Anyone who knows me understands how much I value a good conversation. When that conversation is with a person I admire greatly — one of the most thoughtful, best songwriters in all of music — it's that much better. Thanks to Jon Dee Graham for taking the time to talk with me for Americana Highways; you can see the interview on my Music: Live & Otherwise blog.
Now go contribute to the new album he's trying to make. You won't be disappointed.
For some reason, I’ve been having trouble writing about the death of Prince. So many words have been said and so much purple ink spilled that there really isn’t much more that I can contribute.
But damn, that dude was talented. All you have to do is watch his Super Bowl halftime show.
No matter what you thought about Prince, he was a visionary in the music world. Like David Bowie, he mixed fashion, androgyny, funk, and throwback rock and roll into an always fascinating stew.
The results pushed the entire music industry in directions it did not anticipate; who would have thought he could almost turn Tipper Gore into a Republican? (If you don’t believe me, look it up.)
I wish 2016 would just let up when it comes to the deaths of people I’ve admired and appreciated as a fan of music and the performing arts. If I was a popular performer in the 1970s and '80s, I'd be more than a little scared. (Unless my name was Keith Richards, of course.)
Here are some excerpts from a Rolling Stone interview with Paul Westerberg after Prince’s death. The two were acquaintances who played the same clubs in Minneapolis; Westerberg also recorded at Prince’s studio, Paisley Park, after The Replacements broke up.
• He was like a ray of light in a very cautious place. He was a star. He made no bones about it. He was glitz to a place that wasn't used to it. I remember a little scuffle broke out in front of the stage one night and Prince said, "Stop fighting, you'll mess up your clothes."
• People like to paint him as a reclusive this or that; I think he was genuinely truly, truly shy. But one thing says a lot about him: I was there making a solo record a few years later, and I got a message that said that my friend had just died. I was truly rattled, and the next time I went back into the studio, he had filled it up with balloons. Now I'm gonna cry.
• I've spent more time with Bob Dylan, and I've got to say that I was more in awe of Prince. I can't think of anyone better – an all-around composer, musician, guitarist, star, showman, the whole package, anyone better. If Elvis wrote all of his songs and played guitar, it still wouldn't quite be there.
• When I got word today, I was trying to write a song. I put it down. I found myself walking up to the store, and I bought myself a handful of colorful clothes. I was just drawn to do something that he would have done.
My favorite post on this topic:
If you give us back Prince, Merle Haggard, David Bowie and Alan Rickman we will gladly give you the top 4 presidential candidates in return.
An appropriate song, given the type of year we’ve been having.
So, given my history of not-so-great Hallmark holidays, Jill and I have intentionally low-keyed this one. Friday we had a lovely meal in Old Town after I picked her up from the airport, and last night we ate takeout Chinese and watched a movie. Today is taxes, grocery store, and gym.
After all of the respiratory "fun," travel, and general craziness surrounding the start of 2016, a low-key Valentine's Day is the best of all. (Taxes, of course, are another story.) The one thing I did to formally mark the occasion was give herJon Dee Graham's new book, Love Notes from the Bear, which is a great gift for anyone who falls into the significant other category.
Here is one of Graham's drawings that he posted today. And it pretty much sums up how I view this life and the relationship Jill and I have 21 years into it.
A few thoughts on music from a 50-year-old white guy… (Photos are mine, too.)
I’ve spent my life trying to explain to people why I enjoy the music I like, and (usually unsuccessfully) why they should, too.
Leave it to Jason Isbell to explain it better than I could: “It’s punk, but it doesn’t sound like punk. It’s punk with different instruments and different songs.”
Isbell then goes on to explain, “It’s people who are trying to do the right thing. When it’s at it’s best, it’s people trying to make music because they love music, and they’re not trying to swindle anybody, they’re not trying to get rich and famous immediately, they’re trying to make music that goes back to their roots, they’re trying to have some credibility, they’re trying to be authentic.”
I recently saw Isbell at the UNITE to Face Addiction rally in Washington, D.C., where he was on the bill with Joe Walsh, Sheryl Crow, Steven Tyler, the Goo-Goo Dolls, and The Fray, among others. As a freelancer, I received a press pass to take pictures at the event, but my primary interest was seeing Isbell live for the first time.
