Listening to Warren Byrom’s new “Heavy Makes You Happy” album is akin to taking a Southbound drive. Highways, though, are strictly off limits, as the journey is best enjoyed by easing down backroads of jagged blues, churchy soul and folky reflection. The windows need to be down, too, so all the fragrant and humid sounds can hit you, the further from home you get.
Not surprisingly, the longtime local music stylist views the recording, which he will celebrate the release of with a Saturday performance at Al’s Bar, as a travelogue between Lexington and New Orleans. While a performance fixture here, Byrom performed extensively in the latter city with famed street performer Lissa Driscoll.
“That reference really has more to do with how New Orleans and Kentucky form such a big part of my psyche than any stylistic similarities between those places,” Byrom said. “The last song on the record, ‘Get Real,’ deals with that emotional connection directly.
“The traditional music of Eastern Kentucky has been a big influence and inspiration to me, as well as what remains of the wilderness lands there. The same goes for the music and culture of New Orleans, which has its own sense of wilderness.”
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The songs on this record aren’t about the music or history of those places, although they do reflect that to an extent. They’re about the pain and loss I experienced in moving back to Kentucky after Katrina.
Some of those inspirations were outlined on Byrom’s first record, “The Fabled Canelands” (which doubles as the name of the band he leads when not moonlighting with the likes of The Swells, Big Maracas and Small Batch, among other local outfits). But there is also a sense of profound unrest as “Heavy Makes You Happy” makes its way from the Crescent City back to Central Kentucky.
“The songs on this record aren’t about the music or history of those places, although they do reflect that to an extent,” Byrom says. “They’re about the pain and loss I experienced in moving back to Kentucky after Katrina, losing friends and relationships, and how I made sense of those things over the following years, and my own personal growth over that time period.
“A lot of what I’m trying to convey are very personal stories. That means a subtler approach with both the words and music. The music is there to help coax the meaning out of the words. But it’s always a conversation back and forth between the two. Often I’ll have to sacrifice lyrics to fit with where the music is going.”
If New Orleans provides a stylistic focal point for Byrom’s songs on “Heavy Makes You Happy,” his Lexington-area music brethren offer considerable local color. Longstanding local producer Duane Lundy oversaw the bulk of the recording at his Shangri-La studio with pals like drummer Robby Cosenza, guitarist/pedal steel pro J. Tom Hnatow, cellist Seth Murphy and vocalists Maggie Lander, Reva Williams and Melissa Jackson helping out.
“It’s a pure joy to get to work with such talented friends on these projects, so familiarity comes in handy,” Byrom says. “I’ve been writing and doing some shows with a new lineup this year — Chris (Sullivan) and Scott (Wilmoth) from the Swells, Sam Meyer on drums and Cecilia Miller-Wright on cello and vocals. For the release show on Saturday, we’ll have most of the Fabled Canelands collective on hand. It’s going to be blast.”
It’s a great feeling to get to bring music to the people who need it most.
But along with the rootsy intimacy that dominates “Heavy Makes You Happy” comes a snapshot from an unexpected performance setting, one that has provided an increasingly regular gig for Byrom. The solo acoustic reading of “Ice” comes from one of the monthly lunchtime concerts he has been playing at the University of Kentucky Albert B. Chandler Hospital as part of its Arts in HealthCare program.
“The space at the Chandler hospital has some wonderful acoustics and there’s an intimacy in that setting that’s really special,” he says. “It’s a great feeling to get to bring music to the people who need it most. Last winter there was a woman that stood there in her blue bathrobe holding onto her IV stand with a big smile, listening to me sing. After a couple songs she asked if I knew any George Jones. I played her the only one I knew, ‘She Thinks I Still Care.’
“We also did an acoustic set at Eastern State Hospital, and it was one of the most engaged audiences I’ve ever played for, with many of the patients singing along and getting up out of their chairs to dance. There was a real connection there, an appreciation, and they weren’t afraid to show it.”
Read Walter Tunis’ blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.