Jon Dee Graham tells it like it is. He’s the friendly yet grisly voice of reason and rebellion who isn’t afraid to tell you the truth, and an under-the-radar rock star in Austin. Graham was in Austin punk legends the Skunks, and a founding member of the True Believers with Alejandro and Javier Escovedo. He decided to drop out of the University of Texas after an evening of partying with The Clash.
The city of Austin loves Graham. Its music community has helped him and his family raise money for his son’s medical bills, named him SXSW’s artist of the year for 2006, inducted him into Austin Music Awards’ Hall of Fame three times – with the Skunks, True Believers and as a solo artist – and provided him the opportunity for not only one but two weekly residencies at the legendary Continental Club. Lately, Houstonians can catch his new regular gig Thursday nights at Natachee’s.
Recently the Houston Press reached out to Graham and invited him to chat at the current exhibit of Ron Mueck’s surreal sculptures at the MFAH. Choosing this location to meet was very natural; I figured an artist like Graham would appreciate how these sculptures represent all that is unique about his music and lyrics. They depict life magnified, in all its beautiful but sad, complicated yet simple facets. The similarities were not lost on Graham.
“If you can somehow in a piece of work, whatever it is – sculpture, music, art, song – if you can touch beautiful and sad and funny, you’ve won,” he says. “Life, it’s incredibly complex, and so the job of the artist is, in my opinion, to try to make sense of it.”
Graham has made a long and respected career of trying to make sense of it in his songs. His lyrics are deeply honest, personal and narrative, often conveying the human experience lingering in our entire collective subconscious in just a few words.
Walking around the exhibit, Graham was quiet and reflective, often smiling or stroking his chin. By the end of our visit, he was clearly shaken and slightly sweaty as we gazed upon the final sculpture in the exhibit, a giant newborn baby so realistic you could almost smell it.
“What really struck me was the proportions,” Graham said later. “Everything was so realistic, but the dimensions were all off. It suddenly felt like this huge metaphor for fatherhood.”
Graham is the father of two young men, each of whom has already shown his father’s knack for writing and music. His younger son, William Harries Graham, joins his dad at one of his Austin residencies, this one in the Lo Jinx Orchestra.
When discussing songwriting, Graham said, “One of the best lessons I think I learned in my very brief career at the University of Texas, one of the best things I brought away from that and learned about writing was from a guy who still writes, actually for the [Austin] Chronicle, Michael King. He was my professor and he said, ‘Words are under no obligation to you whatsoever. Many times you’ll want them to do a certain thing and you’ll try to make them do this thing and they won’t do this thing. Listen to the words; they will tell you what they are going to do.’ That notion about words, and how they are under no obligation to you at all, has been important to me. A lot of times when I’m writing, I picture myself herding words.”
Despite having been “herding words” for most of his life, Graham did not put out his own solo record until the age of 35, when he released the well-received Escape from Monster Island. He now has ten solo albums under his belt and has toured the U.S. extensively; his latest, Knoxville Skyline, is distributed by the Houston-based South Central Music.
Though Graham has had a Houston connection for many years, including a long friendship with Continental and Natachee’s owner Pete Gordon, this opportunity for a weekly residency might be the perfect fit for him. Compared to his current residencies in Austin, one with his band the Fighting Cocks and another with the Lo Jinx Orchestra, his Houston shows will be just him. Asked about having his first solo residency, Graham replied with a smile: “I hadn’t thought about it like that before.”
Natachee's itself is perfect for a comfortable and intimate experience. Each show is a little different, but always touched by Graham’s brand of warm humor. He engages with the crowd often, asking them to join him in a singalong or call out requests.
On one recent Thursday, he warned the crowd we would be taken “to such emotional depth that I’ll have to bring you back up slowly in stages so that you don’t get the emotional bends.” Songs such as “Can of Worms” are bound to make you laugh and oblige you to participate in the call-and-response verses. Other originals, though, like “$100 Bill” or “When a Woman Cries,” might make you grow quickly pensive and quiet.
Graham was recently joined on the Natachee’s stage by Bonnie Whitmore, sister of the Mastersons' Eleanor Whitmore, before the duo hit the road for a two-week tour to New York and back. As usual, Graham treated the crowd to a 90-minute set featuring his brand of rock and roll acoustic guitar, comedic stories and romantic ballads. He also read from his recently released book Don’t Try, featuring poems co-written with Nathan Brown and based on titles of Charles Bukowski poems.
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Graham and Gordon are optimistic about this new Houston residency, which resumes April 20. “There’s no better songwriter than Jon Dee Graham,” Gordon says. “He writes straight from the heart and as people come and see it once, they are going to want to come back and see how personable and unique this show is week after week.”
Comparing Austin to Houston, Graham reflects, “The sense of community in Austin is incredible, and I believe it’s what Pete is building here in Houston.”
In Graham’s experience, the trick to a successful residency is to “always show up," he says. "You have to be there every week.” The same could be said about the crowd. As Graham explained to the audience recently, “This is like a musical Ponzi scheme, guys – in order for me to keep coming back to Houston, we have to grow this; we have to keep making this expand.”
Jon Dee Graham's residency resumes 8 p.m. next Thursday, April 20 at Natachee's Supper 'N Punch (3622 Main).