After more than 40 years in the music business, the Canadian blues icon has recorded ‘I Hear The Wind In The Wires’ – and it may be the best record of his career
by Douglas Heselgrave
“I’ve thought about this a lot, and for instance, I think you could take a Percy Sledge tune – any one of them – remove the organ and put in a steel guitar and it’d be flat out country!”
Jim Byrnes belongs to a vanishing profession. Storytellers and entertainers have warmed hearts and hearths since the beginning of time and in today’s uncertain world we need them more than ever. But target marketing, satellite and Internet radio have marginalized and categorized our every whim and desire to such an extent that the entertainment we’re exposed to offers us no surprises whatsoever. We can watch and listen to exactly what we think we want all day long with no interruptions or deviations from the script. Even the news we get online has been sifted and sorted so that we only receive messages that agree with how we already see the world.
Jim Byrnes’ music takes us to a time way before that, a time when a song was a vehicle for a wide range of experiences and associations, a time when a song might be recorded by a half dozen artists in the same year. People often comment on the homogeneous nature of American culture in the forties and fifties, but for Jim Byrnes that was a golden era before categorization, demographics and market surveys determined what we should hear. It was a time when ‘black folks listened to country and white people dug the blues on the late night radio’ and everyone was influenced and inspired by the same things. That early exposure to music on the radio and Saturday afternoon television has driven Jim Byrnes’ taste in music for over half a century, and after spending a few hours talking about the songs on his new album, it’s safe to say that his passion for singing and his love of music hasn’t diminished one bit with the passage of time. If anything he’s been on a role and begun to dig even deeper into the roots of song since he first teamed up with Steve Dawson, the Vancouver based producer and multi-instrumentalist five albums and nearly a decade ago. ‘I Hear The Wind In The Wires’ is the newest – and finest – album they have recorded together.
When I got together with Jim last month at a busy coffee shop in downtown Vancouver, he was in a talkative mood and still excited from performing at a record release party the night before. Even though we’d met and chatted many times in the past, it’s always a surprise and a pleasure to spend time with someone who loves what he does as much as Byrnes does. Jim Byrnes isn’t a sophisticated, cutting edge artist who wants to change the way you think about everything you’ve heard before; his gift is far simpler and greater than that. Blessed with a soul, warmth and passion that few others can muster, when Jim Byrnes opens up and begins to sing, all the worry, pain and cares that weigh down our lives are put on hold. Here is our conversation:
DH: Hey Jim. Good to see you. What are you humming?
JB: My daughter has started a project she calls ‘under cover’ and what happens is that she gets someone who is kind of well-known for a certain type of music and she gets them to choose a cover song, talk about it a little bit and then film the person singing it in an unexpected place. It is real guerilla filmmaking. We went out at night on St. Patrick’s Day and filmed me singing on a staircase in Blood Alley. (near Vancouver’s infamous downtown eastside) The song I did was ‘Rose of Spanish Harlem’ and I talked about how I first heard it in 1961 when my mom was in the hospital. I was 13 years old and I was worried as shit. I was staying at my grandparent’s house and that song came on the radio. There were stars in the sky and as I listened to Ben E. King, it took me away. That’s the power of music. It was a really simple performance, but it came out really great.
DH: What really strikes me about you is how much you still love music after playing for so many decades, and it’s just coming to me that there’s so much more to it than just an appreciation or enjoyment of the songs in themselves. It seems to me that every song for you is a springboard for a whole bunch of memories, stories and associations. They all lend themselves to something that goes way beyond your performance. When I look at the song list for your new album, ‘I hear the wind in the wires’, I realize that I could tell you a story about most of them and how they’ve affected my life or tell you when I first heard them. Do you have stories for all of the songs?
JB: Pretty much. A couple of them are new songs that we just decided to interpret. We did a Tom Waits song, ‘House Where Nobody Lives’ and if you heard him sing it, you wouldn’t know what he was talking about. When you dig down, the words to the song are very moving, but they are obscured by his persona. It’s really profound, but honestly when I hear him sing it, I wonder ‘what just happened?’
DH: The last time I saw him in concert, I was wishing for sur-titles like they have at the opera.
