Jon Dee Graham Cleans Out the Garage
By Mark Finkelpearl
If the gauge of a true artist is the measure by which they’re able to distill the human condition – or at least the American condition – down to its essence with skill, grace, candor, and clarity then Jon Dee Graham exists somewhere along that curve’s highest percentile. Along with peers like James McMurtry, Lucinda Williams, Alejandro Escovedo, and Steve Earle, Graham has made a long series of records that artfully combine his personal tale with universal truth. Now, he’s preparing to release on June 28th another record into this canon and it too promises to find balance between Graham’s personal journey and the struggle many adults in today’s America find themselves up against. It covers familiar Jon Dee Graham turf like the need to dig deep in the search for inner strength and resilience, the challenge to maintain intimacy inside even the most primary of relationships, and the vain struggle to try to keep a grip on the passage of time. He calls the new record Garage Sale and it’s perhaps the first time Graham lets his music open up and stretch out like a lazy Sunday morning in bed with the newspaper and a big mug of coffee. Garage Sale is supple. Graham takes his time with sonic beds of hymn-like organ, Crazy Horse-style jamming, and instrumental lap steel. It’s still a Jon Dee Graham record, complete with moments of punk abandon and pointed turns of phrase. But it’s also something new.
After being a fan for some time, I first met Jon Dee Graham early in 2006 when I booked a house concert with him and used the occasion to lobby him to allow me to produce a portrait of the artist documentary about his life and music. True to form, he was both receptive and reluctant at the same time. I flew to Austin with a camera in tow and I recall a conversation at the Hotel San Jose where he really sized me up while chain-smoking his ubiquitous American Sprit Blues. I wanted to do the film, I told him, to try and level his playing field – knowing that he’d never get an instant DVD product on the shelves like his peers who filmed Austin City Limits episodes every few years. Once Jon Dee was sold on my sincerity, I was immediately granted all access. He invited me into his home, into his inner circle of family, friends and musicians and he offered me an exegesis of his music in numerous on-camera interviews. We forged a friendship that begat a shorthand; referring to each other (with tongue only slightly in cheek) as Rabbi. After the documentary’s release in 2008 (it’s available on Amazon), I went off to focus on other things while Jon Dee was inducted into the Austin Music Hall of Fame two more times, survived a near fatal car accident, battled for sobriety, launched a fan co-op to deliver fresh content to his base, and recorded new music both solo and in the Hobart Brothers with Freedy Johnston and Susan Cowsill.
Since the film, we’ve talked off and on and seen each other. I produced two more short videos for him and even acted for a brief period as his ad hoc manager, interacting with clubs and booking agents. But recently, we’ve both been busy. So I suggested we should record a phone conversation to catch up for the first time in a while and discuss the new album.
Mark Finkelpearl: How are you?
Jon Dee Graham: Oh, Christ. I’m not terrible, I really start to regret time that I wasted, you know. But nothing is really wasted. I’m gonna have a knee replacement. It’s just basically from the car accident, I damaged both knees. Honestly, if that’s the worst thing that I’ve got going on right now, you know, I’m still blessed.
MF: How was your SXSW?
JDG: Oh, I had a blast. I bit off way more than I could chew, and this is before I had the complete MRI on my knee and so I played nineteen shows on a fractured knee.
My pain threshold is pretty high. Going into it I said ‘I’m only gonna play the stuff that counts’ but it was still nineteen shows. And every one counted!
MF: Why are you calling the new record “Garage Sale”?
