Like many a rocker who came of age in the 1980s, John Byrne now cringes at reminders of his hair-flipping past.
“There was no shortage of taking oneself way too seriously,” he says.
More than two decades on, however, the 41-year-old guitarist remains in the thick of the Indiana music scene. Though he seldom fronts a band, he quite often occupies the crucial shotgun seat of sideman, arranger, publicist, collection agent or some combination thereof — as he puts it, “the Pete Rose guy, the player-manager.” He’s a gun-for-hire on electric, acoustic, lap steel and pedal steel guitars, with ongoing affiliations that include the Jes Richmond Band, Otis Gibbs, Everest and local-all-star projects The Benders, Chevy Downs and the Impalas.
Somehow, he also makes time for a serious-sounding day job: second vice president for retail services at Colliers Turley Martin Tucker commercial real estate. And he’s partnering with Yats owner Joe Vuskovich to expand his popular chain of Cajun-Creole diners. Clearly, Byrne is one of those rare musicians who is fully comfortable with wheeling and dealing.
“I’m a businessman who plays guitar,” he says. “I’ve been selling things since I was 9 years old.”
Born on Long Island, Byrne was but a toddler when his family moved to Indianapolis. He wound up in Bishop Chatard High School with future bandmates and Hoosier rock stalwarts Joe Cheesman and Tina Barbieri. He also connected early on with local bandleader Tim Brickley (their dads were both in restaurant supply), beginning a 20-year collaboration that has included performing, recording, hosting events and publishing a monthly music ’zine, Different Beat, in the mid-’90s.
Byrne began that decade as a guitarist for Mere Mortals, a successful regional cover band that aspired to national success but split up after its debut album failed to gain much attention. He soon hooked up with Louisville’s Danny Flanigan and the Rain Chorus, starting another collaboration that continues to this day.
But Byrne never sought acclaim as a songwriter, and he turned down opportunities to tour nationally as a guitarist. He doesn’t rank himself with peers like Mere Mortals bandmate Jason Wilber, now a solo artist and guitarist for legendary songwriter John Prine, or Greg Foresman, the Hammerheads guitarist who now tours with country star Martina McBride.
“I can sit in with a band and sound good, but I don’t have their level of pure, thoroughbred prowess,” Byrne says.
Also during the ’90s, real life came calling: He finished his degree. He lost his parents. He gained a daughter, now 12. But even if he’s given up some illusions, Byrne is not ready to give up the rock.
“I’m at the mercy of my musical jones,” he says. “I’ve never enjoyed music more than I do now.”