A preacher’s son and Gulf War veteran born in Fayetteville, Jonathan Byrd’s family history in North Carolina stretches back seven generations. His style ranges from old time to rockabilly, and his lyrics and poems weave colorful landscapes home to working-class heroes, eccentrics, and freedom-seekers, all rooted in the spirit of his native state, particularly on his 2010 album "Cackalack." As well as the title track, the record features songs such as "Wild Ponies," honoring the wild horses of the Outer Banks. “Velma,” a murder ballad Byrd wrote about the last woman to be executed in North Carolina, has been covered by Sam Bush, Jack Lawrence, and others.
Now based in Carrboro, he performs weekly at The Kraken with his band, Jonathan Byrd & The Pickup Cowboys, as part of the Shake Sugaree Americana Residency. Named for the song by Libba Cotten, the residency began in 2018 as a way to help the band get back on its feet following the death of their cellist, Paul Ford, but has since developed a cult following, drawing huge crowds to the tiny, tin-roof roadhouse off Highway 54. The three-hour show features a different guest artist every week, introducing listeners to a variety of local, national, and international musicians, including Joe Newberry and Raleigh-based singer/songwriter Rod Abernethy.
The other Pickup Cowboys have strong North Carolina connections as well. Multi-instrumentalist Johnny Waken and drummer Austin McCall have both performed with Paperhand Puppet Intervention, and McCall also performs with Diali Cissokho & Kaira Ba.
When he’s not at The Kraken, Jonathan Byrd tours across the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., and continues to write poetry. His most recent collection, “You’ve Changed,” was published in 2017 and met with rave reviews.
“Music has always been a thing in North Carolina,” Byrd says in our interview at The Haw River Ballroom. “It’s valued in our culture, but it’s not just one kind of music; it’s all kinds of music, and I think that’s really the strength of the statewide scene.”