In May of 1999, I took a two-week road trip with my mother. I was 28.
The plan was to drive from North Carolina to Yellowstone. The way out, we'd drive northwest across the Nebraska Sandhills, up into the Black Hills, and then into the park through Cody, Wyoming. Coming back, we'd head south and take that left turn at Albuquerque that Bugs Bunny always seemed to miss. Then Interstate 40 all the way home.
We made a deal about accommodations. We'd stay in a hotel every other night and camp out every other night. We had maps made of paper. We had cameras with film in them. We had no phones. Looking back eighteen years, it seems like we were pioneers in a covered wagon.
The nights we stayed in hotels, mom would pop up bright and early and I would moan and groan my way to the car. The nights we camped out, it was the other way around. The only major setback was an avalanche in the Sylvan Pass. We had to drive around on the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway, which was a blessing. I don't think there's a more beautiful road in the world.
We woke up in our tent in Yellowstone to greet bison, elk, and geese heading down to a bend in the river. We heard about a grizzly bear and drove down to watch it turn a dead bison over with its teeth- the moment I truly understood what a grizzly bear is. We backtracked from a trail of blood north of Jackson Hole. We drove through a hail storm in New Mexico, where we could see lightning to the sides of us hitting and spreading out over the desert floor, turning sand into glass. We drove across Texas in the peak of wildflower season.
When we got home, I continued to work on my first full-length record in a studio that I helped to build, a place called The Rubber Room. When we had started recording, it was literally a closet. By the time my album was done, the studio had four recording rooms and a control room. I've recorded or mixed most of my albums there.
Though it was not recorded first, Wildflowers became the first track on the album Wildflowers. Not a particularly original title, but then wildflowers are not particularly original. No one wonders if the wildflowers will ever come out with something new. They are beautiful and dependable and simple. This album is the same.
The song Wildflowers is a retelling of the last leg of our journey, backwards this time, and on a train. I always wonder as I travel, what was this place like when there was only a footpath? When there was only a railroad? Songs live in places and this one lived along the I-40 corridor. I didn't know it when I was traveling, but I lost a girl while I was gone, and she's in the song too.
The whole album was played in an alternate tuning because I was learning it at the time. The tuning is DADGAD, from the lowest string to the highest. John Boulding of The Shady Grove Band plays the banjo, and boy howdy does he play it. Robbie Link played the bass. Tim Stambaugh sings the harmony. And that's it. The three instruments sound like a whole band, and we have to thank the engineer Jerry Brown for a little bit of that magic. He taught me how to make a record while we made my first.
Tom Paxton heard Wildflowers somehow, I still don't know how, and sent me an email. "What a treat to hear someone so deeply rooted in tradition, yet growing in his own beautiful way.” I asked him if I could quote him and he was quite gracious. It was my first really great press quote. I still thank Mr. Paxton every now and then for that.
You can listen to and purchase the early Byrd here: https://jonathanbyrd.bandcamp.com/track/wildflowers
If you're still stuck in 1999, the album is available on CD, http://www.waterbug.com/wordpress/product/wildflowers/
Thanks for listening. Your fan,