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.' "
Now 39 and with a son to support, Graham can no longer stomach the role of journeyman guitarist/behind-the-scenes co-conspirator -- perpetually road-rashed and forever on-call. Instead, he'd prefer to see his itinerant past for what it is: an accumulation of memories and experience, a less-than-direct progression of unfortunate misteps and wise moves.
At 17, Graham left the West Texas border town of Quemado to try his hand at higher learning in Austin. Drawn to the rowdy underground scene fomenting at the infamous Raul's bar, he lasted only about a year at the University of Texas. The proverbial nail in the coffin came when he joined a punk outfit called the Skunks, replacing guitarist Eddie Munoz, who had left to join the Plimsouls. In no time, the band was touring with the Clash and the Ramones.
Frustrated by, among other things, his lack of input on songwriting, Graham eventually abandoned the Skunks, taking up with Antone's blues diva Lou Ann Barton. "This was '79," recalls Graham, explaining his odd leap from punk to blues. "In Austin, you had punk rockers and rednecks and hippies all going to the same shows. It'd be bullshit to say there weren't [genre-oriented] boundaries and barriers. But that sort of thing happened easier here at that time."
If anything, the stint with Barton heightened Graham's profile as a guitarist to be reckoned with, though their alliance lasted less than a year. From there, he moved on to a pair of trendier acts, Five Spot and the Lift. He wrote a majority of the material for both groups, forced to negotiate his way -- unconvincingly -- through the new wave stylebook. Nonetheless, the bands were popular.
In 1984, Graham joined the True Believers, the seminal roots-rock band founded by Alejandro and Javier Escovedo, and in no time the group was hailed as the touchstone for Texas's "new sincerity" movement of the late '80s. It was in the Believers' democratic climate that Graham first began to shine as a composer. The band landed a deal with Rounder/EMI, but it was a decade or so ahead of its time. Dropped from Rounder after the release of its self-titled debut, the group fell apart in 1987.
Never one to stew over bad breaks, Graham headed to Los Angeles, befriending John Doe in time to contribute to the former X guitarist's first solo album, Meet John Doe. Via that primo association, he also found work with Exene Cervenka, Patty Smyth and Michelle Shocked, among others. On a more personal note, he married Austin-punk-priestess-turned-actress Sally Norvell.
Content, for the moment, to divide his time between writing songs for others and working live gigs and session jobs, Graham wound up staying in L.A. perhaps longer than he'd intended, building a career for himself as a sideman. Then, in the mid-'90s, with family issues weighing heavily on his mind, Graham relocated to Europe to play with Texas blues-rocker Calvin Russell. A year later, he was back in Austin, frustrated and ready to abandon music altogether. He got a job working construction and settled down with his son in a small house in the south end of town.
But Graham's resolve melted away when offers began pouring in, and he began contributing to a number of album projects. After Roy went to live with his mother, Graham found himself back in the familiar role of sideman, backing singer/songwriter Kelly Willis. This time, however, he'd be damned if he didn't get something out of his labors that was solely his own.
"The fact is, I couldn't stand it anymore," Graham says. "I knew I was a songwriter, but [people] couldn't quite understand why I wanted a gig of my own. Then, once they heard the record, they'd understand."
After his son's stay in Austin, Graham began collaborating with Texas music vet Mike Hardwick, who's played with Willis and Jerry Jeff Walker. Their free-and-easy partnership led to Escape from Monster Island, which was recorded on a bargain-basement budget in one straight, six-day shot. Co-produced by Graham, Hardwick and engineer Andy Taub at Austin's Hit Shack, the disc was released last summer on the tiny Freedom Records label (home to the Hollisters).
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"We had three days to cut it and three days to write it; there [wasn't] enough time for everybody to get in there and argue," says Graham. "More than half of it is Hardwick's sound. Me and Mike almost think like one person."
As for the songwriting process, Graham admits it wasn't without its low moments; sorrow envelops Monster Island's most personal material. Still, he says he won't continue to wallow in that emotion -- and even says his outlook wasn't all that glum to begin with.
"I've caught flack for the record being so dark, so sad," he says. "But it's about loss and redemption. And I feel so blessed."
Jon Dee Graham performs with Trish Murphy and Michael Fracasso at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 26, at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk. Tickets are $7. For info, call 528-5999.