Jon Dee Graham – The hard balance of real life renders Jon Dee Graham’s body of work all the more impressive
Truth is, I have been writing this same story for ten years or more. It has been about Tom House and Mike Ireland, Chris Knight and Mary Gauthier and, even, Gillian Welch and Steve Earle. Especially Billy Joe Shaver.
This is the story about not stopping.
It is the story about voices which must be listened to.
It is a balancing act, this story, written and thought about in the spare quiet when my wife and daughter are gone or asleep, or not yet awake.
“Here,” Jon Dee Graham asks softly: “Could you do something else?”
Yes, if I had to. To support my family.
“Yeah, but…” he says. “I’m so sick of people who presume to know God’s will. But I do believe that this is my work. This is not my job, this is my work. And just enough people agree with me that I’m allowed to do it. I’m never going to get rich, I’m never going to have the kind of teenage success that we all dream of.
“But I have a nice house. And my kids are happy. I’m pretty happy. I don’t know; I think that by doing my work it’s going to be all right. Foolish, maybe.”
Later, we will come to contemplate our mortality.
Now we face our lives. Whatever they are, not what we dreamed they might be. And what they aren’t. These are years of bargains made and kept and broken. Of aches that heal slowly (or never), and of families.
Especially, for we who are lucky enough, of families.
Unexpectedly rich and nuanced, these years in the middle, if one still attends to the process.
Jon Dee Graham attends. Not the best-known voice of my generation, but surely among of its most eloquent.
He attends with fierce devotion and takes precise notes, writing taut and incautious songs that lay out the whole joyous stumbling sprawling journey: love, children, demons, God, loss.
He and I were born a few months and several thousand miles apart in 1959. Our paths, naturally, have been quite different, but it is more than hopeful to spot another candle weaving down the road.
He has attended to these matters for five albums since 1997 — not discounting his contributions to the Resentments — and it truly does not matter where the newest release, Full, falls within the body of his work, for this is not a game, not a tournament, not a contest. This is real life. It is his body of work that matters, all of it.
A big wag-a-tail yellow dog bursts through the front door before the gate of the Grahams’ white picket fence has latched shut. His bark is merely a happy prelude to the joyful ritual of ear rubbing and chest scratching, and we are soon close friends. Humans follow in no particular order: Jon Dee, Gretchen Harries, and their son Willie, tenderly hauling the black and white fluff of a puppy with him, the joyful detritus of childhood sprawling across their lawn.
They live in a sturdy old house they have occupied for years, some blocks removed from the Continental Club; though, like all of Austin — like every tech city in the United States — the neighborhood is currently all dumpsters and sawdust. We retreat toward the backyard, hoping for quiet. In the living room, a still-elegant white Persian lifts its head, sniffs, accepts ear tribute, and then, spying the new puppy, stalks upstairs with all the fury and dignity of its 18 years.
The dog follows, Willie and his puppy trailing after and settling quietly into a hammock strung between the garage and a pecan tree. Gretchen kindly offers cappuccino, for we are keeping hours that suit neither rock ‘n’ roll nor parenthood, and blurry from the effort.
“Petey. Or Peter,” Jon Dee says, more properly introducing his dog. “Or Pedro, depending on the mood. He’s a rescue. He came to us with the name intact, but I like it. It’s a strong, clear name: Petrus. The whole church is built on Petrus.” Absently scratching Peter’s ears, he bends closer to them. “So, as a dog disciple you’re pretty good.”
This is why I have come.
This is where Jon Dee does his work, in close company with a handsome young man of nearly seven years, three critters, and his very smart wife, who teaches communications at various colleges. We are barely seated, not even caffeinated, and he has leapt into the thicket of ideas which make his music so arresting.