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  • Interview: Jon Dee Graham

    Jon Dee Graham is nothing if not a realist about life in the music business. As his 60th birthday approaches at the end of February, the acclaimed Texas songwriter is working to raise money to make a new record he hopes won’t be his last.

    “Acclaim doesn’t put food on the table,” Graham says. “It’s adorable and I’m touched, but I cannot possibly be more tired of the phrase ‘Best songwriter you’ve never heard of.’”

    Graham has self-funded every album he’s recorded since 2012’s “Garage Sale,” selling music and watercolors of bears out of his car when he tours. From now until midnight Wednesday, he is raising money to document a “milestone.” You can make a donation here.

    “I’m turning 60 and I never really expected to find myself here,” Graham says by phone from his Austin home. “This is not like grave portent or foreshadowing of anything, but my contacts list on my phone is full of people who are not here anymore. You just don’t know. You never know.”

    Over 45 minutes, Graham and I talked about his impetus behind the new album, mortality, his songwriting process, and the state of the music business, among other things. I have long been an admirer of his work. The photos accompanying this feature are from a 2015 show I shot of Graham performing in his weekly residency at Austin's Continental Club; you can see that essay here, as well as another one here.

    Here are edited highlights from our conversation. All of the quotes are Graham’s:

    The new album

    “Potentially this will be my last record. I hope not but what if it is? At my age and the crowd I ran with, let’s just say they were enthusiastic about living (laughs) and a lot of them are not with me anymore. If this turns out to be the last record, I want it to be right.

    “I’m not writing a death record. I was talking to Terry Allen a few years back. He was working on a new album and then got stuck. He couldn’t figure out what was wrong and then he realized he was working on a death record. So he scrapped it and started over again. I thought about that when I started this. I’m carefully conscious that I’m not making a death record. My approach is, ‘Let’s say this is your last, what do you want it to accomplish?’”

    Life as a working musician

    “I have to leave Austin to make money basically. Truly I do. I’ve never played a club that does not want me back. That seems like a small measure but in our business that’s what it’s really about. The audience doesn’t owe me anything. It’s my job to convince them that they need to hear what I have to say.”

    Self-funding his music

    “I invented crowd funding. ‘Garage Sale’ was done completely on pre-orders. That was the same year Kickstarter launched, and they didn’t have a platform in place that was functional until after I did that album. Now I’ve been doing it on my own for so long that I don’t know there’s any other way.

    “I make a record, put it in my car and drive around playing and selling it to people. We’ve done alright by it. We’ve never missed a meal and almost own our house, so it works. It works really well.”

    On songwriting

    Graham is famous for austerity in his writing. In a lengthy 2013 essay for the Bitter Southerner, editor Chuck Reece marveled at how Graham’s “$100 Bill” has only 28 words. That led us into a discussion about his songwriting process.

    “What I learned pretty early on was the stuff that moved me was simple. Not in the sense of the obvious but in the sense that the fewer moving parts a machine has, the less likely it is to break or to do something that’s not its job. … There’s so much to be said for letting the listener’s imagination do what it’s there for.

    “I had a writing teacher during my brief tenure at (the University of Texas) who told me, ‘Words are under no obligations to you.’ That is so true because I can write these very simple lines that mean what I want them to mean. Then three different people can listen to it, be deeply moved and it means something completely different to each of them.

    “I wish I could say this is how I write my songs, but I can’t because they come at me all different ways. Some of them arrive fully conceived and take about as long to write them as to sing them. Some are like feral cats. You leave a bowl of milk out on the porch and coax them in. Gradually you get to pet them and eventually they come indoors. … Sometimes if I try and write a song before I’m ready or before I can see it clearly enough to catch it, I’ll scare it off.

    “My process is I say a prayer and pick up a guitar and a legal pad and see what happens. But that being said, I’m a harsh critic. I’m hard to please. I don’t put a word on the paper unless I believe it. If you go through my notebooks that I use to work on songs, there are not a lot of different versions. There’ll be some aborted versions, and there will be versions that are slightly different, but I know in my heart when I hear the right line. That sounds corny but it’s true. In order for me to write something down I have to believe it’s going to work.”

    Superstitions and Faith(less):

    At this point, Graham and I talked about how thoughts are at times so quick to disappear, and why capturing a thought is so important, no matter when it occurs. That led into a discussion on superstitions, religion, faith and one of his two best loved songs — “Faithless.”

    “Let’s be square about this here. Who knows where this stuff comes from? It is a superstitious process. If I have one of those feelings, what I want to capture is that certain feeling. If I don’t sit down and start to write it, it can leave the tracks and I can’t get it back.

