On You Can't Outrun the Radio, Carrboro songwriter Jonathan Byrd obsesses over the ways we crisscross this country. "A Big Truck Brought It" relates with a wry smile the role that massive rigs play in delivering our goods, whether we acknowledge it or not. "Starlight" sends romance by rail across the land, as star-crossed lovers share fleeting rendezvous in sleeping cars. The title track documents a rambler's plainspoken, charming revelation: "However fast you go/You can't outrun the radio."
It's a fitting narrative frame for Byrd's new collection, which takes a wide survey of the various traditions lumped into the catchall of folk. Like Howe Gelb or Will Oldham, Byrd is a splendid shape-shifter, maintaining a distinct personality even as he flits between rockabilly and gospel, outlaw declarations and spectral ballads. Byrd bends various Americana elements through a profoundly Southern worldview, befitting his deep, humid drawl. And though many who attempt such roots-rock alchemy opt for the inscrutable, Byrd leans on the knowing humor and gritty emotions of classic country.
With its jittery bass and spastic riff, the manic feel of ".38 Baby" must be custom-made for Byrd's ballistic metaphor. "One through the heart/And one through the head," he howls, muddying the space between break-up tune and murder ballad. With a clickety-clack, "Starlight" uses ethereal pedal steel to help conjure old times and old loves. "Working Offshore" might be the best of this bunch, with mean blues licks underscoring a tale of a destitute oil-rig worker: "No telling how many men have fallen," Byrd sings with an audible grin that barely covers his broken heart. "And now it's $2.50—what? Three bucks a gallon?"
Byrd pushes these old sounds into modern waters. And despite a wistful affection for the traditions he explores, his sentimentality never causes him to soften his approach to subjects desperate or delightful. You can't outrun such feelings, anyway.