‘Outsider Americana’ meets the music industry

Megan Jean Klay and her husband, Byrne, performed at Shiners in Greensboro on May 28. (photo by Jordan Green)

Megan Jean Klay was nursing a migraine in her van in the parking lot of Shiners — a bar, game room and music venue near Guilford College in Greensboro — a couple hours before a set with her husband on a recent Saturday evening, when she emerged for an interview.

Equipped with a double bed and providing ample room for their tiny Chihuahua, Arriba McEntire, the van was an investment the couple made last year to accommodate a touring schedule that had grown to about 200 nights a year.

Accompanied by the steady thunk of a cornhole game and the players’ exuberant hollering, Klay and her husband Byrne reflected on their life on the road, eking out a modest livelihood and making gradual progress playing a style of music they call “outsider Americana.”

“We’re stubborn and we’re married,” Megan Jean said as an explanation for their lifestyle. “We’re the lucky ones. I feel bad for the guys that are out on the road hungry, that are missing their girlfriends and their kids. My family is right here. I don’t have kids, but we’ve got Arriba McEntire.”

“We’re good at making $20 and $50 a night,” Byrne added, as an explanation for how it’s more economical to cover the costs of keeping two people on the road, as opposed to a full band of five or six.

They met in New York City at an experimental dance show called Moist Tiny Elephants — don’t ask about the name; they don’t know. Megan Jean was studying theater at New York University, and Byrne was enrolled in the jazz program at the New School. Fed up with the cost of renting practice space two years after forming a band together, they relocated to Charleston, SC in 2008. Charleston was their home base until last year, when they experienced difficulty getting their mail because they were only home for about 60 days of the year. For complicated reasons, they found that it was impractical to maintain a permanent mailing address in South Carolina, and moved their base of operations to Pennsylvania, where Megan Jean’s family owns a farm.

Never heard of Megan Jean & the KFB, as the wife-husband duo is billed? That’s not their fault.

Megan Jean rattled off an extensive list of shows the duo has played in Greensboro, going back to open mic night at the now defunct Flatiron back in 2007, and also including East West BBQ Fest, the Green Bean, the Blind Tiger, New York Pizza, Glenwood Coffee & Books and even Shiners previously. She demonstrated a sufficient familiarity with the particulars of Greensboro’s music scene to put in an unkind word against developer Roy Carroll because of his long-running efforts to turn down the volume on downtown music venues.

“People say to me: ‘Have you ever played my town?’” Megan Jean recounted. “‘I don’t know. Where do you live?’ ‘Lynchburg, Va.’ I tell them: ‘No, but look for us to be playing your best friend’s living room next week.’”

Built around Megan Jean’s richly melismatic voice — an instrument capable of shifting with ease from spooky carnival fun to backwoods sorrow or a sly pop sensibility — with the percussive accompaniment of Byrne’s electric banjo playing, the couple’s music draws promiscuously from jazz, blues, rockabilly, rock-and-roll and Latin music.

The couple has begun to make some important inroads, and they’ve gotten serious about the business aspect of their music. They’ve played at South by Southwest and the annual conference of the Americana Music Association. In the meantime, continuing to play music they love night after night feels like a victory in itself. They earn money from their gigs and merch sales, and Byrne has parlayed his role as the band’s artist in residence into several gallery exhibits up and down the East Coast.

“You can develop your own content and you market your content,” Megan Jean said, “but let’s face it: Your recorded music is just an elaborate business card for live shows and selling T-shirts.” Mentioning licensing rights for advertising, crowdfunding and good-old-fashioned patronage as the various streams of revenue that contribute to a livelihood in music, Megan Jean likened their business model to a vacuum cleaner sucking up pennies.

Since the release of their second and most recent full-length album in 2013 — The Devil Herself — the duo has recorded two more albums.

“We’re trying to work with real music industry people,” Megan Jean said. “There’s a lot of politics. We’ve got a deal in the works, and I’d be an idiot to talk about it. We’re probably gonna self-release one album.

“The way things are done now is that you’re a DIY band,” she added, “and you partner with the industry when it makes sense to.”

Megan Jean applauded Billboard’s recent decision to add a dedicated Americana chart, describing it as an important opportunity for all musicians who work in the genre.

“We’re very lucky that in Americana there’s a multitude of women’s narratives,” Megan Jean said. “Which is not the case in indie rock — very unsavory. I’m not interested in staying 22 forever. In Americana, there’s a role for the wizened female. Lucinda Williams comes to mind. Or Neko Case.”

The wife and husband don’t like for people to wish them good luck in achieving their dream. They’re living it every day, Megan Jean said.

“I don’t follow my dreams,” Byrne added. “I follow reality.”

Their hard work has exacted a physical toll, but like any other challenge that comes with being a working musician, the Klays have adapted to circumstances.

“It’s generally an injury that makes me move on to another instrument,” Megan Jean said. Playing a kick drum with the back of her foot while singing, she wound up straining her gluteus maximus and decided to switch to washboard. The wear and tear on her shoulder eventually resulted in a torn rotator cuff, and she had to quit that instrument, too.

The choice for Megan Jean to give up the washboard necessitated Byrne switching from stand-up bass to electric banjo. They also share percussion duties, with Byrne handling kick drum while Megan Jean plays the snare.

As a local trio broke down their opening set, Megan Jean grabbed a couple glasses of water with lemon from the bar and made her way towards the stage.

“Good for me that I like playing music,” she said. “Lucky me — I get to do it right now.”