Jon Dee Graham – Beyond believing
On the cusp of his 40th birthday, anticipating the release of his second solo album, Jon Dee Graham took stock of the various stages of his musical life, the rock ‘n’ roll illusions that he has outgrown. He is no longer the punk rocker he was with Austin’s Skunks, the guitar firebrand who teamed with the brothers Escovedo in the True Believers, or the professionally-minded sideman who made a big-business move to Los Angeles. In terms of career ambitions, he recognizes that he isn’t about to conquer the world, but in terms of artistic aspirations, he is finally coming into his own.
“I’m a fully grown man, and this is just between you and me, but I don’t think I’m ever going to have the big hit on ‘American Bandstand’,” he said with a conspiratorial laugh. We were relaxing under the trees on an unseasonably 80s-ish winter’s afternoon outside Flipnotics, the coffeehouse in South Austin where Graham says he does his “officing,” just down the road from what he terms the “suicide shack” where he lives.
“But the fact of the matter is that this is what I do, and I’ll do it regardless, despite attempts to quit,” he continued. “I think of my life as a river, and there’s this flow to it, where I always have two choices. I can either happily go along with it, and get to where it’s going. Or I can fight and kick and scream and drag my heels, and still have to get to where it’s going. At 39 years, the one thing I know for sure is that I don’t know what is going to happen next. Anything else past that is just an opinion.”
Here’s one writer’s opinion: With two solo albums, Graham is not only making the most deeply personal and richly heartfelt music of his life, he has moved into the front ranks of the emerging generation of Texas troubadours, the ones who are carrying on the tradition of Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, but whose musical development was forged in the new-wave dives of the ’80s rather than the folk coffeehouses of the ’60s. To explore the changes in that landscape, one can survey the Texas-centric catalogue of New West Records, the Minnesota label that is issuing Graham’s Summerland after recent releases by Stephen Bruton and Shaver.
“It’s funny, because I think that what Bruton and I do is very different, and that we would end up on the same label is both nice and confusing to me,” said Graham, who frequently plays with Bruton in an informal “non-band” billed as the Resentments. “Then you look at the label’s other act, Shaver, and all three of us are from different musical generations. Billy Joe is like the old Texas troubadour, and Bruton was with Kristofferson for how many years and Bonnie Raitt. He’s a Fort Worth boy, but he was swimming in the big pool for awhile. My first real touring experiences were with a punk-rock band, and I grew up on [Tejano veteran] Ruben Ramos and the New York Dolls.”
“I had some big ideas, made some fancy plans,” sings Graham on “Big Sweet Life”, the most uplifting track on Summerland, the successor to his highly-regarded 1997 solo debut, Escape From Monster Island. “Those were only plans, and this is real life. And it’s a big sweet life.”
Where Escape found Graham’s vocal gruffness compared with Tom Waits’ and his tragic romanticism with Bruce Springsteen’s, Summerland is both more musically varied and more resistant to comparison. It is also, as befits its title, considerably sunnier in perspective, though anyone who has survived a hot Texas summer knows that the sun can be a mixed blessing. From the Santana-esque border strains of “At The Dance” to the folkish fragility of “Butterfly Wing” to more propulsive fare such as “Black Box” and “Lucky Moon”, Summerland might well puzzle those drawn to the darkness of Escape, just as Escape surprised those who knew Graham mainly from his days in the True Believers.
“Escape was this highly focused group of songs that were dealing with one specific time of my life and way of feeling,” he explained. “On Summerland, I got to do a little bit of everything I love to do, on the same album. The qualities that were in Escape are in this record, but they’re spread out, and they’re mixed in with a ton of things that weren’t on Escape. For one thing, a sense of humor. For another thing, the element of hope, which is all over Escape but very deeply buried, is right on top of this album.”
