Jon Byrd plays “what they used to call Country Music.” Born in Birmingham, Alabama, he grew up in the piney woods of south Alabama before becoming pivotal in Atlanta’s storied Redneck Underground music scene. He was always a featured sideman, but his first solo recording (Byrd’s Auto Parts 2007) didn’t happen until after he moved to Music City nearly 20 years ago. Since then he’s recorded 3 other full-length solo records Down at the Well of Wishes (2011), Route 41 (2014), and Dirty Ol’ River (2017).
He was a featured vocalist on the Red Beet Records Grammy-nominated I Love: Tom T. Hall’s Songs of Fox Hollow (alongside Patty Griffin, Buddy Miller, Bobby Bare, and Tom T. himself). His albums have been lauded by Mojo Magazine, Maverick Magazine and R2, and Jewly Hight of NPR’s World Café named Dirty Ol’ River some of the “Best Music of 2017” with Byrd being an “Essential and Emerging Artist.” He’s toured overseas 5 times and played the Country Music Hall of Fame with Lloyd Green and Duane Eddy, yet when asked about some of his career highlights he wittily responds with, “Sold a drum set to John Prine.”
His friend and musical companion, Paul Niehaus is a founding member of the most lauded independent conglomeration of musicians since the 90s (Lambchop) and has played with innumerable artists and toured and recorded with Irish DeMent, Calexico (10 years), the late Justin Townes Earle, Iron and Wine, and so many more.
Byrd and Niehaus started performing around Nashville three years ago. Every Tuesday at Dee’s Country Cocktail Lounge in Madison on the east side, lots of Thursdays at Springwater on the west side, and countless other places in-between. A natural result of all the gigs played is Me and Paul, a 5-song EP of two originals and three cover songs. “Me and Paul is dedicated to and a reflection of the people that came to see me and Paul over the years in little watering holes and honky tonks here in Music City,” Byrd notes. “They are small, but mighty as Billy Block used to say. It’s also dedicated to venues that let us take over their ‘happy hour’ to play the saddest, darkest, most pitiful and tragic songs every penned.” As he quips on one of the promos for a show, “All to make you feel so much better--Even "lucky," by comparison.”
Me and Paul has no band, it’s just Paul Niehaus on pedal steel and Jon Byrd’s noted voice and his gut-string guitar. “I was down in Mexico for what I thought would be a few days when one of my many ex-wives informed me that we’d be there for two weeks. My response-‘Then I have to buy a guitar.’ I purchased a dirt-cheap homemade/handmade guitar in Cuernavaca. 20 years later I was curious to incorporate its sound into my country music performances alá Willie Nelson. I took it to Delgado Guitars where Manuel Delgado, a 3rd generation Latino luthier declared the guitar special. I’ve been playing it ever since, intrigued by the tonal qualities when juxtaposed with pedal steel.”
The record leads off with the song, “I’ll Be Her Only One,” a co-write with friend and fellow musician, Kevin Gordon. “The writing process put me in mind of Kevin’s long-time music collaborator Joe McMahan,” Byrd observed. “While known mostly as a guitarist/sideman, Joe’s had a studio for years and produced great work with Kevin and many others. He and Kevin are more on the rockin’ side of things, but I was very keen to know what Joe would bring to a project like this—so stripped down and so country.”
“Jr. and Lloyd” was written by Byrd’s long-time best pal, James Kelly in Atlanta, GA. “My coming of age was playing and recording country music with James and his band, Slim Chance and the Convicts. This song speaks to a friendship that you’re lucky to find once in a whole lifetime.”
“Cash on the Barrelhead” is a cover of the Louvin Brothers song, which Byrd shortened so that the melody and words were even more prominent. “This is my fifth record and I’ve never recorded a Louvin Brothers song! The production and Paul’s playing on this one make it sound like an antique.”
“Why Must You Think of Leaving” is a co-write with Shannon Wright. “This one took years to complete. It was started in Scotland on my first tour there. I was thinking, if I lived here in these hills I’d never tour, ‘cause I’d never leave. I had the melody and guitar riff, but dear friend, Shannon helped turn it into a song with verses and choruses and a beginning, middle, and end. She’s a pro like that.”
Byrd ends the record with J.J. Cale’s “Don’t Go to Strangers.” “A cover should result in an interpretation of a melody that’s not heard often enough. And especially on a bluesy song such as this one, that’s not exactly country. I was going for a similar thing with traditionally constructed mountain ballads like ‘Jr. and Lloyd’ and ‘Cash on the Barrelhead’ and taking them into a different emotional direction with the application of pedal steel.”
While playing out and about in Nashville, Niehaus and Byrd get requests for songs they’ve played many times. “Requests for hardcore honky tonk and obscure singer-songwriter numbers that no one hears on the radio anymore,” he explains. “ Then as soon as we run down 4 or 5, inevitably someone will shout out, ‘Play a Jon Byrd song!’ And then we slide over into originals, old and new. Then after awhile, a friend will yell, ‘You know which one not to play!’ and we know it’s time for a sad and pitiful country ballad or an old Dylan tune soaking in pedal steel. More than once, at the end of a show, I’ve had someone approach me and say , ‘I don’t usually like country music, but I like what you do.’ It’s one of the best compliments I can ever receive.”
Me and Paul has the loose feel of Byrd and Niehaus playing songs, capturing Byrd’s vocal, his gut-string finger picking and Niehaus’ beautiful pedal steel tonality, a stripped down emotional snapshot.