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).
"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."