Chasing your dreams can be a long, arduous, and often frustrating journey, which usually ends in regret and disillusionment. But perseverance, and commitment, and dedication can often fuel that desire into fruition. Last month, as I sat in Nashville’s hallowed Station Inn, surrounded by a few old acquaintances and a room full of strangers, I watched my dear friend Jon Byrd take the stage to a rousing reception as he celebrated the release of his second solo album DOWN AT THE WELL OF WISHES. It was a project two years in the making, and the payoff was evident in the maturity of the songs, the catch of the hooks, and the look of sheer pleasure on the faces of all in attendance. But truthfully, this dream was hatched many years ago, and I got to see it take shape. From his early days playing guitar in local Southern “alternative” bands like the Primitons and the Windbreakers, Jon searched far and wide for his musical footprint, and he ultimately found it in country music.
In the late ‘80s, I lived right behind Jon and his girlfriend (at the time) in Little Five Points, and there is no doubt the sounds of Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard blasting from my stereo made their way up to their windows. Compound that with the rowdy, scattered and musically schizophrenic practice sessions of my own band, Slim Chance & the Convicts, it was inevitable that curiosity took over, and we became friends and collaborators. Jon eventually joined the Convicts full time, and through our shared fascination and mutual exploration of the roots of country music he developed a unique and crafty lead guitar style, steeped in traditional twang, but with a twist here and there.
Jon always listened to the nuances, and picked up a few tricks while creating his own. And the man can sing. His run with the Convicts resulted in three well-received albums, more incredible shows than we can remember, and a stellar reputation. Stints with other Atlanta acts like Greta Lee and The Ratchet Set proved that Jon was a consummate picker, and his newfound love of real country music was his foundation for all these years. But in Atlanta, it’s really easy to be a big fish in the little pond of the Redneck Underground, and Jon had other plans. He relocated to Nashville, where all of a sudden he found himself on the fringes of a very polarized world, quite different from what he was used to in Atlanta.
The musical pilgrimage to Nashville is a well-worn tale; some make it, most don’t. Those shooting for “the big time” often go home empty-handed, but those who hold their ground often find their niche. Jon struggled for several years in the talent overloaded town, playing pick-up gigs when he could get them, sitting in when he had the chance, and ingratiating himself into the very tight and somewhat insular social scene on “other side of Nashville.” Making friends and connections, he worked hard, and in the 10 years he has been in Music City, he gradually nurtured and shaped a deeply respected place within the alt. country music scene, mostly centered in East Nashville.
Jon released his first solo album BYRD’S AUTO PARTS in 2007, and immediately people who were not already familiar with his work took notice. Joined by a crew of musicians pretty much in the same place he was professionally, the record was done on a shoestring budget, and with a lot of help from his friends. It was good enough and respected enough to motivate a second release, which again became a pure labor of love. Juggling a full-time job, frequent gigs and basic survival, Jon somehow pulled his support group together one more time, and with a fancier studio, the production expertise of the popular R.S. Field (Billy Joe Shaver, Webb Wilder, Allison Moorer, etc.), and a lot of favors from his talented friends, DOWN AT THE WELL OF WISHES has finally arrived.
Is this country music? Well, yes and no. It’s not what radio programmers call “country music” today, but it is the kind of country music you hear when you listen to a Dan Penn record, or a Willie Nelson album. It is music from the heart and soul, full of songs about real things that matter to everyone. The dark imagery of the opener, “In A Chest Of Skin And Bone,” co-written with Jon’s Nashville drinking buddy Butch Primm (an amazing songwriter as well), sets the tone for a journey through emotional valleys and caverns. The poignant and beautiful melody and harmonies on “When It Starts To Rain” enhance the rich metaphorical lyrics, and drive the message of solitary pain over missed opportunities straight into the listener’s mind. Each of the nine tracks is a defining moment, whether a reflection on Jon’s roots in “Alabama Asphalt,” or a sweet eulogy for for a favorite watering hole in “A Fond Farewell”.
Recorded at Ocean Way Studio, Jon’s friends are all over the place. Former Los Straitjackets drummer Jimmy Lester handles most of the percussion, the keyboards are courtesy of Georgia native Adam Wright, whose lovely and incredibly talented wife Shannon Wright also adds harmony vocals. The pedal steel is shared by Newnan boy Alex McCollough (who also mastered the record) and the incredible Pat Severs, who works with Bill Anderson and the Everly Brothers. Ed Atkins of the Derailers adds some bass, along with Duane Blevins. And when Jon isn’t playing lead guitar, that is handled well by Milan Miller.
So who will hear this great record? With no big publicity machine behind it, that relies on word of mouth, website reviews and indie radio DJs to create a groundswell. Jon just returned from a successful solo European tour, and is a participant on a Grammy®-nominated album, I LOVE…TOM T. HALL’S SONGS OF FOX HOLLOW . Those are sure to increase his exposure. But regardless of the challenge of commercial success, Jon has accomplished many of the goals he set out to achieve when he left Atlanta, and we are all very proud of his amazing work. Sometimes wishes come true, and Jon Byrd deserves it.