Jon Byrd – Down at the Well of Wishes

“There are no second acts in American lives,” F. Scott Fitzgerald scribbled in his notes for his uncompleted novel, The Last Tycoon, before a heart attack rang down the curtain on his own story. Although married to a (crazy, beautiful) Alabamian, Fitzgerald obviously never met anyone like Alabama-born singer and guitarist Jon Byrd.

Byrd began his career in Atlanta in the ’80s, playing second guitar in 688 Club power-pop acts like the Windbreakers and the Primitons before spending the better part of the ’90s as “Cecil Lawrence,” lead guitarist of the Godfathers of the Redneck Underground, Slim Chance and the Convicts. Byrd made the leap from second banana to hot, chicken-picking country guitarist with aplomb.

On Down at the Well of Wishes, his second song collection since relocating to Nashville, Byrd sets down his electric guitar (for the most part) and brings his whisky-tinged baritone vocals to the forefront on a set of songs filled with heartache and melancholy.

The album opener, “In a Chest of Skin and Bone,” co-written with Butch Primm, sets the tone: “In a chest of skin and bone/ is where I keep her stepping stone,” Byrd intones over a backdrop of acoustic guitar and pedal steel that conjures the best of Roy Orbison. The song’s paramour “wore it down and left it flat, turned its shimmer into black/ used it to get where she’s at, then gave it back to me.”

On “Alabama Asphalt,” Byrd is more upbeat as bassist Duane Blevins and former Los Straitjackets drummer Jimmy Lester choogle up a Tony Joe White-style swampy groove that guitarist Pat Severs accentuates with tasty acoustic lap guitar fills.

“I Once Knew a Woman” could be a lost Notorious Byrd Brothers-era David Crosby song, and “A Fond Farewell” pairs a melody worthy of Jimmy Webb with reverb-laden, big-note guitar and silvery 12-strings to chronicle the tale of a closed favorite watering hole – Glen Campbell meets Gene Clark in a great lost AM Gold collaboration.

Byrd is ably backed up by a crew of Nashville regulars including electric guitarist Milan Miller, steel player Alex McCollough and Georgia ex-pats The Wrights (Adam on funky Wurlitzer and B3, Shannon on vocals). Producer R. S. Field imbues the proceedings with a soulfulness that brings to mind Muscle Shoals as often as the Music City.

Byrd finally unleashes his electric guitar for the solo of the album closer, “My Days to Come Along,” and its Gary Louris-meet-Neil Young tone gives the album a little crunch to balance out its smoothness.

As a second act, Down at the Well of Wishes bodes well that Byrd’s days might, indeed, be coming along and leaves me eager for the third act and a long run.

Jon Byrd
Down at the Well of Wishes
[Longleaf Pine]