    “Faithless — I’ve played it in a couple of churches as well as at a couple of funerals. People get confused with the terms spirituality and religion. Religion is for people who are afraid to go to hell. Spirituality is for people who’ve been to hell.

    “Literally the definition of faith is the belief in things unseen. If you can’t muster that up you’re going to have a hard time in this world. It does not have to be the belief in the white robe bearded God. It can be whatever but you can’t live in this world and not realize that something is going on, that something happening that is not you and is not me.

    “My friend Hal is an astrophysicist. He said to me once, ‘If I gave you a box with all the molecules you needed you still could not build a tree.’ In that sense you’d be a fool not to have faith of some sort. So much of what happens in our lives and what goes into our lives is necessarily unseen. When they smash atoms in the collider, you don’t actually see the electron, you just see the passing of the electron. With love, friendship, fidelity, loyalty, you don’t see it, you just see it pass through your life. That’s why we need faith.”

    The music business today

    Graham’s youngest son, William, is a singer-songwriter who has a new album (“Jakes”) coming out this month. I’ve seen William open for his dad at the Continental Club. The apple, as they say…

    “He’s an amazing, amazing songwriter. He’s the real thing. I feel so bad for him because there’s no infrastructure anymore in music. At least I got in on the tail end. As the empire was crumbling, I still got to walk through the streets of Rome, and it’s helped me in my career to at least have gotten that initial push. If I was starting out again, if I were in William’s shoes right now, I don’t know what I’d really do.

    “There used to be artist development. Record labels really didn’t expect to make their money back for the first three records because artists were encouraged and allowed to grow? Who on earth would give Tom Waits a record deal today, or for that matter, Neil Young? These were artists who were nurtured and allowed to move forward in ways that are just actually impossible now. Even if someone wanted to do it, they couldn’t.

    “I don’t think I’d still be doing this if what I was doing wasn’t up to par, and I think with William it will work the same way. But the old paradigm is dead and no one knows what the new one is yet. How is any musician supposed to make money, other than touring, when you can pay a subscription fee to Amazon Prime and get any song for free?

    “My oldest son, Roy, who is 25, his generation looks me in the eye and says music should be free, in the same sense that beauty should be free. What about the people who have to execute it? What about the people who have to make it? I hope William and his generation figure out how to save music. Between people staying home and not going out as much, and the stranglehold that streaming music has put on all of us, I don’t know how we’re supposed to make it.

    “I’m not one of those people who is bitter about it, or pines for the old days. There were a lot of problems with the major labels. Every friend I know who had a major label deal has a horror story to tell. It’s to varying degrees, but they all have horror stories.

    “What I do miss is that music used to mean more to people. I find it hard to believe that it doesn’t still. How many times do you hear a song on the radio and go back instantly to where you were when you heard the song the first time. There’s so much value in that. I just don’t think people feel the same way anymore. … Music has become very disposable.”

    Wrapping it up…

    At the end of the conversation, Graham tells a funny yet profane story. He refers again to his friend Hal, the astrophysicist.

    “One of my favorite stories he’s told me pretty much sums up what we’re talking about here. He said that with the best observatories we had that astrophysicists came up with pretty clear mathematical layouts and descriptions of how things worked in the universe.

    “Hal said, ‘Then we set the Hubble (telescope) up and we all looked at each other and went, ‘Fuck. We were wrong.’ So we set up a new lens and a new mirror and lens so we could see further. And then we said, ‘Fuck. We were wrong again.’

    At this point, Graham laughs.

    “So the further you see, the more you realize how wrong you were. It made me realize, ‘Well, hold on Frances, take a few steps back. You don’t know everything yet.’ I’m still teachable after all these years.”

    This feature also was posted to Americana Highways. You can see it here.

  • Review/Photos: Band of Heathens

    This review is being posted to the Americana Highways website. For more photos, go to my Concert Photos gallery.

    There’s nothing quite like closing out a year with a bunch of heathens in our nation’s Capital. If not a bunch, then at least a band.

    The five-member Band of Heathens filled the main room at Hill Country Live on 7th Street and rocked a small but enthusiastic crowd into 2019. The Austin-based group performed songs from their five studio albums as well as the singles “Carry Your Love” and “Dc 9,” which in an alternate universe would be Billboard hits.

    Led by Ed Jurdi and Gordy Quist, who share lead vocals and write the band’s songs, the five-member group has followed up 2017’s “Duende” with “A Message from the People Revisited,” a song-by-song recording of Ray Charles’ classic 1972 album.

