North Carolina songwriter Jonathan Byrd writes songs that manage to sound both old and new—rooted in traditional folk and country yet all his own. He’s also a masterful storyteller in song and in prose, as is evident in his description of writing “White Oak Wood,” originally released on his 2011 album Cackalack

The story

I grew up in North Carolina, which is known for its pork barbecue tradition. There’s “western style,” which is shoulder meat with a sweet tomato sauce, and “eastern style,” which uses the whole hog and a lighter vinegar sauce. People argue about which is best, which is ridiculous, as first of all you can enjoy whichever you like and second it’s obvious that eastern style is the best.

Now you’ve got to smoke it. You can dig a pit in the ground or split a barrel in half and put a grate down. You fill the bottom with oak or hickory and maybe add some apple or other fruit woods.

My favorite is the mild flavor of white oak. White oak is very low in tannic acid. The deer and squirrels will eat the acorns as soon as they drop. For red and black oak, they’ll bury the acorns and wait for the weather to leach them out. You can smell the tannins too when you split red oak. It’s very strong, like spicy gym socks.

The white oak family is the slowest growing of the oaks so it makes a dense wood. It’ll burn for a long time. If you’ve got your fire going already, you can put white oak in fairly green and it’ll burn for more than a day.

It’s almost a shame to burn it because it’s also quite beautiful. That slow growth also makes it strong and stable. It makes a great floor and furniture that will last hundreds of years. With a natural finish it’s bright with slight luminous stripes.

But we’re here to talk about barbecue. So you put your meat or the whole gutted animal in your smoker and you smoke it for eighteen to twenty hours. Or more depending on the size of your hog. In North Carolina we have what’s called a pig pickin’, which is where you just throw the lid open and leave a set of tongs there for everybody to get whatever they want.

Now I married a nice Jewish girl from Westchester County, New York. When I was falling in love with her, I got really serious and wrote her a love letter. I had to let her know how important pork was to me. We’ve had short ribs for Passover since. So it worked out.

In fact she’s a real foodie and she turned me on to the finer points of barbecue. The meat’s not as good as it used to be when I was young. A lot of people are using Smithfield hogs or whatever. Factory meat. Some folks don’t take the time to prepare the meat correctly, or they put a bunch of sugar on it. You’ve got to find a master if you want the real stuff. The fire halls and churches often make the best barbecue for their fundraisers because they’re using hogs their members raised and taking their time with it. They’re not trying to squeeze a dollar the way a restaurateur would.

One year I was touring with my friend Corin Raymond in rural Alberta, Canada. We played a show for a couple in Nanton and they had raised their own hogs. They were fantastic people. He went into detail about raising the hogs, as it was the first time they had done it though he had grown up farming. They knew they were going to eat them so they treated them right. They made a chili verde that could have brought world peace that night. After talking to them, I had all these fresh details in my head about raising hogs as well as my history with smoking and eating them.

The next night we played in Black Diamond, Alberta, and stayed with an old cowboy couple. She was Ashkenazi like my wife, and had that same beautiful sculpted face and dark eyes. He had every weapon known to man by the door. A bow and arrow. Knives of various lengths. A Luger in a holster. They would tell stories like, “Remember that night we had to go steal our horses back?”

We stayed up late talking, smoking, and eating pickles or cheese or whatever she put on the table. He brought out a banjo and started plucking on it. He had one dark and plunky modal groove in B minor. That’s all he played. I started thinking, “I wish I had one song I could play with this guy.” So I literally went into the living room with all these facts about hogs and wood and the ghost of his minor key banjo groove in my head, and while they talked I wrote this song. I came back in the kitchen maybe an hour later and we played it together.

—Jonathan Byrd

The lyrics

White oak wood goes in green,
smoke a whole hog and leave it clean.
All I need is some white oak wood.
Cut it short and split it soon,
burn all night into afternoon.
All I need is some white oak wood.

Time to take my mattock down.
I got a hog three hundred pounds.
Cut up a drum and hinge a hood,
feed everybody in the neighborhood.
All I need is some white oak wood.

White oak wood is a good veneer;
pegs and plywood disappear.
All I need is some white oak wood.
Takes a stain and ages well.
I did it myself and I can’t tell.
All I need is some white oak wood.

Time to take my mattock down.
I got a hog three hundred pounds.
Cut up a drum and hinge a hood,
feed everybody in the neighborhood.
All I need is some white oak wood.

White oak wood, it’s a shady tree,
slow to grow and a sight to see.
All I need is some white oak wood.
I got one on the old homestead
worth more alive than it is dead.
All I need is some white oak wood.

Time to take my mattock down.
I got a hog three hundred pounds.
Cut up a drum and hinge a hood,
feed everybody in the neighborhood.
All I need is some white oak wood.

Jonathan Byrd Music SESAC

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Behind the song

The Complete Singer-Songwriter