I had a run in with Jon Dee Graham about seven years ago that is permanently etched in my memory. We were neighbors and one fine day I lost control of a reverse and backed into a mutual neighbor’s yard, decapitating most of the gnomes standing guard of the garden. Mr. Graham came running over to where I was and checked to see if I was ok and then said a hysterical comment that I did not really grasp until later because I was flustered. The story has grown into a larger and furrier animal each time it is passed on. The thing that stuck with me is the good friendly nature of the guy. He could have said a negative comment which I was fully expecting at the time. I didn’t know him nor he me and we had a strange intro, to say the least. A few headless gnomes can attest. That interaction sealed me in this town. The city was and is still aglow with folks reaching out to Mr. Graham to give aide in his dilemma with the insurance situation. I can see why folks have offered so much love and help and continue to do so. The good nature is felt by many. Thanks for the good times Mr. Graham. Here is the conversation we shared at Jo’s one early morning.
AUSTIN DAZE: When did you start playing the guitar and why?
JON DEE GRAHAM: I started playing the guitar at 12 because I had been playing piano up until then in the church and when you went over to a friend’s house you couldn’t take the piano with you. I started playing guitar because it was portable. And then when I started playing guitar I realized a lot more of the music that I wanted to play was written for guitar. So that was how it got started.
AD: How did you know that you wanted to be a professional musician?
JG: Well I didn’t have much time to think about it. My first paying gig, I was 13, and played at a roadhouse. The town that I grew up in was a ranching community-200 people-so there’s not a large pool of musicians to choose from. And there was a band there that needed a bass player. They were all in their 30s and 40s but I was already playing guitar and they got me to play bass. So at 13, I was already getting paid to play. That was sort of my professional debut.
AD: Our research indicates that you were in a punk band named the Skunks. Is that correct?
JG: Absolutely. Yes.
AD: What was that like?
JG: It was amazing. The thing is we didn’t see ourselves as a punk rock band we just saw ourselves as a rock and roll band that didn’t play that good. What happened was we got swept up in the scene and as a young musician, having a community around you is invaluable because you learn from the others, you have a breeding ground for ideas, you share your thoughts and your problems and everything-it was just fantastic. To have a scene to be in the middle of, it was just amazing.
AD: Were the True Believers your next band after the punk band?
JG: No, there was a whole series of bands in between. I actually played guitar for Lou Ann Barton. I went from being a punk rocker to being in a blues band which at the time made perfect sense to me because the blues are essentially punk rock. It’s very simple music played with a lot of emotion. Isn’t that the definition for both of them? But it really pissed off a lot of people in the Blues Mafia here and it pissed off my punk rock friends because they were like, “Oh you’re selling out”. I just wanted to play a different kind of music. I was in a pop band called The Lift. And then I just quit playing completely before the True Believers. I hated everything that was going on musically in town and I saw the Believers opening one night for Los Lobos and I was just completely taken with it because again, it was simple, but it was full of emotion. And they were playing music that spoke to me. So they asked me to come sit in with them one night and I did and I just never left. I kept playing with them forever after.
AD: And how did The Resentments come about?
JG: Well, the Resentments started off as a joke. Me and Steve Bruton and at the time, Hal Ketchum, none of us were working on Sunday nights. And so we said, well lets get together and have a guitar pool; get together and play songs for each other. And Bruten said, well the Saxon is open on Sunday nights. So we started meeting there and pretty much instantly there was a crowd and we were very much not going to take this seriously, we were just going to play. And in spite of ourselves, years down the line, we’ve got three records, getting ready to do a fourth, we’ve got a sizeable audience, we go to Europe twice a year. In spite of ourselves, it became a real band.
AD: Then you began a solo career. What’s the difference between seeing a Jon Dee Graham show and a Resentments show?
