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Jon Dee Graham was beaming, his smile so wide it was in danger of obscuring the rest of his face. Sharing the stage at the Austin Music Awards with Trish Murphy, Kacy Crowley and Ana Egge -- three of Texas's most promising female singer/songwriters -- he looked weirdly out of place, like a rugby player at a sorority rally.
No matter. Amid all the hassles and hoopla of the 1998 South by Southwest Music Conference, this was a moment to be savored, and Graham was doing just that. For the most part, he lurked on the fringes of the performance, more shy spectator than proud participant, strumming his acoustic guitar with the occasional flourish, singing into a mike that barely registered his voice, looking on while the trio in front of him took on some of the most revealing songs he'll likely ever write.
The Graham tunes the singers chose to cover -- "Faithless" and "Airplane" -- are from last year's Escape from Monster Island, a harrowingly intimate, poignant portrayal of life as a long-distance dad and the stress that comes with separation. Dedicated to his five-year-old son, Roy Amon Norvell Graham, it is the first solo release in all his years as a chameleonic guitarist, underrated songwriter, coveted sideman and somewhat reluctant vocalist. And while Graham's Music Awards appearance may have been all too brief -- and any official acknowledgment of his brilliant solo debut lacking -- it didn't seem to weigh on him. This wasn't about awards; it was about a personal and professional vindication after years of waiting patiently in the wings. In the process, he's become one of the state's most treasured all-around handymen, a guy who's had his say in the more significant musical movements of Austin's last two decades. Bounding off the stage after his Music Awards appearance, Graham looked very much the proud father.
"It wasn't so much the fact that I was being covered," says Graham now, thinking back on that March evening. "I played on Trish Murphy's record, I played on Kacy Crowley's record and Ana lives right around the corner from me. It was this real coming together kind of thing -- that sounds so hackneyed, but I don't care. Clearly, they're the next generation, and they're friends of mine. To have them choose to do my songs made me feel great -- those darned kids."
Tinged with guilt but rarely awash in self-pity, the music on Escape from Monster Island is anchored by personal details, alternately prickly and soulful guitar-playing and the artist's gravelly, smoke-choked vocals. Throughout the ten-track effort, Graham sounds like a once hard man left vulnerable and exposed after a relentless emotional pounding, his dense, protective shell suddenly cracked wide open to reveal a healthy, living heart. "Well, having a child takes the paint right off a man," he confesses in his Tom Waits-like wheeze on "Kings." And the relief in his voice implies that Graham was more than happy to let down his guard.
"We like to pretend that we're all different; that each person is [his or her] own little island," he says. "[But] I'm a firm believer that if it moves me, then the chances are good that [others are] going to be moved when they hear it."
At once bluesish, folky and intensely rocking, Escape from Monster Island is immersed in the family dynamic, from the lyrics' vivid recollections of quality time spent with Roy to the CD jewel-box images of singer and son, Jon Dee's grandfather working in the dirt on his Panhandle cotton farm and the Graham clan's Scottish crest. Still, the guitarist isn't game for discussing the specifics behind Monster Island. "Frankly, it's far more interesting for me to hear what other people think [the songs are] about," he says.
It's hardly any secret, though, that much of the material was inspired by a period when Graham had temporary custody of Roy before having to send the child to live with his mom, singer/actress Sally Norvell, in New York. "It's really difficult," admits Graham, who now sees his son about once every two months. "It gets more bearable. But the fact remains he's my only son, and I can't be with him."
While it may seem like meager consolation, Graham will always have his tattoo: a solid ink reproduction of Roy's handprint circled by a spiked, sunlike symbol that covers a portion of his upper back and shoulder blade. It's the powerful focal point of the grainy black-and-white photo that graces the cover of Monster Island. In the picture, Roy's forearm is resting atop his father's naked back, inches away from the tattoo.
"That, believe it or not, was a snapshot of him and I cavorting around on the couch. When I saw it, I just started crying," Graham says. "I took a handprint of his when he was 2 -- right when his mother and I were splitting up -- and had it tattooed onto my back. It took four hours. And [Roy] likes it; at 4, he said, 'Wherever I go, my hand is on your back.' "
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