Jonathan Byrd’s solo album Cackalack has some great songs on it and his duet work in the Barn Birds is really great as well. I decided to put these two projects together to highlight solid songwriting and two enjoyable albums.
Cackalack’s cover depicts the North Carolina flag and the title comes from a version of the word “Carolina,” so it’s pretty evident that Byrd intends to reflect on his location and heritage.
Having a few listens in on Cackalack, I have to say he’s at his best with his traditional style. He starts off on a great note with “Chicken Wire.” A song about a promiscuous woman who needs to be reined in has a great sing-a-long chorus. It’s the kind of down home country, banjos and all, that one might expect from this type of album.
The next best song is the drinker’s special, “Reckon I Did.” Full of reluctance and a strong tongue-in-cheek element, it’s hilarious. “Did I get drunk last night? Reckon I did.” It’s about a broken relationship, habitual drinking, and most likely a serious problem with alcoholism. In other words, it’s a country song. The mandolin solo and steady rhythm guitar sound like they’re straight from North Carolina. Well played.
“New Moon Rise” is a bit more sophisticated both in its sonic structure and its message. Reflecting an intricate blues chord progression and some of the best vocal work on the album, it’s one of the best tracks on Cackalack. The traditional four piece, including the fiddle, stand up bass, banjo, and lead guitar, makes for a solid classic country sound. The message of the song is an implicit optimism for “another chance to love.” A worthy song topic, for sure.
Both “Father’s Day” and “White Oak Wood” sound like they could have come off of a traditional folk album more so than the other tracks on the album. The final and title track “Cackalack” brings the album home with a contemporary reference to 95 South, the primary route along the eastern seaboard. It is a major route through eastern North Carolina, presumably where Jonathan’s “baby” lives. It’s old fashioned but holds a timeless desire for love. It ends an interesting traditional country album.
The Barn Birds have a similar desire to reflect their roots, however their sound is a bit different than the classic country/roots sound of Byrd’s solo work. They are Jonathan Byrd and Chris Kokesh, both of North Carolina. Their voices come together in a beautiful complimentary blend.
As I’ve indicated with Jonathan’s solo work, he’s at his best with his traditional two-step style music. The clarity of Chris’s voice only works to drive that point home. Together, they’re at their best on the same kinds of songs. Toe tappers, for short. “One night at a time” is a delightful song about initiating a beautiful new romance. “In the morning we just might find we’re ready for more… one night at a time.” It’s in one sense a crude reference to a one night stand, while also getting at an existential truth; we live our days one day at a time. Why not build a relationship similarly? It’s clever, witty, and reminds listeners of the “old time” duos between greats like Dolly Parton and George Jones. It’s classic.
“Paint the Town Blue” is another high point on the album. The harmonies are classic and the lyrics are fantastic. It’s about a broken relationship and eventual breakup. It captures a wide variety of emotions and sounds like its from a much older era. “Let’s paint the town blue…” seems to be a reference to having a one last hurrah after a relationship has run its course. This is the kind of song that would make Bill Munroe (and his ilk) happy to have a listen. It’s of that generation and its superbly done. It feels like I should be hearing it on an AM station live from the Ryman Auditorium.
“Desert Rose” takes us back to the traditional dance and romance song. It’s a nice duo track and gets listeners up dancing. Love grows… it’s a rose. I see what you did there. “It’s too late to call it a night” is a lazier, blues song. It’s got traditional country instrumentation, but it most certainly a melancholic blues track. Sung almost as if he’s really been drinking wine, Byrd emphasizes that “end of the night” feeling. It’s emotive and, frankly, kind of a cute track.
The finger-picked “Sundays Loving You” is clearly influenced by many years of both country and folk music. It’s an optimistic track with a strangely familiar melody. It’s probably the best duo singing on the whole album. “The best way to spend Sunday’s lovin’ you” is also one of the quaintest lyrics on the album. I’d love to hear a lot more of the songs like this one from these two. From the harmonic chords to the great vocal harmonies, topped off with the religious references (including some gospel lyrics), it’s a truly transcendent track. It’s by far the best all-around song on the album.
All told, Jonathan Byrd’s work is admirable. It’s clear he’s got many years of experience with traditional music styles. He also has a great connection to writing out his heart. It’s evident in the lines of verse that he writes. Sometimes it seems he’s writing someone else’s feelings, but when he’s pouring out his own feelings he can be a wonderfully expressive writer. The Barn Birds do a great job of showing off the subtleties of Byrd’s vocals through Kokesh’s harmonies, both in terms of the fiddle and vocals.
Fans of traditional country music will find a few songs here to really enjoy. North Carolinians have a native son to be proud of both in his sincere songwriting and his preservation of traditional country music.