JDG: Well, it’s a tongue in cheek thing. John Harvey and Mary Podio of Top Hat Recording called and said they were doing some stuff that was not that fun, mastering and such, and they said, “come over and we’ll just play. We’ll just have fun.” And so it started that way. And then after about three or four songs, we kind of looked at each other funny because nobody wanted to say it out loud but I think we kind of all knew then that we were making a record. And John and Mary would pitch in, John played bass on a couple things and Mary picked up the accordion. And it was all really recorded from the ground up; all the songs are like little orphans, you know? They didn’t come together as a family of songs like they usually do. And every time I go in, it’d be not just different from the last song, but different from anything I’d done before. And so we kind of started looking at these songs and going “Where do they belong?” They’re like these weird little, little treasures that don’t really fit with my previous work. And I said it’s like a garage sale, it’s like all the disparate but cool things that you know are gonna have some value to someone. And I only play my Strat on one song out of all of them. I was making a choice after awhile, where I was not going to use anything I was comfortable with, and so I would walk in and I would just take one of John’s guitars off the wall and just start playing that. And I would sit down at the piano and just start banging things out on the piano. And I’d never worked this way before, keeping myself so off-balance and off-center. I think you can listen to it and say “yeah, this is John Dee but….”
MF: It touches a lot on the same Jon Dee themes, but it stretches out.
JDG: Yeah, the thing is, it wasn’t supposed to be a record when it started. And it’s a little scary because it’s going to test some of my fans, you know. But at the same time, I’m really excited about it because I listened and it’s truly not like anything I’ve done. Not willfully. It’s just sort of what happened.
MF: So you’re not exactly sure where it comes from?
JDG: Well, because it was grace time given to me by John and Mary, there were a lot of things I just sort of necessarily had to do all by myself. It forced me out of my comfort zone of working with my usual suspects and it made me play and write in the ways that are not the comfortable ways for me.
MF: Tell me about this track, Bobby Dunbar. That’s the furthest one out of your regular wheelhouse, I think.
JDG: I had been just sitting around one afternoon and I was reading a Farmer’s Almanac that was lying around and there was a story in it that caught my eye about a family in the 1920’s in Louisiana who lost their son. Their little boy wandered away from the camp and they never found him. But then the following year, a tinker comes to town and he has a little boy that he claims is his sister’s son. In their grief the family attaches to this kid and they’re not sure it’s theirs, but they believe it. It’s really a sad kind of story that could only have happened a long time ago, because there’s no DNA testing available back then. The line kept coming up in the almanac “the mother swore by her mother’s heart.” So that’s the scientific thing. I know by my mother’s heart that that’s my son. You know, somehow those two ideas, the piano and that weird antique story, it sounds like a piece of jewelry that was handed down from your grandmother, you know, and that’s what it supposed to be. It’s like a broach, handed down from your grandmother.
MF: You like to fortify your audience with hope, and Unafraidseems like another building block on that theme.
JDG: Man, you know what, I am so, so very proud of that the lyrics in that song. It’s like the mission statement of the record, you know. And actually, it’s the mission statement for my last year. It’s all quite literal. In fact, after all that has happened, what could possibly scare me now? I think I’m as happy with Unafraidas anything I’ve ever done.
MF: What about the state of the music business right now?
JDG: At some point this year, starting in 2012, I just quit caring about it. And certainly for my peace of mind, that’s been great. You now have a billion different microcosms. So what’s a number one seller on the chart? The volume is nothing. It’s not as though the music industry’s broken, it’s shattered. So all I can try to do is figure out what I’m doing. So for me it’s been very much about trying to write differently, trying to record differently, trying to figure out ways to do things with little or no money, but at the same time, you know, hiring radio, hiring someone to do press. I think I’m starting to understand what it is I can do better for me and the folks around me.
MF: Do you see new fans coming on board that are just discovering you?
JDG: Well yeah, sure. And social media’s allowed me to reach out specifically to the people who are already fans, and then sort of springboard from that to their friends and their people, you know. So I get them all the time. I have people who say, “Who are you, where did you come from?” Because they aren’t aware this is my ninth record.
MF: Will you go back on the road? What can people expect later in the year?
