Jon Dee Graham – The hard balance of real life renders Jon Dee Graham’s body of work all the more impressive
“There’s a lot of talk on the new record of the middle years,” nods Jon Dee. “A long time ago somebody told me, ‘Every band thinks they invented rock ‘n’ roll.’ It’s just this glorious thing, like watching a kid walk for the first time, when you see a band which starts to rock. They’re like, ‘Wow, somebody turn on a recorder or something! We’ve discovered fire!’
“Well…some other people found it also a long time ago, but you found some really good fire. It’s hard. It’s hard. And when you get in the middle years, the best thing I can say about that is you really do sort of relax a little bit.”
Jon Dee Graham first discovered fire as a very young man in Quemado, Texas, a small border town (population 243 as of the 2000 census) in Maverick County on the southwest edge of the state. His older brother became a doctor, practicing in Kerrville; his sister is a nurse. “I have held on to my amateur standing in medicine,” he writes later, with characteristic humor.
“I grew up in a family of seekers,” Graham says. “We were physically very isolated. When I was growing up, our first church was the local Methodist Church. In fact, I played piano for them for a while [from ages 10-13]. That was my first actual gig.
“But the impression I got from my father was that he thought they were too lukewarm, that there was not enough passion, not enough commitment, and he wanted a God that would get their hands dirty. So we tried a few different churches, and one day he came home and had had a meeting with two nice young missionaries from the Latter-Day Saints.
“So that began our Mormon phase. We were Mormons for probably three years, until my father started actually reading some of the doctrine….A church with many flaws,” he finishes with a quick laugh. “By then I was old enough to sort of sidestep the whole church issue.”
He want from piano to guitar to tuba and back to guitar, from Quemado to the University of Texas in Austin, from the classroom to opening one night for the Clash with a punk band called the Skunks, from the Skunks to a brief touring gig playing blues with Lou Ann Barton, to the Gator Family (which included his first wife, Sally Norvell), to the Lift, who were apparently very popular in Austin.
And tumbled into the True Believers — joining his onetime rival, Alejandro Escovedo — who were both good and popular enough outside Austin to be signed to EMI, and unlucky enough to see their second album released seven years after the band disintegrated.
Graham and Norvell disappeared into the wilds of Los Angeles, where she directed videos and he toured with Michelle Shocked and John Doe and played some modestly unsuccessful songwriter gigs. Patty Smythe had a hit record with one of his songs on it; he served as a foil for bluesman Terry Garland on an undistinguished 1992 album called Edge Of The Valley, featuring an early workout on the traditional “Lonesome Valley” (to which he returned with far greater ferocity on The Great Battle) and Graham’s “October”, which resurfaced on Summerland. Graham and Norvell had a son named Roy — now 13 and living in Alameda, California — and then split up; Jon Dee retreated to Austin and hid for a time.
All of which is to say that he’s kicked around a bit, has stayed in some of the finest and worst hotels in the world, has eaten from deli trays and record-company credit cards.
By last year’s South By Southwest convention, it was a fair guess that Jon Dee Graham would not make a fourth album for New West, which had released Summerland (1999), Hooray For The Moon (2002) and The Great Battle (2004), as well as reissuing his 1997 Freedom Records solo debut Escape From Monster Island. A month later, he put the finishing touches on an eight-song acoustic EP titled First Bear On The Moon, which returned him to Freedom.
Much of the EP is drawn from a live performance of favorites at Austin radio station KUT, taped the day of George Bush’s second inauguration. The final three tracks, cut three months later, are new. “‘Best’,” he e-mailed, “is a good song; ‘Jesus Of The Freeway’ is an odd but engaging drifter’s gospel.”
But it is the final song, “Betrayed”, for which the EP is likely to be remembered. “[It was] simply put, my spite record,” Graham wrote. “It gave me a place to put my angry-at-the-record-company song and have something acoustic to sell off the stage that didn’t belong in any way to my old label. It was a fine little piece, but clearly an emotional and professional stopgap.”
It appears to have been an acrimonious parting, even by the standards of the recording industry. A year later, New West’s Cameron Strang freames a careful answer: “I’m a huge fan of Jon Dee’s, and we made what I consider to be three great records together. And that was the term of his initial contract; it ran through to the end. And for all kinds of circumstances, on both sides, we decided it was time to part ways. But it certainly wasn’t an easy decision. And we remain great fans of his music and, artistically, I think he’s an incredibly unique and terrific artist.”