All afternoon, I found myself telling people about Isbell’s music. Despite critical acclaim, especially for his last two albums, and growing awareness, many in the crowd didn’t know who he was.
“Just listen,” I said. “Then you’ll know.”
I turned around to look at the crowd during “Cover Me Up.”
I wish I could be a music critic or a concert photographer. I love capturing live events and think I’m pretty decent at it, but I don’t think I’d make a good critic. I know what I like, what I don’t, and even though I’m open to anything that catches my ear, I’m reasonably sure my opinions wouldn’t gibe with much of what passes for criticism these days.
That said, here are some things I’ve heard recently that I’ve enjoyed and put into heavy rotation:
• Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats: “SOB”
The best, most unrepentant song I’ve heard since “Rehab.” It brings a smile to my face everytime I hear it, and the video is terrific. Their self-titled album gives me the same warm feeling that “St. Paul and the Broken Bones” did last year.
• Tommy Stinson: “Can’t Be Bothered”
I’m a huge fan of The Replacements, but only recently have gotten into Stinson’s solo work. This is his latest, a single from a yet-to-be-delivered album, and it’s really good. It made me go back and revisit Bash & Pop’s “Friday Night is Killing Me,” the first Stinson solo effort and best album that came from The Replacements ashes. That is, until Paul Westerberg delivered “Mono.”
• Keith Richards: “Crosseyed Heart”
“Live at the Hollywood Palladium,” an out-of-print live album from 1988, remains in my rotation because it represents the best of what made the Stones great. And that, at least for me, is Richards. His new album is more of the same, which is plenty good.
• Dave and Phil Alvin: “Lost Time”
The follow up to the brothers' “Common Ground” is better, more lived in, and always welcome, although I find myself yearning for an album by Dave and his Guilty Men lineup.
• Amy Helm: “Didn’t It Rain”
On what is an admittedly male-centric list, the solo debut by Levon’s daughter more than holds its own. Terrific harmony, nice songwriting, and a couple of cuts that feature Helm’s late father on drums.
• Ryan Adams: “1989”
Everyone it seems has an opinion on Adams’ track-by-track cover/reinterpretation of Taylor Swift’s multiplatinum album. No matter what you think about Swift, and I’m an admirer of her talent (although I could do without the rest), Adams’ effort ranks up there with his best and ballsiest work.
• William Harries Graham and the Painted Redstarts: “Foreign Fields”
Damn, this is good, and Graham is at least 20 years younger than anyone on my current list. Jon Dee Graham’s son contributes an album that is nothing like his father’s work musically. And when it’s this good, who cares?
An EP not on my earlier list but also worth mentioning is Glen Hansard’s tribute to Jason Molina, the Songs: Ohia and Magnetic Electric Co. singer/songwriter who died two years ago from alcohol-related complications at the age of 39.
“It Was Triumph We Once Proposed: Songs of Jason Molina” is Hansard’s five-song tribute. It includes loyal covers of two of Molina’s best-received compositions, “Hold On Magnolia” and “Farewell Transmission,” either of which makes the entire EP worth owning. “Farewell Transmission” is especially melancholy and beautiful, and a reminder of how too many musicians leave us too soon.
To see Molina perform “Farewell Transmission,” just click on the video below. (Song starts at the 1:20 mark)
Great quote: “I suppose that I didn’t know what I would become, but I always wanted to be extremely brave and I wanted to be a constant reminder to the universe of what passion looks like. What it sounds like. What it feels like.” — Lady Gaga
Like I’ve mentioned before, I’m a huge fan of The Replacements, and saw them twice on their all-too-brief (though highly entertaining) reunion. Still I couldn’t help but laugh after reading this comment recently: The Replacements and REM were the Beatles and The Rolling Stones for the fucked up.
Great quote finale: From Jason Isbell, pretty much summing up my attitude toward writing about music in this or any other space — “I’m happy [for] anything that’s given me more of a home to do what I like to do.”