JB: Yeah, yeah. So, when we did it, we really dug into the essence of the song. It’s like the Nick Lowe song we did. We’ve recorded some of his songs together earlier like ‘The Beast in Me.’ He’s such a great songwriter, so when we did ‘Sensitive Man’ we changed it around a little and countrified it a bit. His version – it’s on his newest album – sounds a little bit like Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, but we really liked it. There was another one on that album called ‘House for Sale’ but since we were doing ‘The House Where Nobody Lives” I didn’t want to do two bummer songs about houses. (laughs)
DH: I love the song ‘I Read A Lot’ from the new album, too. I could imagine you singing it.
JB: Yeah, it’s a killer song. He has such a unique point of view and a wonderful way with words. But, all of the rest of the songs are ones I’ve known for a long time and they have special meaning to me that goes way back. As a kid, we’d watch ‘American Bandstand’ or Lloyd Thaxton’s ‘Where the Action Is’ and bands would come on. But, they would all lip synch the songs. But, there was a station in St. Louis where on Saturday afternoon, one after the other they’d have Ernest Tubbs, Flatt and Scrubbs, The Wilburn Brothers, The Grand Old Opry, Porter Wagoner, The Buck Owens Ranch Party, and I would just sit there transfixed. These guys would play live and I’d watch and say ‘Hey, that’s a D chord he’s playing! I know that chord!’ It was all simple, ‘three chords and the truth’ kind of stuff, but these guys played their asses off! You know, we do that Ray Price tune ‘City Lights’, so we watched a Grand Old Opry thing on Youtube and we noticed that Ray’s rhythm guitar player was Roger Miller. There was this coterie of people who were just monster players and writers all of them. Their level of musicianship was great. Every one of those tunes they played meant so much to me. It’s great to go back and play them. That’s why we opened the album with Hank Snow’s ‘I’m Moving On’ – to tell people that we’re doing something different here.
DH: Yet, it sounds consistent with your style over the years. Does what you’re doing on this record feel that much different to you?
JB: No, it doesn’t in a sense. I’m playing with the same guys as the last few records, but what’s happening is that the interplay in this music is so profound and that I know that certain people like to categorize music in a certain way, and they may just miss the point of what I’m doing here. When people say ‘I don’t care for country’, I wonder what they mean. If you listen to the songs, what they say and hear the playing on them, what’s not to like? What I mean is that I don’t want people to expect another blues or R and B record. So, ‘I’m Moving On’ starts it off, and then we followed it with ‘City Lights’, that Ray Price song. It’s got that sitting at the Legion in a Manitoba winter feel to it, and I want people to know that I’m not kidding.
DH: In case someone arrived in the middle of your record by mistake!
JB: Yeah, yeah! (laugh) And when that fiddle comes in, you know that we mean business. We couldn’t get Al Churney to play that fiddle because he’s dead, so we got the greatest living Ukranian fiddler, Mike Sanyshyn to play it. Steve told him to forget everything he had heard in the last years of fiddle playing on records and to go for that family-friendly Tommy Hunter kind of feel. He was right there because he knows that stuff inside out. He grew up on that music, so there was no trouble at all. He plays on three or four tunes on the record and all of his parts are so right on the money. You know, all the things he does in the background – not the solos or anything flashy – but the little bits he plays take me right back to the Tommy Hunter show. (note: Tommy Hunter was a Canadian country icon who had a long running TV show)
DH: It sounds like Steve was encouraging everyone to have fun without worrying if the songs would end up on the hit parade.
JB: Exactly. That’s exactly what we did. The real genesis of this record began a couple of years ago when we were on the road. Steve and I were in the car and we were putting in CDs one after another – all kinds of different stuff – and then this Buck Owens thing came on and we looked at one another and said, ‘we have got to do this!’ I realized that I loved all this music so much and that time is slipping away and that I have to make this statement.
DH: And lucky you were in the car with him. Another guy might have tried to talk you out of this.
JB: True, and you know when we went in to record this at Bruce Allen’s studio - which usually we wouldn’t have been able to afford, but he gave us a great deal – they had these two inch Studer machines in there and we recorded directly to tape and you can hear that. There’s no comparison to digital or MP3. The sound is fat.
