Jon Dee Graham – Ain’t Life Grand
The most lasting impression of Jon Dee Graham is his laugh. His is not a lighthearted chuckle, but a full-bellied bellow, a roar of approval and amusement unleashed with an infectious enthusiasm that leaves no doubt about the way he approaches the world. Graham has seen his share of dark days, to be sure — but his big sweet laugh squarely reaffirms what he once rapturously declared in song: It’s a big sweet life.
Sweetness for Graham today seems a fairly clear-cut pursuit of happiness. He lives with his wife and 2-1/2-year-old son William in a friendly South Austin neighborhood, their house flanked by the storybook white picket fence. A few blocks west is the Continental Club, where Graham has performed every Wednesday night for the past couple years, continually sharpening his skills as a songwriter, singer, guitar slinger and bandleader.
After nearly two decades as a sideman or secondary tunesmith with an impressive succession of artists, Graham finally struck out on his own in 1997, releasing his debut album Escape From Monster Island on Freedom Records to widespread acclaim. Summerland followed in 1999 on New West, furthering his reputation as a wise lyricist equally adept with forceful rockers and poignant ballads.
Hooray For The Moon, due in January on New West, is a triumphant culmination of Graham’s gradually growing momentum. Produced by Don Smith and featuring his regular bandmates Mike Hardwick (guitar/dobro/pedal steel) and Mark Andes (bass), plus ace-in-the-hole drummer Jim Keltner, it’s a powerful recording of eleven songs that Graham deems “the best I could bring to the table.” They sound like nothing less.
The album’s first two tracks have been around a while. “One Moment” is a chestnut from his years with the True Believers that brought a modest windfall when Patty Smyth covered it in 1992; the half-jokingly-titled “Restraining Order Song” predates the Believers days. The middle of the record spotlights two telling covers — “Way Down In The Hole” by Tom Waits (whose gruff singing is clearly a touchstone for Graham) and the Spanish-language anthem “Volver”, a staple of every Latin band that played the Texas-Mexico border circuit where Graham grew up.
Those geographical roots also run deep in “Laredo”, a raging, harrowing rocker that Graham aptly terms “as dark as anything I’ve ever done, if not darker.” Striking a balance are softer songs such as “I Go Too”, a beautiful promise from father to son (“Climb up on my shoulders, you can see the parade”); and the closing “Tamale House #1”, a lingering memory of a faded romance painted across a dying-dawn sky of “post office gray and cantaloupe orange.”++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
This is an excerpt of the article which appeared in The Best of No Depression: Writing About American Music, which features 25 of the finest articles from the magazines back issues, and was published in 2005 by University of Texas Press to help celebrate the magazines 10th anniversary. Due to our agreement with UT Press we are unable to include this article in our online archive.
The Best of No Depression is the only place you can find these articles other than our back issues. Visit the No Depression store to buy your copy for only $10.
The 300-page volume includes co-editor Grant Aldens award-winning 2001 feature on Billy Joe Shaver, co-editor Peter Blackstocks 1998 Artist of the Decade piece on Alejandro Escovedo, senior editor Bill Friskics-Warrens 2002 cover story on Johnny Cash, contributing editor Paul Cantins deep exploration of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-era Wilco; and many other high points from our print heyday.
Table of contents for The Best of No Depression:
Preface, by Grant Alden and Peter Blackstock
Los Lobos, by Geoffrey Himes
Alejandro Escovedo, by Peter Blackstock
Jon Dee Graham, by Peter Blackstock
Billy Joe Shaver, by Grant Alden
Ray Wylie Hubbard, by John T. Davis
Flatlanders, by Don McLeese
Ray Price, by David Cantwell
Johnny Gimble, by Bill C. Malone
Johnny Cash, by Bill Friskics-Warren
Rosanne Cash, by Lloyd Sachs
Lucinda Williams, by Silas House
Buddy & Julie Miller, by Bill Friskics-Warren
Kasey Chambers, by Geoffrey Himes
Loretta Lynn, by Barry Mazor
Patty Loveless, by Bill Friskics-Warren
Kieran Kane, by Peter Cooper
Paul Burch, by Jim Ridley
Hazel Dickens, by Bill Friskics-Warren
Gillian Welch, by Grant Alden
Ryan Adams, by David Menconi
Jay Farrar, by Peter Blackstock
Jayhawks, by Erik Flannigan
Wilco, by Paul Cantin
Drive-By Truckers, by Grant Alden
Iron & Wine, by William Bowers