Three weeks ago, Jill and I were in Austin, and I convinced her to see Jon Dee Graham with me at the Continental Club. She enjoyed the show, so much so that she agreed to see Graham again with me on Tuesday night in a solo outing at Hill Country Barbecue in D.C.
An encore appearance with one of my musicians, twice in three weeks no less, is a first in our 19 years of marriage, so that’s saying something… But it also is deeply gratifying, given that our music tastes often differ.
Like many musicians I enjoy, Graham does not draw huge crowds (their loss) and his fans are ones who come to listen and experience the music. At a couple of different points, clusters of 20 somethings dressed in corporate suits and ties were shushed and shooed away because they were more interested in their conversations being heard over the music.
Despite the rude nature of some in the crowd, what impressed me most is that Graham provides the same quality show and songcraft whether he’s playing for 15, 50, 150, 500, or 1,000, solo acoustic or with his band the Fighting Cocks. That’s the mark of a true pro, and something others would do well to heed.
Realizing I've been on a Jon Dee Graham kick recently, this song has been been stuck in my head for days. Any father/son (or parent, for that matter) should be able to identify... Just great.
BTW, Graham will perform — solo, I think — at Hill Country BBQ in DC on June 16 and in NYC the following evening. Jill has agreed to go again with me to the DC show; would love it if friends would join us. And NYC peeps, you'll be hearing some great stuff...
Meanwhile, Graham and his son, William, have donated a song to the Hallman Flood Relief mixtape, now available here on Bandcamp for a minimum donation of $15. It’s great music — 36 songs in all — for a great cause: Austin musicians helping one of their own faced with terrible damage from last month’s flooding.
Mark Hallman is a “renowned and loved” producer/musician/mastering engineer/studio owner whose home suffered severe flooding when storms struck Texas and Oklahoma in May. About 90 percent of the songs on the mixtape were produced, recorded, mixed and/or mastered by Hallman and Andre Moran at Hallman’s Congress House studio.
Artists on the mixtape include The Painted Redstarts, the band led by Graham’s son, William; Eliza Gilkyson, Betty Soo, Danny Schmidt, Charlie Faye, Randy Weeks, Sara Hickman, Will Sexton, and The Belle Sounds. Unlike most of these compilations, there’s not really a bad song in the bunch, and it’s a terrific primer for anyone interested in the music being made in the Live Music Capital of the World.
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 Alvin, Steve 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.
“The story of our lives. Written page by page. Careful what you write. You gotta read it all some day.”
When I was a child staying at my grandmother’s in East Texas, inevitably I had to take food to Mrs. Douglass’ house.
I viewed this as penance for some yet-to-be-committed sin, in part because Mrs. Douglass and I had nothing in common and I was not interested in a career in the pharmaceutical industry at age 11. At this point in the story — Mrs. Douglass was a white haired, frail widow in her early 80s — conversation revolved around the variety of doctor’s appointments and prescriptions she was taking.
Mrs. Douglass was inevitably polite — although bitter about her lot in life, it seemed to my childhood self — and she always seemed to enjoy my visits. The pattern rarely deviated: I sat on the couch and, after a 30-second description and acknowledgment of the home-cooked meal my grandmother had made, listened to her describe her various ailments and what they prevented her from doing. After 15 or 20 minutes, I was escorted to the door and told to come back soon.
“I never want to be like that,” I told my grandmother more than once.
She nodded, pursed her lips slightly, and gave me a half smile.
“You can give away some things. That you never will get back. One piece at a time. And you never will get them back.”
My father-in-law is 80. Over the 15-plus years I’ve known him, the conversational window has narrowed considerably. At one point we could talk about photography; recently he barely looked at the pictures I showed him, even though most were of his grandchildren. At another, he could provide you with a dissertation examining the merits vs. the weaknesses of any sport involving the University of North Carolina. Now he barely talks about his beloved Tar Heels.
The relationship Jill and her brother have with their father is fractious, prickly, and tense. This is nothing new, but rather an extension of feelings that have been there since childhood. The undercurrents of lives that constantly overlap and occasionally intersect are never far from the surface.
