earring-wearing, cowboy-hatted gent who stares through his Lennon-framed glasses and interrupts our conversation to ask if I was the guy he worked with in a documentary about Nashville in the ’70s. (I didn’t … but replied I’d gladly work on a sequel.)
Jon just nods basic encouragement to the cowboy during what is a classic Nashville moment, a brush with near-fame. It’s the stuff of the life he decided to lead when he put down the books at Emory University, quit his adjunct professor jobs at a slew of Atlanta schools and jousted, full-tilt, at the figurative windmill, attacking the in-most-cases impossible dream of pilgrims who come to town with guitars, a coupla bucks and a change of underwear as they seek show-biz success.
He didn’t plan on becoming a star, his dreams less grandiose. “I knew it would be hard, but I came here because I wanted to see if I could make it as a musician.”
Jon hesitates a moment. “I got here September 4, 2001, just a week before the Twin Towers fell,” he says. It’s sad but true that most of us can track points in our lives by explaining the calendar proximity to Crazy Osama’s horrific attack on our country.
“I just came here to get around writers,” adds the singer-songwriter whose own mantra is “never finish a shitty song.”
This gentle and philosophic soul didn’t want to be the next Garth, A.J. or Strait. He wanted to be himself, an eccentric former college instructor packing a guitar and dreams of subsistence sparked by those real estate buzzwords: “Location, location, location.”
“I wanted to be in the same town as John Prine,” he says. “I wanted to move to the same town as Bobby Bare.”
Jon simply wanted to be in a town where people wrote songs that told stories, something he has mastered on his own recordings, including the new album, “Dirty Ol’ River.”
Since his arrival, of course, he has come into contact with many of those story-tellers, guys like Kevin Gordon, Davis Raines, Dave Olney and has even shared the stage with Bare, the definition of “cool” in Nashville music circles.
Jon admits his dreams weren’t all artistic. Fact is, the long, bare legs of high school drum majorettes played a big role in launching his life’s musical (and otherwise) passions.
“Our football team was called ‘The Frisco City Whippets,’” he recalls, backing into the tale of how those lovely legs launched his musical odyssey.
He laughs. “I guess it was because we were all skinny, but we were really fast… We weren’t menacing but we sure could run. …
“When you got in the fourth grade, you played the flutophone,” he says. “If you were any good, in the fifth-grade they drafted you into the high school marching band.”
He ended up in the Whippets’ enthusiastic drum-line.
“We were good, and we didn’t play regular band music. We played stuff like Booker T. and the MGs,” he remembers, quickly adding that he blames the band director for initiating the amorous part of the course his life has taken.
“Even in the late 1960s, the cheerleaders wore long, wool skirts. But the majorettes wore bathing suits.
“Mr. Mosely (band director) had the majorettes hold our cymbals and dance when me and my buddies were on the drum-line.
“So here we were with these majorettes in bathing suits dancing with our cymbals, while we were playing ‘Green Onions.’
“And the girls liked us. I thought then ‘Man, I got to figure out how to do this the rest of my life.’
“I got to give it a lot of blame for me not having a solid life as a good citizen.”
It was not until just before the Twin Towers fell that he felt he was at a point in life where he could comfortably move music from side-interest to full-time passion.
But before that, he did follow the other passion fired up by those majorettes with high-kicking legs.
“I been married many times, man,” he says. His first marriage – “that was my hippie marriage” – occurred at 18.
“When I told my mother, I was getting married, she said ‘I thought you were crazy when you said you’d dropped acid.’”
So, sane or crazy, the former high school drummer, the pride of the Whippets, married his first wife, a union that sprung his only child, Sara, who now is 40 and is a well-educated barista who sometimes sings with her pop.
“This is the second anniversary of her moving here to be with me,” he adds, his smile glittering more than it has during the previous hours’ discussion.
“She’s great (as a singer), but she’s looking for a corporate gig. Her background is in nutrition, but she’s bartending and making good money at one of these fake taco places.
“She’s trying to keep me young. I told her a grandkid might keep me young, too. But she’s never been married.
“I’m proud of that. She’s a smart girl. Or maybe she’s not had a very good role model in me,” he says, pointing at his heart.
Probably a good spot to note that, though divorced three times, he’s not given up on romance. Irina Gukasova, a refugee from Azerbaijan, has been with him for a decade.
“This is my girl,” he’ll say proudly if he ever introduces you to her between sets at some dank saloon or glittery showroom.
By his junior high years, Jon’s family had moved to Tuscaloosa, home of crimson-clad elephants, and he went to the local “college” to get his bachelor’s degree. Knowing his love for headwear, I wouldn’t be surprised if he adopted a hound’s-tooth hat during his University of Alabama years when he formalized his love of football, Jesus, Buddha and Martin Luther King while majoring in both American studies and religious studies.
