"The American dream has always been about moving west, and I've gotten about as far west as I can; I live across the street from the Strait of Georgia," blues icon Jim Byrnes told the North Shore News from a tour stop in Alberta. His new album, Everywhere West, is as bluesy as it gets, and even the title Byrnes came up with is steeped in Americana.
"I've got a great photograph that was taken in a railroad yard. I come from a railroad family -- my uncle and my grandfather -- and I worked on a railroad as a kid. The Burlington Northern railroad slogan used to be 'Everywhere West of Chicago.' And I've got this picture of a freight car that I kind of love and the logo is painted across there, "Everywhere West," and I thought that sums things up in cool way. And I've got a buddy that always says 'Man, it just be that way sometimes movin' west.'"
Originally from Missouri, Byrnes has been a fixture in the American and Canadian blues scene for decades. Having reached that career stage when he can pick his projects with care, Everywhere West is a very personal record.
" 'Take Out Some Insurance On Me,' that's a Jimmy Reed song I've been playing since I was 13, 14 years old," he says. "I'd never recorded it but it's so much a part of what I came out of. All of this music reminds me so much of them and the years that I have put into this. What makes it so powerful for me is that it really is a reflection of who I am and where I come from and we're just going to keep going that way."
Byrnes has previously talked about his preference for live performance over studio work, but working with longtime collaborators at Black Hen Music helped evoke those smoky, whiskey-soaked clubs in the bad part of East St. Louis where Byrnes first saw legends like Reed, Muddy Waters, The Howling Wolf, Ike and Tina, and many, many others.
"This is my fourth collaboration with Steve Dawson as producer and we've done this and we've done that, we made the gospel record I wanted to make and put together the Sojourners and they've gone off on their own now. Steve is the head of the label too and he wanted to put something out in October so he said, 'Let's just make a plain old blues record.' And I said that'd be great; we can get it as stripped down, greasy, grimy, as gritty as we could make it and so we're very happy with it," he said.
"A lot of the stuff was done with all of us sitting in the same room playing music together. There's even a couple of first takes on this record. What you hear is what you get. So much music is manufactured these days -- and fair enough, it's a business. But I can hear it in the production. But this is manufactured by all of us being guys who have played together for years. If you went into that room the five of us there would probably be a couple hundred years of experience. I mean I've been at this professionally for 45 years now."
When he's not touring Europe and North America in support of his latest music project, Byrnes takes on a string of acting jobs, including a recurring role in the hit Vancouver-based sci-fi show Sanctuary. He's also got a weekly radio show, Slipping into Darkness, 9 p.m. on Sunday nights for Shore FM. And on top of that, he's plugging away at his memoirs, a book he hopes to see finished sometime next year.
You could call him a Renaissance Man, but it's hard to get away from seeing Byrnes as the consummate bluesman, a identity that saturates every note of Everywhere West.
"It's music about the human experience. It's about standing up and looking life in the face and saying 'OK, you're like that and I'm like this. How can we get along?' The blues is about accepting reality and exorcizing demons. Some people take it the wrong way and think it's about hanging your head. Well, you do hang your head but at the end of it you put your head back and you holler. You send that message out that 'I'm still here, baby, and I'm still rocking.'"