    Jurdi and Quist, who formed the band in 2006 with Colin Brooks, have been on a roll since a series of lineup changes left them as the only original Heathens. They are backed ably by Trevor Nealon on keyboards, Scott Davis on bass, and Richard Millsap on drums.

    The Band of Heathens’ sound draws comparisons to groups like Little Feat and The Black Crowes, but the best description I’ve heard of their style is “Grateful Dead Americana.” While this is probably true of any Americana fan, I most appreciate bands who have a lack of respect for strict genres. I like that Jurdi’s vocals are more soul and R&B based, while Quist has a more straightforward singer-songwriter style, with some Memphis pop/country/soul added for good measure.

    Monday’s show started just before 10:30 and ended with two songs in 2019. Much of the first half of the show was devoted to songs from “Duende,” including “All I’m Asking,” “Sugar Queen,” “Green Grass of California,” and “Last Minute Man.”

    “Medicine Man,” “Gris Gris Satchel,” from 2016’s “Top Hat Crown,” were mixed with “Jackson Station” from the group’s 2008 self-titled studio debut. “LA County Blues” and “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” from 2011’s “One Foot in the Ether,” were also highlights.

    The latter song included an extended jam featuring Jurdi solos on both lead guitar and harmonica. It proved to be a strong segue into the group’s “Message” set, where the band covered a series of standards that Charles had made his own almost a half century ago in a musical call for peace and harmony.

    Because of history’s tendency to repeat itself, many of the issues Charles’ sang about in 1972 remain sadly relevant today. Still, it took some guts for a white Americana band to remake a known soul classic take by take, in just four days of studio time no less. And for the most part, it works.

    On Monday, amid the celebrations and just a mile from the White House, it was almost cathartic to hear songs like “Heaven Help Us All,” “Abraham, Martin and John,” and “Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma.” Even “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” which felt more like John Denver than Ray Charles, worked.

    The mini set done, the band returned to its own catalogue, roaring through “Deep Is Love,” the beautiful ballad “Hurricane,” and the rocking “Trouble Came Early,” which ended just in time for the New Year’s countdown. That was followed by a cover of Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” and, as the closer, “America the Beautiful.”

    With that, the show and another year were in the books. And both were memorable.

  • Photos & Review: Ryan Bingham in Austin

    It’s nice to see Ryan Bingham smile.

    That’s what the singer-songwriter did, early and often during his solo acoustic show at the 299-seat One World Theatre in west Austin on Wednesday. Bingham, whose first album since 2015’s “Fear and Saturday Night” comes out in February, tested out new material from the forthcoming “American Love Song” and played some of his more familiar work in an intimate setting that is far removed from the larger venues he plays with his full band.

    On Wednesday, Bingham was a jovial, salty ringmaster, providing the audience with a somewhat linear, at times slightly scrambled narrative of his difficult upbringing. He apologized on several occasions for the rambling during the two-hour show, but there was no need because the stories were so interesting and entertaining.

    The basics of Bingham’s life and career are well known to fans. Born in New Mexico, his parents struggled with alcoholism and substance abuse, and he lived a largely itinerant childhood. Eventually establishing deep roots in Texas, Bingham scored a record deal in 2007 and then became known nationally when his song “The Weary Kind” from 2009’s “Crazy Heart” won a Grammy and an Academy Award.

    Kicking off the show with “Tell My Mother I Miss Her So,” he moved into “Nothing Holds Me Down,” a bluesy number from the forthcoming album. After a sublime “Dollar a Day,” Bingham said his father told him to “keep a real open mind because a lot of people are going through similar things and hard times, too.” He then launched into “Hard Times,” which features the wordplay of “When it pours it rains,” and told a funny yet sad story about following his father to Laredo.

    The funny: Bingham hitched a ride with two girls from Houston who were driving to South Padre Island, where he saw his first concert on the beach. Run-D.M.C. was playing, and two University of Texas football players put the skinny kid on their shoulders so he could see.

    “It was badass,” Bingham recalled.

    The sad: His friends realized how far Laredo actually was from Houston, so they dropped him at a truck stop so he could hitchhike the rest of the way. A truck driver named Al offered him two pieces of sage advice: If you’re going to hitchhike, get a pocket knife and keep it with you at all times. And, if you’re stuck at a truck stop with nowhere to go, wait for the big rigs to come in and snuggle up to next to one of the tires to keep warm.

