For North Carolina songwriter Jonathan Byrd, 2018 found him looking both forward and back.
Last year’s Jonathan Byrd and the Pickup Cowboys was a labor of love to honor his late bandmate, cellist Paul Ford, who passed from brain cancer in 2015 as the album was being recorded. Filled with full-band versions of the gritty troubadour’s signature country/folk ‘n’ soul and packaged with a 64-page booklet that serves as a family photo album with the original trio, Byrd is proud of how it came out.
“It felt like a great way to come back and honor Paul’s contributions to the band he was a part of for seven years,” Byrd says. “We were friends before we worked together, and he and [guitarist Johnny Waken] knew each other long before that, so the uncertainty that came from his diagnosis was one thing, but it was good to be able to have that chance to say goodbye and now we can move on from that.”
One of the biggest ways Byrd has reignited his creativity through a weekly gig at The Kraken, a bar just outside Carrboro down the street where he lives outside. The shows connected him with a new, diverse crowd.
“It has been the best thing I’ve done in my whole career,” Byrd says of the Wednesday night performances. “Playing the folk circuit, you get a fairly narrow demographic of white, college-educated older folks, but at the Kraken it was like playing the town square with black, brown, young people of all kinds.”
The bar is tiny, but Byrd says it fills up every week with fans who know the words to their favorites and wear the T-shirts they bought from his merch table.
“It’s like church at this point with people who sing along,” he says of the weekly three-hour sets of original material.
Such a task would be a tall order for most musicians. But Byrd doesn’t struggle.
“I have almost a dozen albums at this point in my career, and unreleased songs we’ve recorded for the next album,” he says, “so we can do a full night and still not play everything.”
What he will be bringing to his gig at the TOL Coffeehouse in Columbia this week is his current trio, including longtime lead guitarist Johnny Waken and drummer Austin McCall, whom Byrd says adds something special.
“Working with Austin, we can play in a room with 60 people and he’s totally underneath us and not overpowering the room,” He says. “If you really pay attention, half the time he’s not really even playing, he’ll just come in for a verse and add the right accent and energy. He’s been a popular part of the act. Last Halloween, we had a show at The Kraken and two fans came dressed up as Austin.”
The band will tour more this year, Byrd promises, while keeping the weekly hometown gig. A new album is also in the works with the current trio. They have six songs recorded with Ford that he wants McCall to add drums to, and he has some other songs he’s written since.
Byrd is also a published poet, having released his first book of poetry, You’ve Changed, via fellow songwriter and poet Nathan Brown’s Mescalita Press in 2017.
“For seven years, I was working on a novel, and I came up with exercises to take some control away from me as a writer,” he explains, “like telling the story of Cain from the bible and using only words from the scripture and in an online article about a minister to the homeless — and ended up with all of these poems.”
The pieces, like Byrd’s songs, are imbued with his common sense point of view and semi-mystical way of looking at the world. Byrd weaves some poems into his live shows, and he’s currently working on a series of erotic poems that so far have been confined to performance at The Kraken.
“Those only have numbers for titles, and I have people request them by their number now,” Byrd explains. “I don’t think they’re a good fit for the coffeehouse circuit, however.”