Such hope has been hard-won. A decade ago, Graham moved to Los Angeles after the unraveling of the True Believers, Austin’s favorite sons of the mid-’80s, who were cursed by a debut album that fell well short of the band’s live dynamism and a much better second album that was shelved in a corporate shakeup. The albums made more of a splash when they were combined on Rykodisc’s 1994 Hard Road reissue than the Believers did when they were together.
“That’s such a weird thing, it’s the greatest band that never was,” said Graham. “I do feel lucky to have been involved in all that, and I loved playing in that band, but that was a long time ago. And for a band that sold maybe 11,000 records in its entire history, including the Rykodisc reissue, the legend is definitely bigger than the band was.”
Yet the legend opened doors in Los Angeles when Graham moved there in 1988 with his wife, actress Sally Norvell. He was quickly enlisted as recording and touring guitarist for John Doe’s solo debut with Geffen, he subsequently worked with Ryan Hedgecock (formerly of Lone Justice), and he experienced his big songwriting break when Patty Smyth covered “One Moment To Another”, which had been his signature song in the True Believers. (Austin singer Kris McKay also covered the song on her 1990 Arista album What Love Endures.)
“Los Angeles put me into a higher profile, stiffer competition, much higher-level reality than Austin,” he said. “The pressure was greater, the competition was greater, the rewards were greater. Both financially and career-wise, it means more to have a song covered by Patty Smyth than it does Kris McKay, even if it’s the same song.”
Who covered it better?
“Kris, absolutely,” he replied. “But I made so much money from Patty’s, and I have a gold record from that, so there you go.”
As for the return to Austin, “My marriage was falling apart, and I never liked Los Angeles,” explained Graham. “I’m a fourth-generation Texan, and the town I grew up in, Quemado, is 320 people, so Los Angeles seemed big and confusing and unnecessary to me. I was there through the firestorms, the mudslides, the Northridge quake and the race riots. It was really clear to me that it was time to go.
“When I came back to Austin in ’96, I had my son with me, and I had no idea what I was going to do. I thought I was done with music, I didn’t even want to do it anymore. I started framing houses. I’m a pathetic carpenter, but I can drive nails. I didn’t go out. Nobody knew I was here.”
A chance encounter with guitarist/producer Mike Hardwick at a South Austin supermarket ended his retirement. Hardwick invited Graham to a recording session for a country artist, where Graham played Hardwick some of the songs he’d been writing. The two began playing together informally and acoustically as the songs developed that would constitute Graham’s solo debut. Laying down his hammer, he returned to music full-time when he was enlisted as a guitarist in Kelly Willis’ band, which he recently left to focus on his solo career.
“I loved playing with Kelly, and I’ve been so lucky to work with Mike, because he’s more than my right-hand man, he’s my partner in the truest sense of the word,” he said. “The one lesson I learned from trying to give it up is that being a musician is like being an alcoholic: You’re going to be a musician whether you’re actually playing or not.”
Whatever Hardwick has contributed to Graham’s solo career, an even more crucially creative inspiration to both albums is Roy Amon Norvell Graham, now six years old. Dedicated by father to son, Escape offered a song cycle of divorce and single-fatherhood, permeated by the pain of separation and shared custody; its most rousing track, “Soonday”, plainly had its title lifted from Roy. On album two, both “Big Sweet Life” and “Look Up”, the spotlight track that finds Graham sharing vocals with Patty Griffin, find Jon Dee again drawing deeply from Roy, who could well be the family’s superior songwriting talent.
“Oh, absolutely,” agreed the proud papa. “‘Big Sweet Life’ is about a day in Central Park with him, and I quote him a couple of times in it: That line ‘I had the fear in my legs,’ that came from him. I’ll tell you, he’s outwritten me three times over, he’s a far better poet than I am.
“Christmas morning, he woke up really early, and I was trying to convince him to stay in bed just a little longer. And he said, ‘Daddy, I can’t. My body is flinging with excitement.’ Boy, that describes it exactly.”