Jon Byrd,
Down at the Well of Wishes
(Longleaf Pine, 2011)

Jon Byrd is not to be confused with Jonathan Byrd, another folk- and country-influenced singer-songwriter from the American South. Still, the Byrd of Down at the Well of Wishes is, in common with the other Byrd, a step or two, or arguably more, above your typical practitioner of the craft.

An Alabama native and current Nashville resident, Byrd -- so one judges from the cover photograph -- bears a notable resemblance to the comedian/actor/musician Steve Martin. Where age is concerned, the two are clearly contemporaries. Not a lot of humor here, though; Byrd spins moody, memorable melodies burdened with regret and shrouded in darkness. The harrowing "I Once Knew a Woman" -- the second-best new song I've heard so far in 2012 -- has the resonance of a murder ballad without the murder.

Byrd, an unusually expressive vocalist, recites the grim news without flourish or affectation. Like the most effective vernacular singing, it's conversational. You feel as if he's telling you the stories over a few drinks in a late-night, dimly lit bar, passing on bruising lessons, the kind one learns the hardest way possible. Aside from an occasional lyric that might be called Dylanist ("I once knew a woman so clean / I took it as a sign"), Byrd sounds like nobody in particular, though one might infer that his listening prominently includes Dylan, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, John Prine, Richard Thompson and others who carry older musical traditions into modern times. In that sense Byrd's songs, backed by a small, tasteful country-folk band and co-produced by Byrd and R.S. Field, have a sort of temporal looseness, at once aged and contemporary.

Though much of the content draws (I presume) on personal experience, it also feels universal. Down's sorrows and struggles are all of ours, which is to say they're everyone's blues, except that few of us can evoke them with the kind of eloquence, passion and mature intelligence Byrd brings to his art.

music review by
Jerome Clark

18 February 2012

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