    Bingham then sang “Long Way from Georgia,” a tribute to Al, and then told how learning how to play a mariachi song on guitar inspired him to play music. The guitar, a gift from his mother, “became my voice and my identity and my soul,” he said as an introduction to the classic mariachi tune “La Malaguena.”

    The stories continued. “Sunshine,” about Leonard Peltier, was partially inspired and written after he met a man working as a dime store Indian at Disneyland Paris, where he had flown with a one-way ticket to get a job on Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. The job didn’t pan out, but the experience provided him with fodder for a song.

    At that point, Bingham started sharing more songs from the new album, which has the potential to be his best yet. “Jingle and Go” talks about playing for tips. “Lover Girl,” the story of Bingham meeting and wooing his wife of almost 10 years, was illustrated with a tale about convincing her to drive from Los Angeles to Texas to pick up his belongings, which turned out to be a box of records his uncle had given him.

    The strongest new songs played came toward the end of the evening. One is “Wolves,” which he wrote for students who have spoken out against gun violence in schools. He said the response of adults to student activism in the wake of last year’s shooting at Stoneman Douglass High School “takes me back a little bit” to his own feelings of abandonment by adults, noting that is “at a time when kids need someone to listen to them the most.”

    The second was “America,” a simple, emotional state-of-the-state ballad that likely will be controversial when it is released. The song asks a number of questions (“Can we see what we’ve become?”) and is replete with vivid imagery (“A bullet is only dressed in blood”) that likely will not be played on conservative country radio.

    That’s not what Bingham cares about though. Unlike most performers, he does not perform his biggest “hit” at the end of every show. He played “The Weary Kind” during the previous evening’s encore but left the stage without mentioning it on Wednesday.

    That felt somewhat ironic, given his focus on the past, but the audience didn’t seem to mind. They cared more about the stories and the other “damn good songs” that he has in his canon. For two hours, he delivered plenty of those. And all with a wink and a smile.

    This story and photos were posted to the Americana Highways  website. You can see more of my photos  here.

  • Fathers, Family & Austin

    I need live music. It feeds my soul. Since my late teens and early 20s, when I lived in Houston, I’ve found myself in bars and clubs, absorbing the sounds of musicians telling their stories and pouring out their souls to crowds large and small. Usually small.

    Most of my family doesn’t understand this need; at least I don’t think they do. The music I typically enjoy is miles from the top 40, although I’ve been known to embrace the occasional pop song that is played ad infinitum on the radio. But mostly I appreciate singer-songwriters whose music strikes a common cord with who I am, who I’ve been, or who I wish to be.

    Jon Dee Graham cuts across all three. His music touches and informs; the honesty with which he writes and plays is something I related to immediately. He writes as a father and a husband who has acclaim and hardships in equal measure. I’ve been a fan for almost two decades, albeit one who has experienced the topics he writes about both vicariously and up close and in person.

    Like The Replacements, another band I tried to see but couldn’t manage to connect with live until a few months ago, my attempts to see Graham seemed thwarted at every turn. I’ve caught Dave AlvinSteve Earle, John Hiatt, and Buddy Miller — other genre-crossing favorites in my ongoing music queue — numerous times. Other than one show in the mid 1990s when he was the opening act, I can’t begin to tell you how many times I missed Graham by a day or a week, seemingly caught in an inextricable conflict that prevented me from making that live connection.

    Still, I’ve bought everything he’s released, ranging from the music on mid-major labels (New West) to his self-released material. I made a contribution via mail when I heard of his son’s rare disorder, which led to a live album/DVD that I also purchased and lapped up with the fervor of the fans who’ve seen him live hundreds of times. I’ve read with envy of his weekly 17-year residency at the tiny, infamous Continental Club in Austin, and wondered how I could catch a show at the infamous small club in my home state’s capital.

    This past Wednesday, thanks to a fortuitous spur-of-the-moment trip and my wife’s indulgence, I finally managed to see Graham live. In Austin… at the Continental Club … with Jill and I sitting on a former car seat against the wall.

    And it was worth every penny, even if the cover charge was only $8. I gladly would have paid much more.

    These photos (plus the ones on my Facebook page here) tell the story of that night. They alternate between photos of the club and the groups we saw — Graham with his incredibly tight band, the Fighting Cocks, and his tremendously talented teenage son, William, leading his band, the Painted Redstarts.

    The best part for me was seeing my wife enjoy one of my favorite musicians in a club in my home state. The next best was seeing Graham standing on the opposite side of the room, watching his son perform and leading the cheers. Just like any other proud dad.