Ricky Byrd is one of the most famous rock guitarists you might not know. When you hear his name, you might scratch your head and think, 'Wait - I know I've heard of that guy,' but you might have to really think about it to place just where or why. But if you've been a fan of rock music for the last thirty or forty years, you've heard Byrd's guitar playing with Joan Jett and the Blackhearts (on the iconic opening chords of "I Love Rock and Roll") - not to mention acts like Ian Hunter, Roger Daltrey and Southside Johnny. A prolific writer, he's also had many of his songs cut by other artists.
Byrd has spent his entire life playing rock and roll, and the full depth and breadth of that journey is reflected on his new album "Lifer," which was released on Feb. 5. The record is a full-on slice of good-time rock and soul, with tracks like the classic shuffle "Rock 'n' Roll Boys" and the Stones-y swagger of "Dream Big." Byrd adds horns to "Ways of a Woman" for a New York soul vibe, while "Married Man" is a humorous ode to what it takes to keep a marriage together.
Byrd recently spoke to Examiner.com from his home in New York, which he was just getting back into after it was hit by Hurricane Sandy. But you can't survive forty years in the rock and roll trenches without developing the ability to shrug some things off, and the rocker seemed fairly Zen about . . . well, pretty much everything, from his storm damage to the notion that promoting one's first solo album is usually a younger man's game. Byrd seems to not only accept that he'll have to prove himself in a new and different way -- he appears to relish the challenge.
I was telling Carol [Kaye, the legendary rock publicist] that I've worked with her on various things all these years, and I had no idea the two of you were married.
Yeah, you know, we've tried various versions of this working relationship. [Laughs]. At one point a long time ago she was my manager, and that didn't work out well. Because you get very sensitive about your art, so it's hard when somebody you're attached to tells you, "This song sucks." So I promptly fired her. [Laughs].
No - when it came time to put this record out, I mean, she's the best publicist going. So we made sure we won't talk about it at home.
This album has been a long, long time coming. After such a long career, what made this the right time for a solo record?
Well, this right time started about ten, twelve years ago. [Laughs]. I started this record in 2001, really, with Ray Kennedy down there [in Nashville]. You know, he does all the Steve Earle records. We started in 2001, and we cut six tracks. He was the guy that I chased down when I decided that I wanted to do this, and I wanted to figure out who the right producer was. I heard a copy of "I Feel Alright," that Steve Earle record, and I fell in love with everything about it.
We did six tracks, and only "Turnstiles" from those sessions is on the record. I made several trips down there, and it just became this anxiety-ridden journey - I had to keep going down there, and I have a family here, and I only had a limited time to work in the studio, and I had to catch a plane . . .
We worked on it on and off all the way through 2004; I'd make a trip down, we'd do some more stuff - and then a lot of time went by, and he got busy doing album after album, and I started playing with Southside Johnny. And now it's maybe 2010, and it's getting kinda frustrating.
I ran into a friend of mine on Facebook that, back in the day with Joan, we used to record with. He's a great producer, great engineer, great bass player and great guitar player, and I literally just ran into him on a post. I had just put ProTools in my home studio, and I asked him to come over and show me how to use it. So he came over, and "Foolish Kind" was the first track that I wrote for this batch. And we cut that in my home studio. Then we took it out to his studio and put live drums on it, and I just went, "You know what? This sounds pretty damn good!" [Laughs]. "What if we did the record up here in New York?" And he was all for it, of course.
So the next year and a half, we spent recording the record, and the reason it took that long is because we could only work on weekends, and maybe a day during the week. He was busy working on another project, and I was busy doing stuff, and we recorded, I'm gonna say maybe 14 new tracks, plus we had the six from the original sessions.
We finished it, we mixed it here, we sent it down to Ray in Nashville, he mastered it - and there you go.
That's a long odyssey. [Laughs].
A long odyssey! But you know what, if I'd finished it in that first batch of songs, I wouldn't have had all of these songs that I wrote since, that are the main songs on the record.
This is what you might call a good-time rock and roll record.
It's pretty straight up.
It's straight up - you know, it veers off into soul and R&B a little here and there, but it's all from the same well. It's all me, and it's all from the stuff I grew up on.
Tell me about that a little bit - how did your early influences lead to these songs, specifically?
I was a pre-teen in the early '70s, and that's when I was soaking up all the stuff. And the thing that I always say about the difference between now and then, radio had just come where you would hear album sides, but mostly AM radio, you would have one station that would play every genre of music, pretty much. You would have the Beatles going into Dean Martin, going into the Kinks, going into Otis Redding. So I could pick and choose what music I wanted to follow, and I think kids pretty much lock into one station today, whether it's a hip hop station . . . even the pop stations are all kind of one motif.
So those are my influences; everything from Wilson Pickett, Al Green, the Who, Humble Pie, the Stones, the Faces, Free, Sam and Dave . . . everything that I heard when I was a kid. I latched onto a certain kind of music that was sort of below-the-waist grooves, kind of sexy. That's what affected me, and that's the guy I became. That's the guitar player I became, and the musician. Even the rock guys I loved were all kind of knee deep in that stuff. The British pre-war musicians, the generation that were before me, they used to mail order their R&B and soul and blues music from America. They turned it into rock and roll records and sold it back to us.
I remember every weekend my friends and I would take the train, go into the city and get "Melody Maker," and "Sounds," of course, and see what new British records were out. And that's the path I followed. So all these years later, I decided that since I was paying the check, to do the record that I wanted to do. [Laughs].
I really just had a couple of rules. I wanted it to be fun, and I wanted it to have the flavor and the heart and soul of the music that made me want to be this guy. And I knew instinctively that I could not be the only person that misses this kind of music.
There's really nothing come out that's like this, because everybody's really - especially in the pop market - trying to get hit records. Because radio's a certain way. I'm too far into it to try to do anything but put out what I do.
So going into this, you're aware that there's a disinclination on the part of radio to play a certain thing. How do you get around that in promoting a new record that's coming out?
I'm not trying to get around anything, man. I'm just putting this out, and I'll certainly aim at the stations that play this kind of music still. I mean, I can't get on classic rock stations, because you have to have hits to get on them, at first. And it's not classic rock, it just has that feel. I'm just gonna put it out there and hope it catches fire. I'm just counting on the fact that - first and foremost, I love it to death.
Forget about freakin' radio, and just do a good record. I mean, there's plenty of radio stuff on there in various forms, but that's not for me to decide. I can just promote it, and talk about it, and hopefully find . . . I mean, the way to do it now is word of mouth. Hopefully I'll find those few people that it's kind of a touchstone to what they like listening to, and they'll play the record. You know how it starts - some guy in some Midwestern radio station throws it on, and hopefully it'll catch fire.
You know, I go on Facebook, and I put up a link to my website that has the record - RickyByrd.com - and you can get a physical copy, or you can get, there's links to iTunes and Amazon. Well, some guy in Amsterdam that saw me play with Joan sees it immediately. How cool is that?
There's a perception in the wider culture that rock and roll - and music in general - is "easy money," which is a joke, because it's the hardest money you could ever make in your life.
But yet the people that really do it - the lifers like me - they really have no choice. This is what I'm here for . . .y'know, to be a good Dad and stuff - but music is what I do. I don't fix cars, I don't know how to fix anything in my house - I'm basically a musician.