Singer-songwriter Jonathan Byrd isn't what you'd call an overwhelming physical presence: Skinny as a rail, he sometimes looks like he might be swallowed up whole by his cowboy hat. But his diminutive stature belies the vocal maturity and songwriting skills that won him grand prize in last year's North Carolina Songwriter's Co-op Song Contest, where he faced nearly 200 other tunesmiths from across the state. Those talents are much in evidence on Wildflowers, a collection of 16 original and traditional songs recorded at Chapel Hill's Rubber Room.
There's no mistaking Byrd's Southern roots in his descriptions of cider mills and cotton gins, of shanties down in Cherokee and pies at the Ashe County Fair, of the dirty doings found in his murder ballads. "Velma," the subject of the CD's strongest cut, poisons her mama and does away with every man she's been with, while the star-crossed lovers in "Her Eyes Were Green" are on their way to a rendezvous in Knoxville when daddy takes fatal aim at his daughter.
But there are plenty of sweet melodies, too, and poetry in Byrd's descriptions of girls, one "prettier than pearls" and another with "her eyes like water and her hair like wheat." In a love song to "Robena," Byrd tells the title character, "Change is God's way of lettin' you know you've got somewhere to go."
And there's some wry humor: Efland-based Byrd strikes the perfect notes of irony and resignation when he sings about the "Tinytown," where "We got lots of nothing to do/You can drive in your tiny car/Have a drink in a tiny bar/And eat another plate of barbecue ... another stinkin' plate of barbecue."
Byrd makes use of some great local talent, including Robbie Link on bass, Bill Hicks and Rex McGhee on fiddle, John Boulding on banjo and dobro, Tim Stanbaugh on tenor banjo and Charles Pettee and Russell Johnson on mandolins. Combined with Byrd's deceptively subtle work on the guitar, Wildflowers recalls a time when a simple, well-crafted folk song and a singer with a heart were worth listening to. They still are.