Jonathan Byrd,
The Law & the Lonesome
(Waterbug, 2008)

It is hard not to think of the late Townes Van Zandt when one hears Jonathan Byrd, who is also a folk-based singer-songwriter with Texas connections (though Byrd lives in North Carolina). It is also difficult not to notice how much more disciplined Byrd is than the substance-addled Van Zandt, whose considerable songwriting gift was often diminished by those excesses and whose recordings mostly had a tossed-off quality.

Though not Byrd's first album, The Law & the Lonesome is the first to come my way, and from the evidence here presented, I hope to hear more. In common with Van Zandt's best work, Byrd's blends ballad, blues and literary influences into moody storytelling and reflection -- and, in this instance, consistent excellence.

The melodies often feel as incorporeal as ghosts, and as haunting and haunted. The narratives are typically set in bleak desert and prairie scenes and along lost highways and lawless borders. While in lesser hands it could, none of this feels less than fully imagined. In his writing and performance, Byrd inhabits these landscapes and the souls of those who pass through them as surely as Cormac McCarthy if the latter were a folk singer. (Well, actually, there is a folk singer named Cormac McCarthy, but he is a Canadian who is not to be confused with the Southwestern novelist to whom I refer.)

Perhaps the oddest of the 10 cuts is "Diana Jones," thematically a distant echo of Van Zandt's "Tecumseh Valley" though here the doomed-prostitute protagonist is an actor in her life, not a helpless victim of tragic circumstance. You may or may not be aware that there is a singer-songwriter named Diana Jones. Like the character in the song, "she took the name Diana Jones"; she was not born with it. In the liner notes Byrd gives thanks to the real woman known as Diana Jones and acknowledges not only her friendship and influence but his "commandeering of her name." It's all quite meta, but a fine song regardless.

Some of Byrd's lyrics are effectively indistinguishable from poetry, ordinarily a separate species from words attached to tunes. "Soldier's Lullaby" reads in its entirety:

It was the night. I had the moon.
I heard the soldiers down by the river, singing a lullaby.
It was something like,
"I gave her a star to wear and she gave me the earth to wander,
Singing a lullaby."

The disc ends with the dazzling "Galveston," not the well-known Glen Campbell Vietnam-era hit written by Jimmy Webb. Cities figure in countless thousands of songs, many of them celebrations, some of them condemnations, others simply locations where the action plays out. Few are meditations on a city's meaning, but that's what Byrd is about. I'm pretty certain that Galveston does not "know everything God knows," but he does make you want to believe it.

review by
Jerome Clark

16 May 2009

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