Country Songwriter Jon Byrd Discusses New EP ‘Me & Paul’, The State Of Nashville, Selling A Drum Kit To John Prine, & Much More

It’s no secret there’s a sense of urgency to preserve the legacy of what built Music City and earned it that nickname to begin with.

In 2021’s Nashville, the city’s outlandish tourist life and swaths of covetous developers have stained the city’s reputation, and the magic that the city held is being stripped away one hot tub party bus at a time. One could argue the powers that be are most interested in tourists’ money via obnoxious gimmicks that run amok throughout downtown and beyond, and the city is becoming one big drunken “woo girl” novelty town.

That’s why it’s important to recognize and appreciate genuine seasoned artists like Jon Byrd and Paul Niehaus.

Together, the two released a modest yet delightful selection of five songs dubbed Me & Paul that hearken to a bygone era of The Red Headed Stranger, and could very likely be an ode to Willie Nelson’s iconic track, “Me and Paul”. From the opening number, “I’ll Be Her Only One,” to the closing track, “Don’t Go To Strangers,” Byrd’s vocals bear a striking resemblance to that of Old Man Willie, and between his graceful picking and Niehaus’s tasteful steel guitar, it’s evident the magic of true Nashville country music still lives- you just have to know where to look.

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Vintage cowboy love stories, rebellious bootleg whiskey makers, and other traditional lyrical themes ring throughout the brief yet endearing album, and Byrd and Niehaus prove you don’t need a glut of bells and whistles to create a powerful song. Give a man a guitar and he will swoon you. No computers or tacky gimmicks needed.

We got the chance to chat with Byrd about the album, the evolving Nashville scene, selling a drum kit to John Prine, and much more.

So what does a day in the life of Jon Byrd’s songwriting process look like?

I don’t have a songwriting “process.” Except to pick up my guitar every single day. I may playing it minutes, or hours. But I pick it up everyday just in case a melody, or a riff, or a hook floats by right out of the sky.

And I was hoping you could talk about your new EP, Me and Paul. What’s the inspiration and influence behind this collection of songs? 

Me & Paul is a result of and was inspired by a couple of years of weekly gigs that Paul Niehaus and I have now spent playing together. The juxtaposition (yes, 5 syllables) of my nylon string guitar and his pedal steel guitar, the convergence of traditional country and folk songs, all saturated with my particularly regional voice/accent gives us lots to explore and discover. The 5-song EP/CD is just a snapshot of how we approach originals and covers. It’s also a sincere thank you to the loyal friends that come out to see us at Dee’s every week.

How long have you known Paul, and how did the project come to be?

I’ve know Paul by reputation almost since I moved to town in 2001. But I don’t think we played together until 2015. We only started playing regularly in 2017. We’d planned a recording session in March of 2020 just as the pandemic really took off, so we cancelled/postponed and didn’t get to it until it was safe the following November.

“When he finally left (with the Gretsch kit) I said, ‘Hey man, if I ever make any money in the music business, I’ll buy you a beer or a cup of coffee.’ Prine immediately replied: ‘Hey, if I ever make any money in the music business, I’ll buy YOU a beer or a cup of coffee!'”

Where was the album recorded, and who helped bring it to life?

We recorded at Joe V. McMahan’s Wow & Flutter Studio. Joe produced the record for us. I first thought of taking the project to his place when I was thinking of the song Kevin Gordon and I wrote together: “I’ll Be Her Only One.” Kevin and Joe have written and recorded together for years, and I thought it might be an interesting collaboration. 

I saw in your press release that when asked about career highlights, you half-jokingly mention selling a drum set to John Prine. I would love to hear the story behind that.

Big box retailer Best Buy did a five-year experiment with musical instrument departments. I went in for a part time position, but they wanted me to run it for them. My drummer-buddy Paul Griffith sent John in to take a look at a nice Gretsch Catalina kit we had. Since this is Nashville, having amazing folks wander in was pretty common. Hank III, Del and Ronnie McCoury, Billy Cox… you get the idea.

Anyway, John came in and spent nearly an hour deciding. I happened to know he’d heard one of my songs performed by some pals. And had told them how much he liked the song. I told myself, “Don’t bug him. Don’t gurm him. Do NOT tell him that he said he liked one of your songs!” After nearly 45 minutes of him being a great and easy-going guy, I finally broke down and told him the story. He kindly said he remembered my song. I told him I doubted it, but I was gonna quote him. When he finally left (with the Gretsch kit) I said, “Hey man, if I ever make any money in the music business I’ll buy you a beer or a cup of coffee.” Prine immediately replied: “Hey, if *I* ever make any money in the music business I’ll buy YOU a beer or a cup of coffee!” 

Aside from that, is there another one or two pinnacle moments in your music career that mean the most to you?

Singing a Tom T. Hall song at the Country Music Hall of Fame right in front of Tom T. and Dixie with fellow Alabamian Lloyd Green on pedal steel and Duane Eddy in the band. Duane fixed my strap right as we were starting. Class. Playing a Dan Penn song as he walks into the venue… yikes! Having Garry Tallent from he E Street Band apologize to me after flubbing the start of a song… I got a hundred of ‘em. Like living in a dream.

Where are some of your favorite places to play in Nashville and why?

Dee’s Country Cocktail Lounge & The 5 Spot on the Eastside, Springwater Supper Club and Lounge on the Westside, and ACME downtown on Lower Broad. Why? Because they care about MUSIC. They care about writers. Are some of them what some might call dive bars? Tourist traps? Small spaces with a modicum of sound & stage gear? Maybe. Sometimes. But they care about the artist. AND present a diverse representation of Nashville music. As I often say, it’s not “Country Music City, U.S.A.” It’s MUSIC CITY, U.S.A.

How do you feel about the evolving state of Nashville and the current music scene?

I’m concerned about the popularity of Nashville, both as a tourism destination and as some kind of “It City” nonsense. I can’t imagine moving here and being able to afford a place close to downtown on an artist-musician budget. Also, I don’t tend to think of Nashville (or anything) monolithically, so there’s not one music “scene.” There are many. And many of them are awful. But great players are here. And great writers. We’re drawn to each other despite the soul-killing discouragement of “Music Row” and Country Radio.

Do you have any gigs or light touring lined up for the summer?

Headed to Indiana for the second time this summer. Plus, my residency at Dee’s continues every Wednesday in Madison, the new “East Nashville.”

What advice might you give to the younger generation looking to carve out a musical path such as yours?

Carve out one better than mine. For sure. Don’t care what people think. Get a straight job/skill so you can play what you want, when you want. Make sure you have at least one true friend who will tell you the truth. Cheerleaders are great. Dozens of rowers will move your boat through the water. But without a rudder… without a truth-teller you ain’t goin’ nowhere. Nowhere that matters. You have to have at least one rudder-friend.

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