Jill (I know) and her brother (I’m sure) have spent countless hours trying to figure out the enigma who is responsible for their place on this planet. And while it’s not my place to say what they think, I believe it comes down to this: Don’t mistake gratitude for kindness.
Like Mrs. Douglass, Bob’s life seems to revolve around two things — his visits to the doctor and the various prescriptions that he is taking to extend his life. He too is bitter, so focused on those things that he doesn’t seem to care about much else.
Recently, I drove to Boone as part of a Virginia/North Carolina trek that also involved parents’ weekend at Nicholas’ college (more about that in a separate post). Jill and her brother are trying to see Bob at least once a month and this gave me an opportunity to help.
Bob appeared grateful. He appreciated my taking him to the doctor and taking care of the things he has on a never-ending list. He talked of wanting to leave the assisted care facility to return to his house full time, although he’s not in good enough health for that to happen.
His charm with others not close to him remains intact. The person who has cut his hair for years spoke of his wit (and his love for Carolina sports). As he shuffled through the lobby, where a community band honked through the “Gilligan’s Island” theme at a 5:30 dinner concert, a couple of his fellow residents perked up, said hello, and waited for his acknowledgment. He gave them a nod, but didn’t sit with them.
Meanwhile, his temper simmered just below the surface, and he struggled not to bark or bellow. His temper, while infamous, is not something his children talk about, and you can tell he struggles to control it.
On more than one occasion, I’ve heard Jill mention that her father is not a kind man. I didn’t see it fully, however, until this visit, when I realized all along that I had mistaken gratitude for the kindness I had hoped to see.
“You need a strong heart. You need a true heart. You need a heart like that in a world like this. So you don’t get faithless.”
Four years ago, on Sept. 11, my second “mom” passed away. In many ways, she had died 3 1/2 years earlier.
If you follow this blog for any period of time, you will discover that I had two sets of “parents” — my biological ones and Fran and Bill, who lived across the street from us growing up. We moved into my childhood home on 22nd Avenue in Texas City when I was 4, and my parents became fast friends with the couple across the street and one house over to the left.
Much more than my parents, Bill was my personal familial enigma, although unlike Bob we reached a much more peaceful resolution in the end. With my mom facing a much more difficult juggling act (work, kids, sick husband) than any of us knew, I often turned to Fran for advice and support.
And Fran freely dispensed it, in what my mom called her “Yankee” way. (Ironically, it took me a while to realize that mom’s definition of Yankee includes the south side of Chicago.) Fran was always quick with an opinion and never afraid to share it, whether it was about my choices in music or literature. Unlike my grandmother, she didn’t partake in the rock and roll era (more about that in a future post, too).
Like my father, Fran had health issues for much of her adult life, and it took me some time to realize just how much she relied on Bill for everything. Without children of their own, all they had was each other, even though they treated us like their kids.
Fran marched in lock step with her Catholicism, never missing a mass and politically aligned largely with its beliefs. But after Bill died in 2004, she started questioning everything, including her own belief about the end of life.
One afternoon, during one of my 14 trips to Texas in 2007 to see my dad in the hospital, I stopped by Fran’s house for a visit. She was using oxygen, largely confined to bed or her chair.
Like Bob and Mrs. Douglass, most visits with Fran at the time were conversations about doctors, her various caregivers, and her medical treatments. The conversations had narrowed so much that a person I once could talk to at any time ran out of things to say in just minutes.
But on this mid-May day, we sat in her bedroom, went through pictures of the kids — unlike Bob, she remained interested — and talked about life’s trivia. She even endured a song I could not get out of my head at the time — Jon Dee Graham’s “Faithless.”
She put her head back on her chair and listened, eyes closed.
“In the deep blue dark down under. Tell me what you’re thinking of…”
“The things we find. The things we lose. The things that we get to keep. Are so damn few. And far between. So far between…”
She teared up, but rebounded at the conclusion.
“You need a strong heart. You need a true heart. You need a heart like that in a world like this. So you don’t get faithless.”
For a moment, she seemed more confident. “That’s how I feel on so many days,” she said. “I get so frustrated. It’s so easy to do.”
Fran told me how much she enjoyed the visit. I gave her a kiss and let myself out. In less than four months, she was dead.