JG: Different a bunch of ways, really. The Resentments is very much a group effort. I play one song for every four that are played on stage. I sing one song for every four that are played on stage. It’s very much about the interlocking of four different musicians and writers. And then you have John Chipman, the most amazing drummer in town, to tie it all together. So it’s very much I’m part of The Resentments. My shows, it’s front and center and I’m playing a lot of the guitar. A lot of times it’s a trio.
Also, The Resentments is very much about an acoustic, singer songwriter, little bit more gentle. And when I play with my band it’s full on electric, everything from ballads to this out and out punk rock, but it’s very much my show.
AD: Your 1997 release, “Escape from Monster Island,” that’s an unusual title for a CD and there is no track called Escape from Monster Island on the CD. Care to explain?
JG: Basically, I had gone through a really bitter divorce and had moved back to town with my three year old son, Roy, and lost him to my wife which as it turns out was the very best thing that could have happened, but I was really crushed.
I had given up playing and was working framing houses and living over in this little shack and when I started playing my own songs–this was the first time that I had really fronted a band–and I just felt that I was being released. That I was being set free. And a lot of my issues were being resolved just by me playing. And at that time me and my son Roy would watch Godzilla movies and there was this excellent Godzilla movie about Godzilla’s son and he’s trapped on this island and it’s full of monsters, and Godzilla has to come rescue him. The movie is called “Escape from Monster Island”. I was seeing all these connections between my release from all the struggles, the depression and everything. Godzilla’s rescue of his son-it’s tangential but it makes sense.
AD: In retrospect, your abilities as a singer songwriter/ bandleader seem to be growing in many directions on your follow up album, “Summerland.” “October” is blistering in it’s intensity. “Big Sweet Life” has become an anthem of sorts. “Butterfly Wing” is simple, sparse and devastatingly beautiful. Can you tell us a little about your songwriting process and how you bring them to life?
JG: This is going to sound soft-headed and metaphysical but it is how it is. The songs come to me. Sometimes I have a piece of music and I write around that, sometimes I have a phrase and I write around that, but it’s almost like the song exists before I even get to it. Some of the songs on that record, on “Summerland”, “Butterfly Wing,” I sat down, I started playing one day and 15 minutes later that song was there. And it’s not like I said, I’m going to sit down and write a song about such and such, I’m going to write a song called “Butterfly Wing.” it just dropped in my lap. So there are those kind of songs and then on that same record, “Black Box,” basically I had to coax that one because I had the chorus and I knew what it was about but I couldn’t get the verses. So I would sit and I would play and I would chase it. It’s like a little animal, you need bowls of milk on the back porch to try and coax it to come in and eventually I got it. Every song is different but I have to have respect for the song, I have to have respect for the process in order for me to coax them out.
Some come to me full blown on their own, some I have to chase them down.
AD: Next is “Hurray for the Moon.” We were hooked on One Moment from the opening riff. Is this an older song of yours? Did you have some hard times in Laredo? The Restraining Order song? Now, that I want to hear about.
JG: Ok, generally I try to not talk about what songs are about, but I’ll give you some clues: Laredo is a story that was told to me-not autobiographical in any way. Until the statute of limitations runs out. “Restraining Order Song”, I wasn’t the one with the restraining order it was somebody else, so you can take that for what it’s worth. “One Moment” is an older song that was written towards the end of my time in True Believers. We actually recorded it for the unreleased record but I just sort of put it down and never came back to it and when I was doing that record someone brought it up and said how about trying this again and it came out great. So I’m glad I did.
AD: Then of course the “Great Battle”. Your audience builds around your expanding catalog and your incendiary rock and roll gigs at the Continental Club on Wednesdays and the unique sounds of The Resentments at the Saxon on Sundays. What’s it like being a working musician in Austin?
