I can’t remember a year of my life as dramatic as 2018.

My stepfather developed dementia and my mother became his caretaker. I separated from my son’s mother and my lover of eighteen years. I went to jail. I started a podcast and dumped it. I started teaching songwriting and loved it. A drummer, Austin McCall, joined our band and we completely reworked our music. We lost two agents and a manager. I fell in love again. Johnny and I released an album we’ve been sitting on since the late Paul Ford was diagnosed with brain cancer. Through it all, one thing has propped me up more than any other.

One afternoon when I was twenty-something, I poked my head into a little tin-roofed roadhouse on a rural highway outside Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Two guys sat in the neon twilight, smoking and watching TV. I left and never went in again until one year ago, last December. 

When I was 35, I bought a house two miles from that shack. It used to be called ‘Lil Bar’. It was ‘Catahoula’s’. It was ‘54 Crossroads’. At some point, it became The Kraken, and I noticed a changeable-letter sign with local bands on it. Sometimes, there was a touring act. I thought hmm, I gotta go in there and check it out, but I never did. 

We barely toured the past few years. Johnny and I worked with some of the best musicians in the world, but we never found a consistent third member. Of course, there was no one like Paul. Then there was the chaos of musical-chair agents and manager.

So last December, I’m scratching my head, wondering how I’m going to pay the bills. Beyond that, how do we stay tight? Johnny and I had a great show but we toured so little, we had to learn it all over again whenever we went out. I had mused for years about a local residency. Wouldn’t it be great to build a community around a regular night? Maybe it would take years, but it would be worth it. Wouldn’t it be great if I could practically walk to it? 

I went online and checked the schedule for The Kraken. Weekends were for touring acts. Tuesdays were Old-Time Nights. Every other Thursday was a DJ. What about Wednesday? I drove down there and walked in. Good thing too, because I found out later that no one had updated the website in months. Kirk had forgotten they had a website. By some magic or coincidence, the website was correct. Wednesday nights were open. 

The stage is surprisingly big for such a small place. I thought, Yeah, we could do this. We might be playing for ourselves some nights, but we’d be playing. 

I eventually caught up with Kirk Schmidt, co-owner of The Kraken, who helped me hang posters for a show twenty-five years ago. He looked at me sideways. We worked it out. Start at 7pm.  Pass the bucket. If it’s a good night at the bar, they’ll tip us out a little. Start in January. 

My ego said, “Byrd. You’ve worked hard for almost twenty years to sell out local venues. You want to play big places like the Haw River Ballroom. You haven’t passed the hat in fifteen years. Wtf are you doing?” 

I told my ego I was tired of sitting on the album we’d made with Paul. I wanted to play. I wanted to meet my neighbors. I wanted to serve somebody.

Johnny suggested we talk to Austin McCall about playing drums with us. I said something like, Well I hope it’s not too loud. My ego is a real turd sometimes. 

Every Wednesday night has been packed. It snowed a foot and people came out. Kirk and Jody forgot to pay the power bill once and we plugged into the food truck. The summer got hot and we played with the doors open. So many people came they had to park on the side of the road. The highway patrol started handing out tickets and towing, so we added an announcement to make sure people knew how to stay within the rules. 

Musicians have come from Canada and the UK to be our guests for tips on a Wednesday night. James, the Wednesday night bartender, confessed that he had been looking for another job before we started the residency. Kirk and Jody were able to put money into the HVAC system. Kirk told me weekends had slowed down and Wednesday nights had saved their year. When we couldn’t be there, local musicians stepped in to cover the night.  

Austin McCall on the drums has changed everything. We played songs we’d never played live before. Austin got people dancing. Two people came to our Halloween show dressed as Austin McCall. He built a smokeless campfire that we used for the album release show- a packed house at The Haw River Ballroom. Suck it, ego.

I tallied up the money musicians have made this year, passing the bucket on a Wednesday night at The Kraken. $40,000. In a roadhouse. On a Wednesday night. Passing the bucket. 

