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Unexpected Success

One of the prime tenets of Hinduism and its Buddhist offshoot is the notion that becoming unattached to temporal objects and issues provides the means to achieve nirvana. By giving up the small shit, we can get the big enchilada. Simple, right? Hardly. Life on this earth is so fraught with desires, ambitions, attachments and distractions that eschewing such things takes either years of disciplined work or the hand of fate. And the more you really want something, the more it often becomes that much harder to attain.

Austin guitarist, songwriter and singer Jon Dee Graham has learned that lesson. "The second you start chasing it, you get behind it," he says, between sips of coffee on the outdoor deck at Flipnotics, an Austin coffeehouse and performance space that Graham plays once a month. With his ruggedly handsome countenance, receding hairline and bulky build, he looks like a cross between an old-style Hollywood character actor and a rock and roll Buddha, and seems even more wise and well traveled than his 40 years. For a good share of those years, Graham chased his rock and roll dream with diligence and even, at times, a vengeance. And now, some five years after he actually decided to quit music, he's enjoying a burgeoning if unexpected career as a solo artist that's as satisfying as it is surprising to him. "I sure didn't set out to do this. It's happened on its own."

Born and raised in Quemado, a small farming community on the Texas-Mexico border near Eagle Pass, Graham holds an impressive musical resume. He played his first professional gig in a country music roadhouse at age 13, something that gave his parents considerable pause, even if they did meet at a Bob Wills dance. After moving to Austin ostensibly to attend college, he landed in the Skunks, a popular Texas new-wave band, which opened shows for the Clash and the Ramones and toured with John Cale. ("After that, how can you return to college?" Graham says with a laugh.) That was followed by a genuine shot at stardom with the True Believers, Austin's great roots-rock hope of the mid-1990s, a band that either imploded, exploded, screwed up a big opportunity, was fucked over by the music business system or all of the above. It depends on who you talk to.

Graham then moved to Los Angeles, where he became a hired guitar gun for John Doe, Exene Cervenka and Michelle Shocked, had a song covered by Patti Smith ("One Moment to Another," a stand-out True Believers number) on one of her hit albums, and composed movie soundtracks. "I'd been doing it for so long," he says. "I've gone through phases of doing really, really well with it, and then starving. I got a cut on a Patti Smyth record, and that was huge, and it went so well for me, but it was a fluke. I'd ridden the roller coaster for so long that I'd gotten sick of it."

Just as the tedium of his musical struggle began to take hold, Graham's marriage to fellow musician Sally Norvell broke up. So with his tail between his legs, he headed back to Austin in the mid-1990s. "I'd quit," he says bluntly. "I basically moved back to a town I'd left eight years ago with a three-year-old boy in tow. It was time to move underground and scab over. I really didn't tell anyone I was back in town. I got my own place. I started framing houses, which I'd been doing off and on over the years."

Yet now he has just released his second solo album and is enjoying a steady diet of touring and a considerable amount of critical acclaim. What gives?

"There's a certain amount of hubris in saying, 'Oh, I quit. I'm not gonna do this anymore,' " says Graham. "I don't think I can quit. I've been doing it too damn long, and it's what I do.

"Between Michelle [Shocked] and John [Doe], I got to tour the way I always wanted to tour -- a bus, playing theaters, getting paid really well for it. And I kinda realized, if this is it, I need something else, something more. I think also by the end I was not satisfied just to play guitar. I had a suitcase full of songs."

Out of that suitcase and the other baggage Graham carried back to Austin from Los Angeles came his first solo album, Escape from Monster Island, a somber reflection on reaching midlife, seeing one's dreams crumble and trying to come to terms with it all as a grown man in an overgrown boy's business. It's an album that musically rests on a similar fulcrum, meshing atmospheric washes of subtle and mature harmonics and rhythms with occasional splashes of two-ton power chording, and marked by Graham's bluesy death rattle of a voice. It's an album he hadn't intended to make.

 

But after licking his wounds in Austin for a bit, Graham was offered some session work by guitar wizard Mike Hardwick, who had played with ex-Byrds Gene Clark and Michael Clarke, Jerry Jeff Walker, Kelly Willis and Michael Fracasso. "I don't even remember who the session was for," Graham says. "The fact is, I needed the money real bad. So it was, 'Okay, I've quit, but I'll go do this because I need the money.' So I went, and in the course of the session, I started sitting around with Mike playing some songs. And he was like, 'Hey, that's really interesting. We should get together and work on some songs.' So we started doing that just for our own sanity, not with any idea in mind. Then we started doing it in public, just kind of fucking around, and this whole cycle of songs and body of work started taking form."