JDG: This year I’m going to tour pretty consistently, but touring with the electric band is so prohibitively expensive. I’ll likely do what I’ve done in the past; do one big tour with the band during the summer. But already this year, I’ve spent probably about forty-five days on the road, which is pretty good. There’s a lot of stuff on the books like going back to Japan this year. And it’s funny, Mike June, my agent at Killer, is now my touring partner. And it’s funny to have your agent also being part of your act. But what I’ve found is it tends to make the agent work a lot harder. He has a lot more at stake in this than just his percentage. And he’s just been a damn good friend, given everything that happened with the car accident. I don’t enjoy driving anymore. So Mike’s been fantastic. And I feel I can be helpful to him too because I introduce him to a pretty large audience he hasn’t been able to tap into by himself.
MF: It’s another indication of how profoundly the business has changed.
JDG: Yeah, exactly! And you know, part of that is because people helped me out along the way, you know. John Doe. And Alejandro (Escovedo) too. When I was in Al’s band, he’d sweeten the deal by letting me open the shows. So I’d like to think that part of this is me passing it on and helping Mike. He’s a great songwriter and I really believe in his music. But on a selfish end, it certainly makes him work to produce because he has a stake in it.
MF: If you look back at old True Believers videos on YouTube, it’s hard to look at you there and see the songwriter you’d eventually become. It’s hard to watch that stuff and say to yourself from a 1988 point of view ‘this guy is going to have an impact as an artist and as a songwriter. How do you feel about the arc of your 25-year career?
JDG: Honestly, Mark, I’m so proud of the True Believers, but you know, my contribution to that was a third at the most. And I think I was still learning so much about writing songs that even I don’t get like a glimmer of it watching that stuff, you know. But it’s like anything else, man. The growth and the change and the arc are so gradual that it almost looks like a straight line. Because it’s been hard work, winning it one inch at a time. So I’m glad you see it that way and that’s your perception of it, because a lot of times, I look at it and I just feel like, “well what have I done? I guess I’m further along but I’m still playing in the Continental Club. I’m still driving around the country in a van.” You know but the truth is you just take one step back and look at it; it’s a huge difference.
MF: Twenty years ago, you hadn’t been inducted in to the Austin Hall of Fame three times.
JDG: True enough. Springsteen was here for South By Southwest and, the one thing that he said that really just killed me, because once again, it proves to me that artists are all the same…he said you must have absolute confidence and you must doubt completely, and you must be as brave as possible but you need to worry all the time, and you need to know that you’re the best act in town and yet at the same time know in your heart you suck. And that’s it, right there, that’s it.
MF: How were these new songs birthed?
JDG: Well, you’re familiar enough with my process to know that I don’t really have one, each song kind of dictates what we’re going to do. And it was just that way with these.
With “Bobby Dunbar,” I had this beautiful little Protestant hymnal melody in my head and then I remembered that story from the Almanac and within an hour, I’d written and recorded the song. Literally wrote those lyrics out in an hour. And then the “Orphan’s Song,” I had the chorus for that for at least a year but I kept trying to do these really wordy explanations and make the exposition of it really tricky and clever and I went into the studio with those lyrics and threw them away, like in the cutting room, threw them away, this is crap, this doesn’t work at all, and then just started rolling until I had it almost like a nursery rhyme. And then that song, “Where Were Your Friends” was pieced together out of other songs that had I tried that didn’t work but I hammered this thing together and we recorded it and it turned out to be one of the stronger songs on the record.
MF: That one’s clearly a nod to your punk roots.
JDG: Yeah, John Harvey said it reminded him of a Motorhead song.
MF: So the State of the Union is strong, would you agree?
JDG: Oh hell yes, hell yes. It’s like I’m having a coming of age album at 53. Because that’s kind of what it is. It’s a coming of age. And you know me; I’ve always been on fire. The fire now is true and steady, not just a rampaging force — which was always interesting but was also scary. But now, it’s like this clear blue flame, you know, strong and steady and I know when I’m burning.
Mark Finkelpearl’s film about Jon Dee Graham is called Swept Away. He welcomes kicking the tires on any and all interesting assignments and missions. firstname.lastname@example.org.