Jon Dee Graham – The hard balance of real life renders Jon Dee Graham’s body of work all the more impressive
“Let’s put it this way,” Graham says, pausing. “New West is a fine company that outgrew me.”
Does it matter?
“It matters greatly,” he answers. “In the year that I’ve been off New West, I made so much more money than I made on New West.”
He goes on to make a point which cuts both ways. “You spent $40,000 trying to get me on the radio? Are you out of your mind? How about buying me some new clothes for about $300, give me $1,000 health insurance, and take the rest of that money and give it to somebody building houses for poor people?
“What a waste. I mean, let’s be honest. I’m 47 years old. I write highly personal, highly confrontational, highly, highly, highly characteristic songs. I’m not going to be the next Johnny Cougar. And, God forbid, I don’t want that, either.
“But what I have found is there’s pools and eddies of people all over this country that really love what I do and get what I do. And on some level I think they believe that they need to hear what I do. And that’s enough.”
That means playing 200 dates a year solo, with his band, or as a member of the Resentments. (The Resentments are an Austin kind of supergroup, profiled by Joe Nick Patoski in ND #50, who play each Sunday night at the Saxon Pub, and tour on rare occasions. Graham’s collaborators in the Resentments are Stephen Bruton, Scrappy Jud Newcomb, Bruce Hughes, and John Chipman.)
“I play one weekend a month in Houston,” he begins. “One weekend a month in Dallas, one weekend a month in San Antonio, one weekend a month here, as well as playing two nights a week in Austin all the time that I’m here.
“I have a Midwest circuit that I do twice a year. I hit the Northeast once a year. I hit the Northwest once a year. If I do any more than that, I start to lose audience, because it’s no longer a big deal. That’s the thing about being a cult artist or whatever the f that means. You have to maintain your street credibility while at the same time having some sort of growing interest in you.”
At this year’s Austin Music Awards, held annually on the first night of SXSW, Jon Dee Graham was voted musician of the year. His son Willie joined him onstage in a fancy shirt, wielding a mean left-handed guitar, stealing the show, at least until gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman gave his stump speech.
Coming back down the wooden steps of his back porch, armed with a fresh shot of espresso, Jon Dee pauses at a cement statue, the yard’s only real adornment. “Are you familiar with Quan Yin? She is the Chinese equivalent of the Virgin Mary, the feminine side of that divinity. Check this out: She’s standing on a dragon, and the dragon represents life force. She’s standing on the dragon, and this vial right here? She’s pouring human teardrops, she’s feeding the dragon. Cold but true.”
It is the questing, questioning humanity of Jon Dee’s songs that has brought me to his backyard. And his intellect. His blunt and pragmatic honesty. But don’t misunderstand the purpose of the Buddhist statue on his steps. It’s just a reminder.
“Part of my personal practice is I pray and I read every day,” he says. “But that’s about as far as I’ll go with that.” The rest he gives up in his songs, or not at all.
“We’re meant to be social creatures,” Jon Dee had said when we first sat down, lighting one of his frequent cigarettes. “We’re soft-skinned. We have so little defense, we need to bond together in order to survive. That’s how society formed, not out of nicety but as a way for us to survive. OK, take that one step further. Inside every man I think there’s the spark of the divine. Somebody either wants to believe, does believe, or adamantly disbelieves. I know very few people who are just lukewarm about their belief in God…it’s hard to be an atheist, you know. You’re confronted daily.
“Being an agnostic even is such an uncomfortable position to be in that not many people would choose it. Being a believer has its own separate set of crosses. And so, yeah, there’s church in my stuff only because I’m looking for the stamp of the divine. There has to be something I can see. Looking for the work of the hand.”
Where do you find it?
“Other people. There’s a great line by Carl Jung. He says the divine inhabits the space formed between two people. He doesn’t say that creates the divine; the divine exists separate from us. But where it lives is between two people. So that’s why [when] you have a problem you take it to a friend, you start talking about it, ideas and solutions come up that neither one of you are really capable of. Because the divine exists in that space. And if you go into that space between two people, you’re more armed.”
He has needed those arms. The IRS audited the Grahams last year. Willie was diagnosed with Legg-Perthes Disease, a form of osteonecrosis (bone death) that attacks the hip socket. Oh, and then their insurance company — lucky musician, he had insurance — went bankrupt, which meant Willie’s disease became a pre-existing condition, and they were screwed. To put it politely.
In which way Jon Dee Graham was once again linked in the public eye with his long-ago True Believers bandmate Alejandro Escovedo, for both were dealt health issues that led to tribute discs, benefit concerts, and an unanticipated outpouring of public kindness. Jon Dee played some on Escovedo’s new album, and toured with him as a guitar player and opening act, but is now back to focusing on his own work.
Willie, too, is having a better year.
“He has to be x-rayed really regularly to track the progress of the degradation of the hip,” Jon Dee says. “And so month after month we’re looking at these x-rays of the femoral head. It’s just like the moon, there’s chunks missing, black areas, a whole thing going gray, gray, more gray, more gray. It just wears you down seeing this.