DH: Which is just perfect for the music you’re playing. It really adds to the warmth of the sound.
JB: It has a depth and a rawness that sounds so great! The sound is so much of a part of this recording. It was necessary and it took on a life of its own. Not once during the recording process did we stop to think about what’s hip and what’s happening. None of that influenced us. I don’t give a shit. I just wanted to do those tunes.
DH: So, was there ever a time in your life where you felt more pressure than you do now? A time when people were trying to guide you in a certain direction in the interest of getting a hit….
JB: Oh yeah! Going back to the very first record when I was playing a lot in the clubs, I really wanted to get a deal with a label. That was what people wanted back then, and I was working with Tom Lavin from the Powder Blues who suggested we put all these horns and embellishments on the music that really weren’t indicative of what I was doing. It was a good experience and great to have a record out, but it probably wasn’t what I would have done if I wasn’t concerned about making a deal. I didn’t really step too far out of my comfort zone or anything. I was playing R and B, which was cool, but it wasn’t until our second record ‘Live at Harpos’ that I recorded anything that was representative of exactly what I was doing. (laugh) That’s probably why that record fizzled! But, my experience was that there was always somebody at the label telling us what we should try. We never used synth drums or anything like that, but there was always an awareness of what was on the radio and some effort to align with that.
DH: I always felt listening to you in the past – before you started to record with Steve – that there was a disconnect between your live shows and your recorded work. To be honest, other than a few songs like ‘Hands of time’ which was a great record that your live show was inspiring, but I didn’t hear that same energy and joie de vivre ion your recorded work.
JB: That was the attempt to make something radio friendly and commercial. Give me a break, but I used to think about demographics! (laugh)
DH: What a relief that that’s all done with. (laugh)
JB: Exactly, and once Steve and I got together we found kindred spirits in each other. We both love the same type of old music, but we’re not hide-bound by it. At the same time that we both love to capture something, a spirit, that’s in this old music, at the same time we’re not into producing museum pieces. Sometimes, people try so hard to replicate what they love, it becomes a museum piece and it’s not alive. We wanted our record to sound vibrant and alive.
DH: You’ve succeeded. The sound really does place you both squarely sitting on the living room couches of the listener. It’s got a real high-level campfire feel to it.
JB: It was out of sight.
DH: And, I think you might actually reach an audience that you hadn’t intended with it. My twelve year old daughter, for instance, really likes your version of ‘Ribbon of Darkness’ and she doesn’t like anything I listen to these days!
JB: Yeah, that’s a great song. The funny thing about it was that it was a big hit for Marty Robbins in 1965. At that time, Marty had ten years of hits behind him, and then after it was a hit for him, Gordon Lightfoot who wrote the song put it out as a single, too. It didn’t have the same impact because Gordon was from Orillia, Ontario and came from the Toronto folk scene. It is just a beautiful song. It floors me. There’s a great version of it by Elvis, too. It was recorded during the ‘Suspicious Minds’ period. The emotions in it are so powerful and I really tried to stay with that instead of trying to come off like either Marty or Lightfoot. It’s just a great song amongst the dozens we were casting about when recording. Like I told you another time, the hardest thing was limiting ourselves. We could have recorded a six CD box set just as easily as a single album. We kept falling in love with all these songs. Thankfully, because most of these songs are so short that we could pack a lot of them on the album. Many of them are under three minutes long.
DH: I was just reading this crazy research from a university that declared 2 minutes and 41 seconds as the perfect length for a pop song.
JB: Yeah. Such great songs! We did another Marty Robbins song as well. We did ‘Big Iron’ and that was the one song I knew would be on the album. When I was eleven years old, I got my first guitar and I had that album ‘Gunfighter Ballads’ and that one had ‘El Paso’ on it. It was the first single over five minutes long and there was no chorus and no repeats. ‘Big Iron’ is the same way. I used to stand in front of my parent’s mirror in the basement looking at myself playing guitar. I knew right then I wanted to record it and fifty three years later, I finally did it!