Surprising to everyone, becoming a bar band has been the most successful move of my career. A community has formed around these Wednesday nights that beats all I’ve ever seen. Some people have been there every single Wednesday night since it started. 

I live on the third floor of my mother’s house. My ego is learning a lot. I’ve written, and I’m still writing, a series of erotic poems. It’s actually helped my ego’s fear of being judged, which I suppose is shame. Maybe the poems are an act of confession: a timeless way to process shame, and an invitation to forgiveness and love. I’ve been reading them out loud at The Kraken, which has been fun. I might be the first person to ever recite poetry in that little roadhouse. A handful of times, people have bought the poems off the stage. 

Not everyone gets the sexy poems. Many of my most requested songs are tragedies about death, addiction and murder. I’ve never been shamed for any of those, but a few fans are very uncomfortable with erotic poetry. So I’m handing your shame back to you. I’m living at my mom’s house and I don’t have room for it.

We’re going to work on an album with Austin this year. We’re talking Johnny into making a Christmas album with the musical saw. I have more poetry projects in the works. There are a few 2019 wild horse calendars left- a practice run for a whole book of Rodney Bursiel’s equine photography and my poetry. https://rodneybursielphotography.com/product/2019-horses-of-camargue-calendar/

Please sign the email list. Social media is free and easy but it’s chaotic and hard to know what reaches you. Sign the email list. It’s a place just for us. http://eepurl.com/ckeOhD

Someday, I’d like to complain about how much I pay in taxes. Someday, I’d like to not have to negotiate for health care. For now, I’m going to keep living on love and trying to say what everybody needs to hear. I do believe there’s a business in it.

We’ve been doing Facebook live on Wednesday nights and we’re working on a better quality broadcast. We want everyone to experience the neon beauty of this place my friend Nathan Brown called “a Quentin Tarantino movie.” 

We’re starting a monthly residency at Muddy Creek Cafe in Bethania NC. First one is January 10th. https://www.muddycreekcafeandmusichall.com/muddy-creek-bethania

For touring, we’re working with Craig Grossman of Green Room Music Source and he’s been good for us already. Thanks, Craig. https://www.greenroommusicsource.com

I’ll be scheduling another Online Songwriting Retreat soon and you can keep up with that here: http://eepurl.com/dCLKEX

Jonathan Byrd & The Pickup Cowboys really is a fantastic album and a beautiful 64-page color booklet, a family photo album of our touring life with Paul and the making of the album. http://www.jonathanbyrd.com/the-store/pickup-cowboy

On the T-shirt, Paul’s face sits right above your heart. On the back, there’s one of Paul’s favorite lyrics by our friend Matt Fockler. “Do you dream? Do your dreams come true? What do you see? What do you do to make it happen?” We’ll print one more run of these, and then they’re gone. Lots of ladies size L and XL left in classic black and emerald green. http://www.jonathanbyrd.com/the-store/t-shirts

I’ve sold 500 copies of my first poetry collection, ‘You’ve Changed.’ It’s still surreal to have my name on a real book. It has that book smell. http://www.jonathanbyrd.com/the-store/youve-changed-1

we are in heaven
the sky is an illusion
like any border

Like this border between years. I often think we mark time so we can more accurately mourn it. Time is real, no doubt about that. I hope you feel like your time was well spent reading this.

Division seems to be a trend lately. At a little roadhouse on a rural highway outside Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the guy in the NRA hat is dancing with the county’s Democratic Party fundraiser. We’ve got babies, dogs, grandmas, doctors, mechanics, hippies, farmers, and code writers. It’s our own Wednesday night prayer meeting. Lord knows I’ve needed it almost every week this year.

Y’all come. Please do park all the way off of the white line. The ticket is $193, and the show is worth it, but we’d rather you put it in the bucket. Your fan,

JByrd.

photos by Stan Lewis, Bob Johnson, Jim McKelvey, John Respess, and Rodney Bursiel

photos by Stan Lewis, Bob Johnson, Jim McKelvey, John Respess, and Rodney Bursiel

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