Jonathan Byrd Talks About “Working Offshore” (INTERVIEW)

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When a distant relative casually mentioned to North Carolina songwriter Jonathan Byrd that he’d worked on an offshore oil rig for a year as a teenager, he planted the seed of a song for Jonathan. He had been thinking about writing a song about the oil industry but didn’t want to be insulting or say things he wasn’t qualified to say.

“I heard my friends at folk festivals singing about big oil, but they all drove 2,000 miles to be at the festival, and it’s sort of being insulting to big oil companies. You didn’t ride your mule from Maine to Texas to play this gig. So I wanted to be able to talk about the oil industry in an honest way.”

So Jonathan asked Charles McCuen, his wife’s cousin’s brother-in-law (“so, loosely, a relative”) to tell his whole story, or as much as he could remember, over lunch. He listened to the recording of the interview over and over until the phrases stuck in his brain. When he developed a piece of music that felt like a good fit, a “working-man, blue collar piece of music,” he started fitting the words into the music. Without a lot of judgment or editorial comment, the song “Working Offshore,” from the 2014 album You Can’t Outrun the Radio, tells the story of a year in the life of a very young McCuen working on an oil rig off the shore of Texas in the late 1950s.

It was Houston Texas, 1958.
I was looking for work from state to state.
The Man said, “Son, you’re way too young,
but there’s jobs to be done, working offshore.”

I caught a 64-footer to a Grand Isle rig.
I told ‘em I was eighteen, just to get the gig.
Two-fifty an hour, a steak and a shower,
energy was power, working offshore.

It’s a long way out, just to trust your luck.
It’s a long way down, just to bring it back up.

They put me in the crow’s nest, lining up a run.
I was lining up another when that one was done.
When the sunset bled, the Gulf turned red,
two men to a bed, working offshore.

It was ten days on, five days off.
My back was getting strong, my head was getting soft.
I lost a finger in a chain, had to retrain,
a little pain for my gain, working offshore.

It’s a long way out, just to trust your luck.
It’s a long way down, just to bring it back up.

So, I packed it up in 1959.
I went back to school to get what’s mine.
I heard then, eighteen of my friends
never came in from working offshore.

No telling how many men have fallen.
Now it’s two-fifty, what, three bucks a gallon?
You’re standing in that line, just keep it in mind,
there’s men still dying, working offshore.

It’s a long way out, just to trust your luck.
It’s a long way down, just to bring it back up.

Of McCuen, Jonathan says, “He’s a great talker. He has a lot of great things to say and he’s southern. He has this poetic way of speaking.”

So to capture McCuen’s voice, Jonathan dropped specific words and phrases from the interview into the lyrics, and the details lend authenticity to the song. “Like 64-footer, that’s what he called the boat. He said, ‘I got a 64-footer’ instead of saying ‘I got a boat.’ Grand Isle was where they took off from. $2.50 an hour. The crow’s nest. Two men to a bed. Ten days on, five days off.”

The only part of the song that isn’t about McCuen is the verse about losing a finger.

Jonathan explains, “Sometimes they would throw this chain around there and every now and then someone would get caught in it. Guys would lose legs. The thing would be turning and they’d be caught in the chain and guys would just lose a leg and die, bleed to death on the rig. Kind of wild. That was from a story that he told about another guy that he worked with.”

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A songwriter writing about an issue has to walk a fine line if he doesn’t want to sound preachy. That may be one of the strengths of the story-song form. It lays out what happened and lets the listener take it from there. It isn’t until the end of the song that Jonathan asks the reader to consider the relevance of a fifty-year-old story, the responsibility that we all bear.

“It’s important for me to be honest, and to try to ask questions that nobody else asks,” Jonathan says. “Almost like comedians do. They bring out these things. Part of the reason comedians are funny is that they bring out these questions that nobody asks. They take you by surprise. I want to do that a little bit. Like at the end of this song when I’m saying we’re all contributing to this. This is the human cost of harvesting this fuel. People die doing it and we’re all contributing to this, and we’re all driving along singing along with this song. When you talk about this, when you talk about big oil and you talk about fossil fuels, just keep in mind that you’re a part of the problem.”

If the lyrics were inspired by a comment made in passing by McCuen, the sound and theme of the album, which focus on transportation, was inspired by an even more random meeting. At one of Jonathan’s shows in Montreal, two women, Alexa Dirks and Andrina Turenne, were singing harmonies and dancing with each other in the back.

“I had never met them. I had never even been to Montreal, so Corin (Corin Raymond, Jonathan’s friend and frequent collaborator) introduced me to these two ladies. They’re actually from Winnipeg. They were there to rehearse with their band, a half-Montreal, half-Winnepeg, band. So after the gig we were out on the sidewalk, passing the guitar around and I just kept thinking, because they were these great singers, what songs do I have that would be great with a couple singers, so we can have some fun with this?”

Jonathan’s song “Mama’s Got Wheels” came up that night, as did “.38 Baby.”

“There were a handful of songs that I left with that night in my mind. These songs hadn’t been recorded, and I needed to record these songs with these ladies. And that’s what really started the record. And it was just interesting that as the record developed, as I wrote more songs, they thematically matched as well. Not only were they suited for these ladies to sing with me but they also had these transportation themes. Even ‘Pale Rider.’ It’s one where they don’t sing at all, but it’s about a horse, the pale rider on a white horse. There’s still that mode of transportation, which is why it’s on the record even though the ladies don’t sing on it. So there was the initial process of gathering songs to play with the ladies and then there was the secondary process of recognizing the theme in those songs and extending it into the album.”

Listen to Alexa Dirks’ and Andrina Turenne’s band, Chic Gamine:

About two years after the random meeting, Jonathan traveled to Manitoba to record the album with Alexa Dirks, Andrina Turenne and musicians recommended by friends and the sound engineer. Grant Siemens plays electric and steel guitar, Rejean Ricard plays bass, Joanna Miller plays drums and sings, Chris Scruggs plays steel guitar, Steve Conn plays organ, and Corin Raymond adds vocals.

“Working Offshore” is spare and bluesy, with the bass contributing the strongest instrumental melodic line.

“That was actually the guitar riff,” Jonathan says. “When I sent them mp3s of demos I was just playing the guitar riff like that. When we did the session the bass player just started playing that riff and it was perfect. I said, ‘I’m not even going to play the guitar because you’ve got that part.’ I don’t even play the acoustic guitar (on this song.)”

The song and album result, in part, from the good luck of chance encounters, and the songwriter paying enough attention to notice the good luck happening. The relative mentioning a job from fifty years earlier, two women singing in perfect harmony in the back of a bar. The band assembled to record this record might be the third chance encounter that made this music what it is.

“I’d never met them, I’d never worked with them,” Jonathan says. “It was a really amazing experience. None of them play in the same band but it turned out to be just perfect for the record. It was like watching magic happen. Things like when the bass player just started playing that riff and it was so perfect. ‘I don’t even need to play the guitar on that because you guys got it. I’m just gonna sing.’”

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  1. Pingback: New interview with Jonathan Byrd, a few spots left for show, more stuff - Common Chord Concerts Common Chord Concerts |

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