JonathanByrd & the Pickup Cowboys PickupCowboy
With this concise slice of retro-modern country music, North Carolina folk/Americana veteran Jonathan Byrd turns the clock back about three years, before the vagrancies of reality impinged upon best laid plans.
Inspired by a ‘humble badass’ ethos, The Pickup Cowboys—Byrd (guitar, Rhodes, percussion), Johnny Waken (guitar, mandolin, organ, piano, harmonica, percussion, musical saw, vocals), and Paul Ford (cello and bass)—toured for years, and made a single recording which was shelved upon Ford receiving what would transpire to be a fatal brain tumor diagnosis. With the passage of time, Byrd and Waken fleshed out the recording with Joanna Miller (drums), and Alexa Dirks and Andrina Turenne (backing vocals) to produce this album.
Reminding us of favourite singers and songwriters including Peter Cooper and D. B. Rielly, Byrd possesses a naturally smooth voice, one that is, in turn, gentle (“We Used To Be Birds” and “It Don’t Make Sense”) or playful (“Tractor Pull” and “Temporary Tattoo,”) and which can be infused with challenge as the song demands, as on the epic “Lakota Sioux” (as with the album closing—”Do You Dream”—written by friend Matt Fockler) and “When the Well Runs Dry,” co-written with Steep Canyon Ranger Charles Humphrey III.
The original sessions transpired in Chapel Hill and were completed in Winnipeg, but there is no sense of incongruence despite the distance and time between sessions: mostly, I just like mentioning Winnipeg whenever I can.
As a poet and writer, Byrd is circumspect in lyrical development, but not so conservative that we can’t imagine his characters and spaces. The guy driving on two bald tires after fishing for his breakfast (“Pickup Cowboy”) materializes fully textured: we all know that guy, going from job to job, seldom settling down for too long, no mortgage, no payments, no footprints. The transient, boomtown community of trailers and guys sleeping in their trucks of “When The Well Runs Dry” could be in Kansas, Oklahoma, Alberta, or damn near anywhere else where the earth is squeezed of every bit of wealth it can produce.
Sometimes things just get away from you, as Byrd reveals in “Temporary Tattoo. “Who can’t understand the sentiment of “I showed my love for you with a temporary tattoo?” The “damn fool” protagonist isn’t mean-spirited: he just doesn’t want it to hurt, and besides—how was he to know she would elevate things to a more permanent impression? Hopefulness and vulnerability balance (with Townshendesque echoes) in “Taking It Back,” with faith and beauty prominent in “We Used To Be Birds,” previously recorded in tandem with Chris Kokesh.
Paul Ford’s subtle, susurrous cello effects—propulsive plucking (“When The Well Runs Dry,” “Tractor Pull,”) articulate bowing (“It Don’t Make Sense,” “Do You Dream,”) and momentarily ominous (“We Used To Be Birds”)—provides Pickup Cowboy an encompassing sound near-unique within country music. Jonathan Byrd has been making really good albums for a long time, The Law and the Lonesome, Cackalack, and The Barn Birds disc among them. Pickup Cowboy is another. Seek it out.