The Grahams Tales of the Rails
There is mystery that rises from the hard ground of the American South. The legacy of music that has given us the best of this true heartland was quite literally created out poverty, slavery, a bloody war, racism and strife. It has worked its way into our history. It has become a part of our consciousness. The music seeped in through the songs of Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly and all of the kindred songsters that came before and after.
Americana-Roots duo, The Grahams know this unescapable fact about this deeply American music. Their roots are not superficially contrived, but grown from the soil of their young lives. Their new release, Glory Bound, along with the excellent short subject documentary, Rattle the Hocks, well directed by Mississippi All Stars’ Cody Dickinson, is a clear portrayal of their love for the music they’ve come to embrace during their life time. They have proven the mystery of the south is still there to be discovered and embraced. In fact, the music has embraced The Grahams. An artist need only listen for the soulful muse of the South. She always calls. She is not bound by region or time. The Band proved it. So did The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. With Glory Bound, The Grahams have shown the same experience is true for a new generation.
The new album demonstrates the husband and wife duo, Doug and Alyssa Graham, have done their share of listening, waiting and acting on creative instincts. And they are very good instincts. It is brought them rare inspirations. A few years ago they felt called by a song they wrote to live along the Mississippi River. Riverman’s Daughter was the result.
“That was when we wrote, “Glory Bound.” It just seemed to come out of nowhere.” Alyssa said. “We started taking trains around the country. We rode from Chicago to New Orleans and then from Chicago to Memphis. Eventually we ended up in Norman, Oklahoma at 115 Studio owned by Wes Sharon who has produced John Fulbright and Parker Millsap.
“While traveled by train last summer we met a lot of people who could have been good producers, but we just fell in love with Wes. He was family. He is so gentle, kind and knowledgeable.” Alyssa said. “The Oklahoma part was a big draw because of Woody Guthrie.” Doug continued. “Les also turned us on to the Oklahoma sound. He really helped us tap into that.”
Like the best in Americana music, the musician couple came by their career naturally. They have known each other since Doug was 7 and Alyssa was 5. How did this lifelong collaboration form? It’s like a miracle. Alyssa tells the story:
“We lived in New York City. I had hippie parents. They would be constantly playing Dylan, The Dead, Joni Mitchell. They also let our friends hang out with us.”
“There were kids everywhere. We’d hang out in the basement.” Doug continued. “We would be everywhere together with this great music playing and guitars around.”
It didn’t take long before Doug picked up the guitar. It started with Neil Young.
“Neil is our roots. To know me, you have to know that I’m obsessive about Neil Young.” He said. “He has been a huge influence.”
As the years rolled by, Doug began to notice his friend’s younger sister when, at her ‘sweet-sixteen party, Alyssa played a handful of songs she had written on guitar. The teenagers headquarters were located in the basement of Alyssa’s parent’s home. When Doug dropped out from college and returned to his neighborhood, an unusual thing happened while the kids were asleep all in a pile in the basement.
“We were like a bunch of puppies. There was nothing sexual going on. We just kind of crawled all over each other. There we were in a pile of kids and Doug looked at me and said, ‘I feel weird.’” Alyssa explained. “Then I said, ‘I think I’m in love you.” Doug added.
Today their now lifelong musical, romantic and spiritual collaboration appears to be only getting stronger and better with each year. It’s as clear as creek water from the performance and their songs. It’s also evident in the knowing glances and chemistry captured on film in Rattle the Hocks.
Glory Bound comes on, not like newcomers to the national Americana scene, but like veterans turning in a new breakthrough album after years of work on the road. In fact, this is true. They have been on the road many years. Also, this is a breakthrough record. The album, like their train journey chronicled in the film Rattle the Hocks, surveys the heart of the American landscape with a love that is rare and passion that is fired by souls of so many great musicians have gone before them. The Memphis sound is there. So is New Orleans. There are gospel and blues echoes embedded in the often raucous proceedings that call us back to the original days of Sun Records and Muscle Shoals. With a steady roster of fine musicians including Cody and Luther Dickinson, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Duwayne Burnside, John Fulbright, and Boo Mitchell (Willie Mitchell’s son); the sessions consist of 12 well-executed, lyrically and melodically strong songs-co-written with childhood friend Bryan McCann . They are performed with great range, tight harmonies and pitch perfect emotion. The song arrangements and rhythm keep up a train-like momentum with a pace that feels like the light bounce of the Heartland Flyer on a midnight ride.
Glory Bound is easily one of the best Americana albums of 2015. Key tracks include the Woody Guthrie inspired titled track complete with the rhythm of the rails and lyric of regret and a cry for redemption. Perhaps the strongest track on the album and central to the gospel blues origins of the rest of the album is “Lay Me Down.” It covers the same ground as the Thomas Dorsey classic, “Precious Lord,” with a youthful take on the act of surrender. It is a singularly beautiful song written and performed in a way that should call the attention of Grammy and Americana Music Association voters. “Mama,” performed in the film live at Sun Studios in Memphis, recalls early Carter Family gospel songs with a trace of the soul of The Staple Singers running through it. “Biscuits” is a Piedmont inspired saucy number bringing sensuality and lightly cloaked sexual play to the Southern home kitchen. “Promise Land,” bookends the opening track like a glorious gospel train heading off into a glory-bound sunset.
Throughout Wes Sharon’s warm production is focused, natural and authentic. Doug Graham’s resonator guitar is a consistent highlight on each track upping the country funk a few notches with each solo. Alyssa’s vocal is full character, soul and the kind of present that is reminiscent of Bonnie Bramlett during her salad days with Delaney. She can hold the gospel energy of the song while digging deep into its blues or country roots.
The Grahams will continue to tour using trains as their mode of transportation throughout the U.S. Their upcoming dates include dates in Georgia, North Carolina, New York City and the United Kingdom this fall. As they keep up their momentum, it’s clear, the spirit of the rails follows them. With that spirit goes the legacy of Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly and Robert Johnson. But, The Graham’s own legacy has just begun to unfold. It’s a train that is certainly glory bound.