"Well I wished I was in Austin…"
It’s a spring afternoon in Austin, but Pat Byrne isn’t at the Chili Parlor Bar, where the late Guy Clark longed to be when he wrote the opening line of “Dublin Blues” decades ago. Rather, Byrne is at Donn’s Depot, the funky West Fifth Street joint that introduced him to Clark’s classic tune.
You can thank Chris Gage for that. The local piano maestro plays every Monday at Donn’s, and when Byrne first found his way to Austin from his native Ireland a couple of years ago, Donn’s was one of the first places he landed.
Good thing, too. A promising singer and songwriter who’d already been through the major-label wringer back home after winning the Irish version of the TV show “The Voice” in 2012, Byrne came here looking for a fresh start. Our city’s deep roots in traditional songcraft have proven ideal for an artist who’s already accomplished a lot but shows enormous potential for what he calls “phase two” of his career.
Byrne and close friend Stephen Carolan, an Irish guitar player, were at Donn’s a year ago when Gage pulled “Dublin Blues” out of the bag, dedicating it to the two young blokes from across the pond. It hit them both instantly. Soon enough, “Dublin Blues” became part of Byrne’s repertoire, a perfect match between song and artist. It’s almost like Clark wrote this song 30 years ago with Byrne’s migration in mind.
That fateful Monday night in 2018 was during Carolan’s first trip to visit Byrne in Texas, a two-week stay that included the recording of a live duo album at Houston’s storied folk venue, Anderson Fair. Carolan went home but vowed to return. Byrne, meanwhile, stuck around and hooked up with Austin guitarist Rich Brotherton, a 25-year veteran of Robert Earl Keen’s band whose recent departure from that gig has given him more time for other projects.
“Rituals,” a seven-song album Byrne wrote last year in Austin, came out in November and immediately established him as a major new talent whose potential appeal reaches far beyond his dual home bases of Ireland and Texas. From the anthemic title track to exquisite love song “Smiling Eyes” to radio-ready upbeat groover “You Talk” to regret-filled heartbreaker “It Used to Be Love” to an emotional ballad for his “Hills of Killedmond” homeland, Byrne steps forward with original music that’s instantly compelling and deeply rewarding.
“But here I sit in Dublin …”
It wasn’t a given that fate would shine the way it has here on Byrne, who’s 29. Hailing from Borris, a town of about 2,000 in County Carlow an hour or so southwest of Dublin, Byrne played in cover bands from his teenage years through an unfinished stint at the National University of Ireland in Maynooth. Renowned Irish troubadours including Paul Brady and Luke Kelly resonated with him, but he was mostly drawn to classic American singer-songwriters, from Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen to Tom Waits and Bob Dylan.
When NBC’s “The Voice” launched an Irish offshoot, Byrne’s then-girlfriend and his father encouraged him to give it a shot. His girlfriend "actually filled out the forms and sent in the application, and it came back after I’d forgotten about it that I’d been accepted to audition,” Byrne says. “My ego had a little tickle with that, and I was like, ‘OK, I’ll go and see if I get past this stage.’ And that kept happening. I never thought I’d win, but eventually I won.” A version of Springsteen’s “The River” that can be found on YouTube helped to put him over the top.
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The prize was a major-label recording contract, resulting in “All or Nothing,” Byrne’s 2012 debut for Universal. He still plays a couple of songs from the album regularly in his sets today, but most of the material, written by committee with the label’s pop-Springsteen image of Byrne in mind, left him feeling unfulfilled.
“It’s something I look back on and I cringe a bit,” he says. “But I had a great time. It’s a fun thing for a 21-year-old to be in front of 500,000 people every Sunday. I had a bit of fame for a little while, which was fun. But it was a tough year when that album came out because I wasn’t really happy with it, and I didn’t feel like I wanted to push it at all.”
Enter Ted Lundgren, a Houstonian whose wife had a two-year job in England at the time. The Lundgrens got to know Byrne from his frequent gigs in their suburban London community, and Ted took a serious interest in helping the young musician find a new way forward.
Byrne was visiting the U.S. in January 2016 when he reconnected with Lundgren, who was now back in Texas. “He said, ‘Why don’t you come to Austin, I think you’d love it here.' So I came down and immediately fell in love with the place. It was a constant bar crawl for a week, seeing all these great bands and great venues. I was like, ‘This is where I need to be.’”