After Graham and Hardwick played the Live Set show on Austin public radio station KUT, fellow musician Matt Eskey, a.k.a. bassist Earl B. Freedom in Mojo Nixon's Toadliquors, offered to put the show out on CD on his tiny-yet-tastemaking Freedom Records label, just as he had earlier with a Derailers Live Set taping. "At that point it had never even occurred to me," admits Graham. "We told Matt, 'Give us the money you would spend to have this mastered and redone, and we'll give you a real record.' He goes, like, 'I don't think that can be done.' We were like, 'We can do it.' Less than $5,000. Cut in three days. Mixed in three days. On the seventh day we rested.

"When we finished mixing, I remember thinking, If I see this on the shelves somewhere, I'll be happy. But we ended up getting pretty substantial radio play. With '$100 Bill,' we were on 51 stations at one point. And we're still getting play. I'm still getting publishing money on that. We ended up selling close to 5,000 copies, and when you spend $5,000 on a record, that's pretty good odds. I wasn't even thinking in terms of a second record, much less having any kind of success with the first one. It's all this unexpected stuff."

His recently released follow-up, Summerland, finds Graham now on the far-larger New West indie label and presents an upbeat flip side to Monster Island's dour meditations (just compare and contrast the titles). "I think that a lot of people are saying, 'Oh, well, they're radically different. The first one was one thing, and the second is something completely different.' I think it's like two halves of the same sword. But sonically I think the second one has more to offer. There's more color to it, more variety, more breadth. Some could argue that there isn't the focus on the second one that there is on the first one. But I find the second one easier to listen to, you know," he says with a laugh.

"On [Monster Island], with the songs, there was this linear, sequential story that was told," Graham explains. "On Summerland, there's still a story that's told, but it's more about the pieces in the whole story. You can put any three of those songs together and they will tell an essential aspect of the whole story. Also, it's just, I think, on [Monster Island], I got to do one thing I do really well, but on Summerland, I got to do everything I like to do. There's the acoustic songs, there's the badass rocking songs, there's the kind of quasi-pop songs, so the story is a little more complicated. This is the story about what happened when we left Monster Island, I guess.

"I think that record kind of made itself. And [on] this record I got to actually make the record, instead of the record making me," he says, even though Summerland still took a mere 13 days to record and mix. "There's something to be said for both processes. I think the second way made for a more colorful album." The differences in spirit between both albums are also reflected in their cover art, "which goes from this sort of duo-tone, real low-chromatic kind of thing to cover art with all this color exploding," he says. "That's kind of how I view the music, too. This is more colorful and warm."

On both records, Graham has eschewed the big-picture rock and pop focus for something more subtle and personal. It's a style that embraces most all of his experiences yet doesn't quite comfortably rest in the Americana bag it gets stuffed into.

 

And just as Graham has learned how giving up career goals enables him to achieve ones he never imagined, a similar epiphany has happened with his songwriting. "I went through a thing when I was younger of trying to write songs, and it just never worked for me. The harder that I tried to write songs, the worse they were." Now, instead of trying to write, he just lets the writing happen. "The songs announce themselves," he says. "I'll be driving or I'll be sitting at home or wake up in the middle of the night, and there it will be. Not the whole song, but there will be..." Graham pauses and thinks. "It's like a visitor that just shows up at the house, and you go, 'Oh, this song is gonna be about this' or 'this song is gonna be called this.'

"It sounds so gay, but it's like -- I don't know who said this -- the songs are out there. We're just catching them. It's all we're doing. That's not to say that I don't spend a lot of time working on them, or chasing 'em. But when they're ready to be caught, they're there. It's that Michelangelo thing about chipping away everything that doesn't look like the horse."

To complete the cycle, Graham is now happily remarried and just days away from the birth of his second child. No wonder he has gone from catching songs with such titles as "Faithless" and "Wave Good-bye" to tunes called "A Place in the Shade" and "Big Sweet Life." His life, career and even music have all gone from sad and defeated to joyful and contented.

"My ideas for where I was going and what was gonna be happening were pretty limited," says Graham. "And what ended up happening is way better than anything I could have dreamed up. So I'm just trying to enjoy it.


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