DH: Congratulations! You just had to live long enough!
JB: There were the two Buck Owens songs that I wanted to get in. He had a weird reputation for doing all the goofy stuff and being on the ‘Hee Haw’ TV show for so many years. People are critical, but Buck had a lot of tragedy in his life. His musical partner was killed in a car accident and he didn’t want to play anything for a long time until the job on ‘Hee Haw’ saved him or brought him back. Man, the guy wrote so many great songs for so many people like ‘Crying Time’ that Ray Charles did.
DH: Are there any songs or songwriters that you won’t touch? Any that are sacrosanct? Some songs like say Lennon’s ‘Oh Yoko’ won’t be covered for obvious reasons, but….
JB: It’s not so much songwriters as songs that I stay away from. ‘El Paso’ for instance. I could sing it live, but there really isn’t any point in recording it. That song is untouchable in my opinion. The performance, the singing, the guitar – you have to leave it alone. I don’t think I could make that song my own; it’d be me imitating Marty Robbins which is not what I do. But, there are so many great songwriters. One of the first ones we did was ‘Above and Beyond’, the Harlan Howard song. The guy wrote so many of the great songs – songs for Patsy Cline. He was part of a coterie of guys and Nashville producers like Owen Bradley who produced such amazing work for so many years. I really wanted this record to be like those old TV shows where, just like when the Stanley Brothers performed on the radio, they’d say ‘OK now, it’s hymn time’ and then there’d be a comedian or something and then it would go back to country songs. I really wanted to capture that kind of vibe.
DH: I could see that kind of narrative approach, old timey approach, working really well in a live setting.
JB: Exactly. I could tell a few jokes.
DH: Travel with cardboard cactuses and painted backgrounds.
JB: Yeah, I was thinking of buying a Nudie seat but I couldn’t quite do it. Me and Porter Wagoner. Reminds me of Webb Pierce who was the first guy to put horns on his car and wear some really outrageous clothing. The first concert I saw at a Little Rock, Arkansas country fair featured Webb, Wanda Jackson and a very young Elvis Presley who at that time was billed as the ‘hillbilly cat.’ They did four songs and it was out of sight! He was on Sun Records and had a few songs. ‘That’s Alright Mama’ and ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky.’ I remember him playing those songs. It was May of ’55, if I recall. All of these memories, all of this stuff, went into this record. More of my life has gone into it than anything I’ve ever done before. There was a real release in doing it.
DH: It must have been an emotional experience. I’m feeling it just talking with you. All of these songs have an emotional payoff for the listener. It’s interesting, like I said, my twelve-year old daughter who pretending to ignore you when you were playing at our house a few months back – being so cool and all – was singing the songs back to herself the next day. It showed me something.
JB: That’s great news! I need some younger fans. (laugh)
DH: It’s interesting – related to so much of what we’ve been talking about – my daughter and her friends love the show ‘Glee’ and as much as it drives me crazy, the songs are so over-produced and robbed of their soul, but it’s done a great job of exposing them to some really great music. Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Fleetwood Mac, Rickie Lee Jones…. Through the back door as it were.
JB: You know, that’s great. They’re listening to the songs. They’re going back without knowing it.
DH: So, just to be hypothetical, is there any other area of your musical interest that you haven’t gone back to or explored in your own music?
JB: Well, we recorded ‘Stardust’ on one record and a Duke Ellington tune on another. I just love standards and great songwriting. That’s part of the appeal of this record is the technique of songwriting. I know that everybody’s recorded albums of standards, but the songs are just so great. I know that everybody kind of does the same ones, but they’re great.
DH: I’d love to hear you do an album of Hoagy Carmichael songs.
JB: I would love to do that or an album of Johnny Mercer songs. He was a southern guy who wrote so many songs that had such a distinct flavor to them. That tin pan alley stuff is great. The songs are so unbelievable. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. We’re going to ride this pony for a while. Country music is so – listen, I’ve been on stage with Muddy Waters and Ray Charles, and the greatest experience I ever had in music, making movies, everything, was one time at a festival on Vancouver Island when I got to do a workshop with Del McCoury. That was the thrill of a lifetime. I mean, he disappeared and ran an auto parts business for many years in Southern Pennsylvania while he was raising his family before he got back into music. Now there’s a guy who can take any song and make it his own. When he sings my hackles rise up! Man!
