On Sunday evenings, this rural Iowa bar draws music lovers and musicians from far and wide
Any other day of the week, this place is dead.
But, tonight, the tie dye-covered bar is filled with people, crowded around the Grateful Dead memorabilia and the bright bits of neon that bounce off the walls. Ree Irwin and her husband drove in from Sac City to see tonight’s show. They’ve been coming to Byron’s almost every Sunday for more than a decade.
The first time she came, Irwin didn’t expect she’d ever return to what she thought was a typical small town dive bar.
“But, on the nights when there's live music, it becomes a magical place,” Irwin said.
Long after church bells have stopped chiming, this small northwest Iowa bar holds a different kind of Sunday communion. Folks from across the state pilgrimage to Pomeroy, a town of just under 500 people. All because of one unassuming bar that’s drawing big acts from all over the country and then letting the bands keep the money.
Patrons come from as far as 120 miles for the love of one thing: live music.
At Byron's, that’s exactly what they find. It has become a sort of mecca for Iowa music lovers and musicians. National and international acts have stopped here to try out their music for the intimate and attentive crowd that journeys here each week.
That’s thanks to Bryon Stuart. On any given night, you can find him behind the bar, head to toe in tie dye, ready to greet you with a hug, a quip and a drink.
“I've actually come up with I'm living the dream I didn't know I had,” Stuart said, as he looked around the colorful bar of his making. “I never never could have possibly dreamed this.”
It started with Stuart inviting one of his songwriter friends to play a couple of tunes, back when the bar first opened 26 years ago.
“Then he told me about somebody else and they told me about somebody else,” Stuart said. “And before you know it I got a national act, Todd Snider to come in. All I did was call up his management and say I had a place for him to play.”
That one performance opened the floodgates. Word got around about a quirky Grateful Dead tribute bar that actually appreciated its artists. Pretty soon Stuart had acts calling him, asking if they too could experience Byron’s – including the 1960s Los Angeles rock group, Canned Heat.
“I couldn't believe it,” Stuart said. “My first thought was ‘Canned Heat? Yeah, they played Woodstock, didn't they?’ [There were] 120 people in here, jumping up and down by the end of the night. I smile just thinking about it.”
Since then, the legendary Iowa venue has only grown in its popularity. A steady stream of musicians – like Kinky Friedman, Greg Brown and Brother Trucker – continue to walk through its doors, coming from as far as Australia.
In 2019, Stuart had 63 different bands step onto the small worn red rug that acts as the bar’s stage. And, he didn’t have to make one call.
“You need to make the band feel comfortable and then make the audience feel comfortable. And then when they feed off of each other, you just get special shows,” he said. “Byron's gets a lot of special shows.”
On this Sunday night, the room is packed to hear some acts a little closer to home: Iowa natives Todd Partridge and David Huckfelt.
Partridge, of the band King of the Tramps, has been playing this venue for 15 years. He’s played all over the world, for audiences of 10,000. But, still he keeps coming back to this strange little bar.
The shows are good pay: musicians keep 100 percent of the door money. But, Partridge says it’s the audience that draws him in.
“You know how sometimes you walk in and the audience may not be paying attention or may be indifferent or maybe hostile?” he said. “Here, it's always like a big warm welcome, a big warm blanket. You know that even if you screw up, everybody's gonna laugh. It's gonna be okay.”
Partridge said he feels free to try out new songs. But, most of all, the self-proclaimed purveyor ‘Whiskey Gospel’ likes to get the crowd stomping, dancing and singing.
It’s that kind of atmosphere that made Huckfelt, formerly part of The Pines, seek out the venue. He has shared the stage with heavy-hitters like EmmyLou Harris, Arcade Fire and Bon Iver. Yet, days before he heads to a music festival in Minneapolis, he’s here in Pomeroy.
“Those are my favorite places, and always have been – the ones that are hanging kind of by a thread on the back of someone who just loves music,” Huckfelt said.
He said it’s because he feels like his songs can survive in this small bar.
“To be honest, when we traveled around, we would go to major cities and bring along photographers and friends of ours, but the stories we were always telling were about little places like this,” he said. “I wouldn't trade our itinerary for any huge band that you’ve heard of.”
Energetic and moving performances by musicians, like Partridge and Huckfelt, are what first drew Ed Carter into the bar seven years ago. Now, he can’t imagine his life without it.
He moved to Pomeroy from Des Moines, just to be closer to Byron’s. Newly retired, he decided that he wanted to fill his life with more people like owner Byron Stuart – people who saw music as food for the soul.
Tears fill his eyes as he reflects on what this place has meant to him.
“The last five years has been… I can't explain it, really. It's soothing,” he said. “I've been the happiest I've ever been for five years. I tell people that walk out the door, it’s a jungle out there. But, when you’re in here, you’re safe.”
Stop any regular at Byron’s, ask them why they come, and they’ll likely give a similar response. Everyone seems to agree there’s some indescribable quality to this place.
Maybe it’s just like what Stuart says about each of the treasured live performances that’s come to his bar: ‘You had to be there.’