It was precisely the fresh start he needed after his ultimately unfulfilling experience with “The Voice” had run its course. “I just kept my head down for years, because I was always slightly ashamed of my music,” he says. “The reason I’m here is to try to get away from it all.”
“There’s no need to forgive me, for thinking what I thought.”
One by one, the pieces began falling into place in Texas. Lundgren’s friend Denby Auble, founder of indie-roots label Blue Corn, hooked Byrne up with Austin studio 6 String Ranch, which recorded a solo version of Byrne’s “Beat As One” for a simple YouTube video during a subsequent visit in early 2017. Kris Wade of 6 String eventually signed on to play bass with Byrne and recruited keyboardist Micah Motenko and drummer Jeff Sanders to help fill out the band, along with Carolan.
Auble also suggested teaming up with Brotherton, who’d spent months in Ireland during his 20s steeped in the country’s traditional folklore. An accomplished guitarist and producer with significant Americana credits and connections, Brotherton was a perfect match for Byrne’s musical asethetic.
After a spell back in Ireland late last year, Byrne and Carolan returned to Austin together in January 2019, set with three-year visas and determined to make Austin their new home. Brotherton connected Byrne with respected local booking agent Davis McLarty, who quickly helped get Byrne a slew of quality gigs at venues such as the Saxon Pub, the Continental Club and Gruene Hall, after South Austin brewpub ABGB got on board early.
Following Byrne here was “a no-brainer,” says Carolan, who’s a few years younger and got to know Byrne through his older brother, Gene Carolan. YouTube videos credited to “Pat Byrne & the Carolan Brothers” testify to their beautiful vocal harmony blends on songs such as Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Helplessly Hoping.”
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The Carolans had a good foothold in Ireland playing weddings and similar functions, but “it was just playing the same songs in the same order twice a week, every week,” Stephen says. In Austin with Byrne, “I could make money playing with my best friend and being creative with him in a place that’s new and sunny.”
Onstage together, the two Irish pals are perfectly dialed in to each other. Brotherton is plenty capable of serving as Byrne’s guitarist in a pinch, but there’s something special about the years Byrne and Carolan have already put in together.
“Stephen has a very particular way of playing and singing, and he knows the songs inside out, because we did an Irish tour, as well and we rehearsed it more than anyone,” Byrne says. “So for me it would be great if he’d stay, and I think I’ve convinced him to make the move.”
Carolan will return to Ireland over the summer for some bookings he’d accepted well in advance, but he plans to be back in Austin by September. “The trick is to be irreplaceable,” he says with a laugh.
“If money was the reason, well I would not be the same.”
So what’s next for Byrne? Right now, opportunities to catch him locally and regionally abound. In addition to shows with his band in April at Austin’s Cactus Cafe, New Braunfels’ Riley’s Tavern and Houston’s Mucky Duck, he and fellow Ireland native Andrea Magee of Beat Root Revival have been heading up “Irish Invasion” shows. The gigs at the Saxon Pub on many Sunday evenings feature traditional music from their home country, with Brotherton and Carolan also in the mix. (They’ll also play an Irish Invasion show April 7 at C-Boy’s.)
In the meantime, Byrne is writing more new songs. He recorded one a few weeks ago at a studio in Marfa with Miles Zuniga of Austin bands Fastball and the Resentments. And he continues to adapt material by Texas songwriters into his set; the "Live at Anderson Fair" album included his rendition of Townes Van Zandt's "Tecumseh Valley."
Sometimes the ties between Byrne’s homeland and Austin seem almost destined. When I ask him whether the phrase “past the point of rescue” in his song “Surrender” might have any connection to Texas troubadour Hal Ketchum’s 1991 Curb Records debut “Past the Point of Rescue,” Byrne’s response is a revelation. The song that gave Ketchum’s record its name was actually written by Mick Hanly, an Irishman who lives just down the road from Byrne’s family. There’s talk of Byrne working “Past the Point of Rescue” into a future set — perhaps at Gruene Hall, where Ketchum got his start in the 1980s.
Eventually, it’ll be time for Byrne to make another record, perhaps with the help of a larger record label. But he’s in no hurry.
“I had such a nightmare experience with that before,” he says of his brief major-label tenure in Ireland. “It felt really impersonal and like I was part of this big machine. But with Ted and Davis and Rich and all these people, I have a personal connection with them.
“I would love to get to the stage where it’s possible to sign with a big label. But I’m not chasing it. I just want to be able to make music, and for people to want to hear it. That’s the goal.”