DH: I’m with you. He’s had such a great second coming as an artist. God, with so many possibilities, it must have been so hard to whittle down a list of songs to record.
JB: Yeah! We had so many song ideas, but we wanted to use our time well in the studio, so we rehearsed a lot before we went in. But, once we were in there, we did make a few spontaneous decisions and say to each other, ‘we’ve got to get this one in there.’
DH: Did you sit around and listen to the original versions before recording?
JB: Not much, speaking for myself, and Steve really avoided it. We could easily have replicated the original recordings, but why would anyone want to listen to that? Why would anyone want to record that? You have to breathe your own life into something to make it yours. In that way, we had to do some thinking before hand, and be prepared once we went into the studio. So, we had worked a lot of things out. Nobody was pressuring us or looking at their watches. It was a great experience to work again with someone who truly loves all of this music so much. I think working with me gives Steve a chance to do some of the guitar stuff he loves so much. He does some real monster playing on this record. I’m so happy with it. I’m thrilled to death.
DH: It’s joyful music.
JB: Even when they’re tear jerkers. They’re the most joyous and fun songs in a way. Everybody digs having a good cry. It’s good for you and a lot of fun. It takes me further into what we’ve been talking about – the intertwining of all forms of roots music. Country, blues, gospel, soul. All of these types of music meet in a certain place. The source. One of the songs where you can really hear this is ‘Big Blue Diamond’ which was a big hit for Little Willie John in 1962. I first thought about this music again when Doug Sahm, you know ‘Sir Doug’, was living around here and on the island. Anyway, we were in Victoria and he played ‘Big Blue Diamond’ and it all came back to me after not hearing it for more than twenty years. I mentioned it to Steve and we decided to look into the providence of the song before recording it. It had been an R and B hit, but it was written by Kit Carson and was originally recorded in 1951 by Rex Perkins and then Tex Ritter did it in ’51. Jimmy Dean did it. Red Foley and Ernest Tubbs did it. Then Little Willie John had the hit with it, and then again ten years later, it was recorded by Jacky Ward as a country song. The point is the song works in any and every direction! I’ve thought about this a lot, and for instance, I think you could take a Percy Sledge tune – any one of them – remove the organ and put in a steel guitar and it’d be flat out country! Having grown up in St. Louis and spent so many of my younger years down there, when I hear people say ‘this is a blues record’ or ‘this is a country record’ didn’t exist on the radio. You know we might hear country all day and then at night you’d listen to Randy’s Record Mart where you’d hear all the R and B tunes, but it was all on the same station. White or black people, we’d all listen to the same stuff and interpret it the way we wanted to. All of this cubbyholing of stuff didn’t exist.
DH: This reminds me of what I’ve been reading about Bob Dylan lately. He’s been raked over the coals for ‘appropriating’ other people’s songs into his music. His critics are completely missing the point. I mean, how many blues songs have said ‘the sun’s gonna shine on my back door some day’ for example? Does that mean everybody who uses it needs to pay the original writer who may not have made it up either?
JB: Oh yeah! Don’t get me started. That’s the whole thing in the world where people look at someone who’s successful. Some people are inspired to strive to be like that person and other people think ‘I’m going to get that guy!’ It’s something in human nature. You just have to shake your head. He’s being himself. If he wants to use a Willie Dixon riff over and over again, who cares? Willie Dixon didn’t even write a lot of those riffs. The music’s been played since the Civil War. The early recordings were only capturing what was already out there and being played live. We just have to get over all of this and think ‘this is great music and these are great songs.’ We really have to get over this. There’s something in this music that speaks to our humanity. It’s here for us to discover, play with or reject. But, don’t hold it against me if I love to play this music. I just listened back to the new album before I came out here to meet you today, and like they say in the old westerns ‘that dog’ll hunt!’
DH: Unleash her Jim!
JB: Yes sir! That dog’ll hunt!
DH: Great talking to you!
JB: A pleasure.