Since self-releasing Wildflowers in 2001, Jonathan Byrd has earned a reputation as a top-shelf songwriter as well as a distinguished flatpicker. Winning competitions, earning prestigious awards, and having your songs covered by big names like Tim O'Brien will do that. Often lumped in with Americana and "new folk," the Carrboro resident has masterfully explored old-time, bluegrass, feverish rock 'n' roll, and even devoted an entire record, 2011's Cackalack, to the musical traditions of his home state. We caught up with him about his songs and his lifelong dedication to North Carolina.
I think tragedy is beautiful. I really love tragedy. All my favorite books are tragedies, most of my favorite songs are tragic. There's a cathartic experience. I think Aristotle covered this like two thousand years ago in his Poetics, which I go back to all the time. A real tragedy, it takes a hero, it takes a pretty powerful person, and you bring them down with their own flaws. Jay Gatsby had everything. He was a billionaire, he had the mansion, the parties, but really he had nothing. It was made with moonshining money, and he didn't really have any friends. Nobody came to his funeral when he died. But he was such an amazing person because he made billions off his own steam. He was the definition of a self-made man, but he died alone in his swimming pool.
Tragedies are terrifying, and they make us feel that sense of terror, of all those things slipping away, but there's a reason for that happening. There's this internal flaw and this moral lesson for us to connect to people in real ways and to evaluate our own personalities and our own actions in a way so we don't end up like those tragic figures.
Let me tell you a little story. I think it was JFK airport, and I'm walking up to the counter and there's Leonard Podolak (renowned clawhammer banjo player with The Duhks) sitting there on his laptop, waiting for a flight. Turns out our flights are both delayed, then they're delayed some more. Leonard is super confident, and much more aggressive than I am. He just walks in front of about a hundred people and just says, "Are we flying or not?" So they tell us, "We're cancelling the flight and we'll put you in a hotel." At that point, at nine o'clock at night, I said, "You know what, Leonard, you're gonna think I'm crazy but if we go downstairs right now and rent a car and drive it home, we can be at my house in the morning." And he was crazy enough to do it with me.
There were lightning bolts and flooding, and Leonard does not really stop talking. He was saying how he never gets royalties because he's not a songwriter, and all the things he's saying to me are congealing like cold bacon grease in my head. We got home in the wee hours, and by the time I woke up in the morning I grabbed the guitar and I say, "Hey Leonard, I got a couple verses and a chorus here." And we both finished it up right there. We both recorded it, and he tells that story and they play that song ("Cackalack!") at every Duhks show.
I like technique in general. I'm a yogi. I've been practicing for maybe three years now, and I'm really into it. It's the first regular form of exercise that I've become obsessed with. It's a tradition that's called Anusara. It's no longer an active tradition, but it's alignment-based. Technique is extremely important to me, and it's important to me as a guitar player too. I'm just like Doc Watson. I get out the metronome, and I slow the tune down, and I pick every note, and make sure every left finger is right behind the fret, and my pick is moving in the proper direction. I never practice up to speed. I always slow myself down. The only time I play songs up to speed is at a gig.
August 15, 2006. That's the day that I quit drinking. I haven't had a drink since then. I wasn't very good at drinking. Some people can have a beer and enjoy themselves, and I can't do that. I knew if I was going to do anything with my life, I was gonna have to get that out of my life. So that's what I did.
My father had a problem with drinking—he quit at about the same point in his life. My older brother, same thing, so I was pretty confident I could stop drinking and never drink again. I went to AA meetings for probably two months solid, and then at some point I never went back. And I never had a drink either. It worked for me.
I have battles with that term. It doesn't have a meaning for me, or I don't understand the meaning of it. To me, Johnny Cash was a folksinger. Jimmie Rodgers was a folksinger. To me, Public Enemy are folksingers. To me it's about who are you reaching, how are you reaching them, what is your connection, and to my way of thinking, Public Enemy has that kind of connection with their audience.
They've got social messages, they've got political messages, they bring people together, people sing along with them—everything that Pete Seeger did, Public Enemy does as well. That's what it's about, and not what the scene is now, which is where, like, a songwriter who plays by herself is a folk musician because she plays the guitar and sings by herself. It doesn't really make it a genre.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Free Byrd"