Jon Byrd’s new EP, Me and Paul, borrows its name from the 1971 Willie Nelson song of the same title — a saga of nights spent in honky-tonks and making music with a good friend. It’s a story that Byrd and his collaborator, pedal steel guitarist Paul Niehaus, have also lived, although differing in one important aspect. While Willie’s “Me and Paul” story focused on the “rough and rocky traveling” of life on the road, Jon’s Me and Paul is the result of playing in one location, interrupted by a rough and rocky year without a live audience.
As an acclaimed country guitarist and singer-songwriter with four previous albums to his credit, Byrd and Niehaus crossed paths several times over the last 20 years. Niehaus, a founding member of the avant-garde country music collective Lambchop, has built a career as a highly in-demand sideman working with many rock and Americana acts including Calexico, Iris DeMint, Iron and Wine, and the late Justin Townes Earle.
Byrd and Niehaus’ musical partnership began when Niehaus began sitting in on Byrd’s frequent local club gigs over the last few years. “The thing I love about playing with Paul is that he’s not a hot licks Nashville country steel player,” Byrd says. “I’ve got friends that can do that — Pete Finney, Eddie Lang — and they’re brilliant at it, but I love Paul’s approach. He plays with all these various folk and rock singers and nobody calls him to play honky-tonk stuff. I like the idea of someone coming at country steel playing from a little bit different angle and a little bit different background.”
By early 2018, Byrd and Niehaus’ musical partnership was solid, and they plotted out a weekly residency at The Family Wash, just weeks before the East Nashville club suddenly closed for good. “I’m good at closing bars,” Byrd says with a laugh. “After The Wash closed [Daniel Walker of Dee’s Country Cocktail Lounge] said come on over and pick it up on Tuesdays at 6 p.m. The first show we did at Dee’s we had a rhythm section, but when I played my gut-string guitar with Paul’s pedal steel, it got covered up.”
Dropping the rhythm section, Byrd and Niehaus began refining their partnership, creating a truly unique sound around the interplay between Byrd’s vocals and Spanish guitar finger-picking and Niehaus’ expressive steel guitar “voice.” A collaboration that hearkens back to the late 1940s recordings of Eddy Arnold and “Little” Roy Wiggins, while incorporating seven subsequent decades of great country honky-tonk traditions.
“The people that came to see us immediately got it,” Byrd says. “They appreciated my fingerpicking and Paul’s style combined with a good melody and a sad song.”
After two years of Tuesday nights, Byrd planned a special thank you gift for their loyal fans, a five-song EP they planned to record with Joe McMahan in his East Nashville studio. “I felt like I owed it to Paul and our friends who come see us over and over again and don’t get tired of us,” Byrd says, “but I also wanted to capture this thing Paul and I created. We had time booked to record in March 2020, but we canceled it when the pandemic hit. It was too scary and too weird and we did not go back to the studio until November. We lost eight months.”
Me and Paul is an impressive effort featuring five songs that highlight Byrd and Niehaus’ distinctive duet style. The collection includes a country love ballad (the Byrd-Kevin Gordon co-write “I’ll Be Her Only One”); a hillbilly saga of violence and friendship (“Junior and Lloyd,” a song written by Atlanta songwriter and Byrd’s best friend, James Kelly); a tale of heartbreak (the Byrd and Shannon Wright original, “Why Must You Think of Leaving”); and two classic cover tunes (the Louvin Brothers’ “Cash on the Barrelhead” and J. J. Cale’s “Don’t Go to Strangers”).
“We could have picked from more than 50 different songs,” Byrd says,” but I wanted to pick five songs that would capture a certain feeling. We weren’t trying to recreate the live feeling of playing at Dee’s, but we were trying to tap into what made our playing together special. I never know what Paul can and will do. I’m still figuring out his abilities and aesthetics, and that’s a wonderful thing.”
With the release of the EP and hope on the horizon for a return to some form of “normalcy,” Byrd is cautious about the risk but also eager to return to the setting that inspired Me and Paul. An experience that cannot be duplicated in a livestream performance.
“The people that came to see us immediately got it. They appreciated my fingerpicking and Paul’s style combined with a good melody and a sad song.”
“That’s the thing about playing into the back hole of the internet,” Byrd says. “I love that some people have been productive during the last year, but I like playing [to a live audience]. That’s what moves me and inspires me and I haven’t done that in 14 months.”
“I don’t mind clanking bottles, billiard balls cracking on tables, and people laughing,” he continues. “I’ve never been a ‘shush’ guy. I don’t think about how people should be quiet and listen, I just think it sounds like people having a good time, and I have a good time playing with Paul, and that’s what we do.”