There is a part of Jim Byrnes that is always going to be St. Louis.
Though Byrnes has lived on the west coast more than 40 years, it was only a matter of time before he would make an album inspired by the city where he was born 65 years ago.
That album is St. Louis Times, which arrives on the 250th birthday of St. Louis and 100th anniversary of W.C. Handy’s St. Louis Blues, one of the first formally recognized blues songs.
Byrnes often has lauded the influence of his native city in previous interviews, but the new record isn’t a dreary travelogue or nostalgia. It’s more expansive and creative than that, and he also rates it his most personal.
“When people talk about blues they mention Chicago, New Orleans or Memphis and never mention St. Louis,” Byrnes notes. “In the ’30s, blues dominated in St. Louis. There’s so much music that has gone on there. It’s a rich history.”
The album is a mix of Byrnes originals, including a spoken, atmospheric, The Journey Home, that works beautifully. It also includes the inevitable St. Louis Blues and the equally inevitable Chuck Berry number, in this case a retooled Nadine, slower and funkier.
“Who needs another?” Byrnes asks of a standard Berry rock ’n’ roll run-through. “Chuck did it his way and it was perfect, so this is our way.”
This might be a clue as to how Byrnes has built a rapport with Steve Dawson, producer of the last six albums. Byrnes likes to give a song his personal interpretation and the understanding Dawson allows him to do it.
“I don’t want to do the same thing over and over again,” Byrnes states. “That’s the way all these albums have grown. Like the gospel album, I just mentioned I would like to do it to Steve and he ran with it.
“The sound I’ve got in my head is what I want to hear. That’s the great thing about music — there’s always something over the next hill.
“When I’m performing, that’s me,” he continues. “When I open my mouth and sing, that’s when I’m at my most comfortable.
“I’m finally finding my own voice. I’m not imitating Bobby Bland now. I’m fitting in pretty good.”
Some research goes into the songs and, with this album, his own memories. Among the blues is a pronounced Dixieland element inspired by the Mississippi riverboat musicians who regularly stopped in St. Louis. There is a playful duet with Colleen Rennison of No Sinner, You’ll Miss Me (When I’m Gone), that originally was done by Bobby McLure and Fontella Bass. Few people knew that Bass was from St. Louis.
“Well I did,” says Byrnes, who sketches the history of the song and Bass before she had her big hit, Rescue Me. Similarly, Byrnes remembers seeing blues guitarist Albert King — whose I Get Evil starts St. Louis Times — when he was a heavy equipment operator and only played blues on weekends.
“Then he went to Stax and made that record, Born Under A Bad Sign, and suddenly he was a star.”