He comments that while he is a peaceful sort, patterning his philosophies after those three superheroes above, if someone says derogatory words about those iconic pacifists, he’s liable to demand that person meet him in the parking lot, back behind the bar where he’s playing.
Jon Byrd performs at Plottfest. To learn more about Byrd, including upcoming gigs and his discography, visit www.jonbyrd.com. -- Submitted
“There are some things I’ll get my ass whipped for,” says the former Alabamian whose family “never used the ‘N’ word,” probably something of an anomaly in Frisco City and also in 1960s Tuscaloosa.
“The universe is moral and it bends toward justice,” he adds, paraphrasing a quote often used by King that defines his own philosophy.
He carted his philosophy and his sense of irony with him when he went to live in Atlanta after a short post-college stint in Chicago where he worked at a record store and, with Crimson pride, lamented that – in Carl Sandburg’s “Hog Butcher for the World” – they regarded the pigskin follies of Northwestern University to be called “football.”
While watching a game in a bar, the Alabama graduate decided “damn, I can’t believe it, but I miss football.”
Time to move back South, not to Frisco City or Tuscaloosa, but to the more-cosmopolitan Atlanta, where he worked toward his master’s and his doctorate in American studies at Emory and was employed as an adjunct professor at other schools for the next 20 years.
“Because I have a working-class background, I gave up music and went to grad school.”
Even so, music played a role in his studies. “I was writing about the 20th century, modern pilgrimage. It was about Graceland and Elvis fans.”
Academic intentions were overpowered by desire. “I could not stop playing music. I had this voice in my head that said, ‘you know you’re a grown man. This (music) is not working. You’ve got responsibilities. You need a job.’”
But the temptations to play a guitar were too great to ignore. “I went to Atlanta when R.E.M. was breaking, MTV was breaking. Atlanta was a great music scene.”
The workaday life of a grad student and adjunct was enjoyable, but wanted more.
“When I got to grad school, reading 1,500 pages beneath a tree at Emory, it just wasn’t working.”
So, he picked up his guitar during his free time. “I would play guitar with people, but Atlanta was not a good place to play country music…. I was playing this shoe-staring, jangly Southern Rock like R.E.M. or Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.”
That was what audiences wanted. Jon couldn’t make peace with it, “but I could sing Hank Williams,” he offers.
He met similarly bent souls and signed on as a guitar player with Slim Chance and The Convicts, a hard-core honky-tonk outfit.
“We were playing these dives, but I still was trying to get my Ph.D. in American studies,” he says of his double life.
“We used to have CNN people come to see us, because it was strange to see such a country band in Atlanta. Lotta frat boys, well frat men, also came to see us. They thought we were the funniest things.
“We were wearing cowboy hats, cowboy shirts and bolos.”
Many members of their audience thought these guys in cowboy gear were living out a joke, making fun of the music being made up in Nashville. “Pretty damned funny” was how their performance was judged.
“We thought, well, ‘We are serious. We’re not being ironic. We’re not being post-modern.’” They were serious purveyors of a form of American folk music, as sung by hillbillies.
After leaving Slim and The Convicts, Jon decided to end his life in academia and take his best shot in Nashville.
“I did not have a clear and good idea. I came here as a sideman. I moved here when I was 46, way, way outside the time for being taken seriously by corporate or the industry …. I had no history here.
“I did not find a home or any success of any sort on Music Row.”
He was not going to be content as another journeyman worker whose country music dreams were smashed by corporate powerbrokers.
So, he began frequenting the shows of the wordsmiths he admired, storytellers like Kevin Gordon and Tim Carroll, kingpins of the so-called “Americana” school of music.
But Jon was not ready to yield his own Luke the Drifter dreams. “I did not go to see Tim Carroll at the 5 Spot to be like Tim Carroll, I just want to do as well as he does with what I do.”
Seems there was a bit of room for a cowboy among those working-class poets, and eventually many of those Americana folks began to think of Jon as “the best country singer in Nashville” and they’d come to his shows, too.
Riches and big arenas are not in the future for Jon and he knows it. Instead you’ll catch him most nights at a club in Nashville either performing or listening and learning from Gordon and his ilk. Perhaps something might even inspire him to write down a lyric or two, “if it’s not shitty.”
He says friends from his past lives often “ask me what Nashville’s like.”
“I tell them: ‘If you want to get better at tennis or chess, you get better by having your ass handed to you....’
“If you can tolerate a 23-year-old, or even a 74-year-old, playing circles around you…. That’s the kind of town we’re in, if your ego can handle it.”
He shrugs. “I just thought that if I’m going to play guitar the rest of my life before I die in the gutter, maybe I can come to Nashville to write songs.”