JG: It’s a big question because I completely consider Austin home. When I was 18, I lived in New York for almost a year. I lived in Los Angeles for almost 7 years. I spent a ton of time in Europe. I’ve been all over this country a thousand times and I’ve never found a place where I feel as good as I feel here. It’s a quality of life issue for one thing. The question about playing music here is key to the whole thing. I mean I play two weekly gigs, I have two residency gigs and I can’t think of another town anywhere in the United States where you could do that and still have a crowd for both of them. And having the musical community the way that it is here that we could do something like the Resentments-with four different writers from four completely different fields coming together and being this amazing thing-that just doesn’t happen every day and it happens here a lot in Austin. So it has to do with musical community. It has to do with just the physics of this town. You know I live right here behind the Continental Club, and I can be at Barton Springs in five minutes. I can be downtown in three minutes. It’s fantastic. I just love this town. The heart of this town.
AD: What do you think needs a little fixing?
JG: I think that the infrastructure of this town-the roads, etc. They need to address the traffic issue. It’s getting insane. Also, the town itself, the City and the City Government, they started to address it, but I don’t think they support the musical community nearly as much as they should. This is an industry in Austin as of four years ago, brings in 600 million dollars a year. That’s a huge contribution to the City you know? I think that they could give a little bit back and help us out. Maybe some pilot programs to help musicians buy houses. Because we don’t have the same sort of financial backing that ordinary civilians do. While we make really good money, on paper it doesn’t look like anything, it looks like a series of contract periods. I think the city could help musicians to own property in this town because we are a huge part of what this town is-why not help them buy houses so that they stay here?
Health Alliance has really stepped up on their front. So now, lets get people houses. Several of my friends have ended up in San Marcos and Buda and Kyle because they can’t get a house here.
AD: You’ve got a new CD. It’s the springtime of a New Year. Tell us about your new record and what to expect from Mr. Graham in 2006.
JG: It is the closest record I’ve ever done for what I sound like live. It didn’t start out to be a record, it started out to be demos and we were just going to go in and cut the songs and work on it. We cut the whole thing in two days and when smoke cleared it was great. And I’ve done records that took six months. This was two days.
The thing is, it’s going to rub some people the wrong way-it’s very rough. It’s like seeing a Continental gig. But you know I’ve done produced records, I’ve done the pretty records. I wanted to do a record that kind of captured the mayhem of the live thing. But at the same time there’s like one song that’s just me and an acoustic guitar sitting in a room playing. There’s other songs that are just three of us all playing electric guitar at the same time. There’s everything from the smallest and prettiest all the way up to the noisiest thing I’ve ever recorded.
AD: I guess 2005 was a watershed year for you and your family. The show at the Continental Club with everyone was one of the most amazing nights of music we’ve ever seen. Is there anything you would like to say about what happened? What do you think about how musicians came to your aid?
JG: It sets my heart on fire. There’s really not a lot I can say about that except that I was shocked.
I grew up on a ranch, I’m all about self-sufficiency and taking care of my family and myself and we were just floored when the insurance thing went down and we needed help. Everyone stepped in and lifted us up. I’ll be forever grateful and indebted to the musical community and the community in general. People I don’t even know have stepped in and helped me out. Things are going really well with Willie also, so I think the tides of prayer are helping. We were getting emails from all over the world of people praying for him and again, not to be soft-headed and metaphysical, but that much positive attention focused on him, I know lifted him up.
AD: Ok, we’ve never done this before but how about a little word association game. We say a word or two and you say the first one or two that comes to your mind.
AD: Favorite drink:
AD: Favorite meal:
AD: Three books:
JG: Charles Bukowski: Hot Water Music
Cormic McCarthy: All the Pretty Horses
Annie Dillard: For the Time Being
AD: Five CDs:
JG: Charles Mingus
Iggy Pop: Lust for Life,
Johnny Thunder: So Alone,
Miles Davis: Kind of Blue
Ry Cooter: Paris Texas.
JG: My best friend in the world
AD: Steve Burton:
JG: My best friend in the world
AD: Favorite pastime:
JG: Playing with my boys
AD: Greatest joy:
JG: My boys
AD: Biggest hope:
JG: To live long