The Alternate Root
Jim Byrnes is a son of American Roots, growing up smack dab in the middle of the U.S., and ground zero in Blues country, St. Louis, Missouri. His formative years were spent in an environment where local bars had Ike and Tina Turner as a house band. Music was in the air, the water and rising up from the ground, and a younger Jim heard the calling, playing piano by age five and by thirteen, playing guitar and singing the blues. He had his first gig in 1964, going on in later life to appear with Muddy Waters, Taj Mahal, John Lee Hooker, Albert Collins, Furry Lewis, Robert Cray and Henry Townsend.
Jim Byrnes sums up his early years in snapshot lines: “The city streets of my boyhood; steam heat rising off the Mississippi; the railroad; grits and gravy; the Cardinals and the Dodgers on the radio; summers in Kentucky and the Ozarks; Jimmy Reed at The London House East, Bobby “Blue” Bland at the Cosmo Hall; Muddy at the Moonlight Lounge and Slick’s Lakeside; the High Plains of east Colorado on a winter morning; the Charlie Company Boogie; all those nights in all those rented rooms; the wind off the ocean; the winter storms; the tough break and the heartache; the dust of Mexico; twilight on the Seine; the evening breeze, the distant thunder, the sweetness of the rain; the light and the laughter in my children’s eyes; the constant struggle and infinite joy of love”.
After drifting and playing the blues, Jim moved to Vancouver, British Columbia in 1970 and put together a band that became a staple of the local scene by 1981.His fame as an actor has grown with numerous TV roles and appearances on the small screen in shows such as Wiseguy, Highlander, and his nationally broadcast variety show, The Jim Byrnes Show.
His love for the blues will never die and musically, that is where Jim shines. For his latest release, I Hear the Wind in the Wires, Jim Byrnes goes back to his personal roots, mining juke box gems and a couple of more modern tunes that would have been right at home in the days when a quarter was all you needed to have three minutes of heaven. I Hear the Wind in the Wires contains musical highlights from artists such as Little Willie John, Conway Twitty, Nick Lowe, Dolly Parton, Gordon Lightfoot and Tom Waits.
Acting as DJ and artist, Jim spent some time with the Alternate Root to talk about this current project.
Jim Byrnes: Steve (Dawson, album producer/player) and I were on the road, pumping in CD’s to the player. Steve said that one of these days we have to wrap ourselves around covering some of these songs. What we really wanted for I Hear the Wind in the Wires was a jukebox feeling and an old radio show, where we would have guests. The idea for this album was completely born on the road. With all the material we wanted in there, we could have made a six CD box set. We had a Louvin Brothers track that did not make it on the album and we even had a couple of songs that I had written in the same vein as the jukebox tracks but they were not quite there yet.
I wanted to present music in the same way that Muddy waters viewed his career and playing. When Alan Lomax went to Mississippi he recorded Muddy Waters at Stovall Plantation. Muddy did not call himself a blues player, he referred to himself as a guitar player (ed: Muddy called himself Stovall’s Famous Guitar Picker). Seven of the songs they recorded were by Gene Autry. Muddy talked blues and artists like Son House and Robert Johnson but the Singing Cowboy inspired him to become an entertainer.
We stayed away from the big hits. Marty Robbins big song was “El Paso”. We can do it live but there is absolutely no reason to record another version. We went with “Big Iron”. When I was eleven that album came out. I could barely put the strings together, but I would stand in front of the mirror and play. That song chose me.
“Big Blue Diamonds” history was with Little Willie John, from 1962. I became buddies years ago withDoug Sahm. One night Doug did it live, and I remembered it. When we were recording, we found out other versions from Rex Perkins, Tex Ritter in 1951 and Ernest Tubbs in 1954.
“Pickin’ Wild Mountain Berries” was a big song for Peggy Scott and Jo Jo Benson in 1968. I first heard the song when it was a hit for Lawanda Lindsay and Kenny Vernon in 1970. We found the Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn version, but I had always remembered it as a soul tune. We talked about who we could get to do it. Bruce Allen, the manager for Bryan Adams, wanted Sharon Jones. We decided on Coleen Rennelson. She has a band in Vancouver, No Sinner, and her songs are great.
The Tom Waits tune (“House Where Nobody Lives”) fits in nicely. I sort of know Tom. Usually you don’t hear the profundity in his lyrics, you look at the words and it is heavy stuff. The song on my album is from a late night show appearance. I saw Tom do it and I had never really listened to the song before.
A friend of mine runs a van for the local country music association. We did a bunch of stuff together and wanted to make the bridge between blues and country. That is how we came up with covering Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On”.
We want to do more songs, songs by more unknown artists. I was at Folk Alliance and was amazed by the amount of people from all over the world, great singers, great songs, it is mind boggling. There is so much talent around; the trick is just getting it past the door, man.
I Hear the Wind in the Wiresgives Jim Byrnes a chance to step out of the blues corner that fans have come to associate with him. Like Muddy Waters, Jim Byrnes is a player. I Hear the Wind in the Wires gives us a chance to hear his soul, his rock’n’roll and his country. It is a chance for us to catch Jim singing at the top of his lungs on long car rides and following the beat of the water shooting out of his shower. Danny McCloskey/RA