Interview: Jon Dee Graham

Austin legend Jon Dee Graham makes his first visit to the UK in nearly ten years in May.  The one-time, go-to guitar slinger for likes of Alejandro Escovedo (who he played with in The True Believers for years), John Doe, even making an appearance on a Ry Cooder session, Graham has gone on to earn his place amongst the Texan songwriting greats in a twenty-year solo career.  A lovable giant of a man, a veritable beast of a songsmith, Graham’s observations on life are poignant, at times brash, but always delivered from the heart. His latest mini-album, ‘Knoxville Skyline’ (Decor) runs a gamut of styles from barroom stomp of ‘Things Might Turn Out Right‘  to a glorious  Fontaine-esque, ‘Dan Stuart’s Blues.’  AUK caught up with Graham to chat about the album, his son, William Harries Graham, who accompanies his father on the dates – and how much he was looking forward to returning to UK. 

Hey Jon Dee, Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions, it’s most appreciated. The most obvious being, why have you taken so long to come over here again? It’s been way too long. I was at the Luminaire when you played with James and Ian, that was some night. I think I remember you could barely speak due to some kind of flu bug!
The obvious answer to the obvious question…time and money; between my US touring schedule and the demand for my artwork, there’s not a lot of spare time. Also, while I’m certainly on the so-called Americana radar, my profile abroad is limited to a small but devoted cult, and at the age of fifty-nine I need to make every venture count.

How’s Austin treating you these days? Is it still keeping it weird? And the residency? Still going? Surely, you must be ingrained in the floorboards by now?
Austin, like everything and everybody everywhere continues to change. The city is growing exponentially at a breakneck speed, and a lot of the locals are bitter about it and the sad refrain is ‘Austin used to be SO much cooler’…but when I arrived here in ‘77 I moved into a houseful of hippies who informed me that I had ‘just missed it…Austin used to be SO much cooler’.
The truth is that I have travelled to every nook and cranny of America, and a great deal of the rest of the world, and I have yet to find a place that I want to live more than Austin.

And yes, I still hold down 3 residencies, with my Wednesday night at the Continental Club In its 22nd year. I was playing Wednesdays when my youngest son was born and now he opens the Wednesday night show.
I first played the CC when I was 18, so I fully expect William Harries Graham to inherit my spot when I pass.

I really love the new EP, it’s been on constant rotation here all week. Tell me more about ‘Dan Stuart’s Blues’. I love the whole vibe you have created there. It’s funny, sentimental, and totally absorbing. Some beautiful guitar work too, something I really love throughout all your records.
To me, Dan Stuart is the Great Lost American Songwriter. As you know, he was very popular in the U.K. with Green on Red, but I’ve always felt he never got his due in the states. Besides being my friend, he is also one of my favourite songwriters ever.
So I wrote the song as a tribute and to contribute to the myth-making of DS.

For five songs, you really run the gamut of styles on the EP. It’s like a beautiful, succinct calling card?
VERY deliberately so. I wanted to capture a bit of everything I do on one EP.

‘Careless Prayer’ is just ace. I really love it when you write ballads, Jon. ‘Remain’ from back in the day is one of my favourites. Do you find the slower songs come easy to you given you made your name as a guitar player and these songs really live or die on the strength of the lyrics, I guess. Do you see it that way?
Absolutely. I spent the first 15yrs of my musical career as a guitar slinger, a sideman for so many great writers/performers; when I struck out on my own, I was keenly aware of how high the lyrical bar was set. In a city that worships Townes Van Zandt, you had best have your shit together as a songwriter before you take that on.

Is the EP a pre-cursor to a full album coming soon?
Beginning work on that in October.

Tell me a little more about The Tim Lee 3 as your band on the record? What do they bring to you in terms of input and direction? I get the impression that whatever it is its fun?
Well, I couldn’t afford to bring my band of badasses (The Fighting Cocks) to Knoxville for the recording, so I had to use Knoxville’s local Badasses. Tim and Susan and Chris are highly congruent w what I was looking for, in addition to being good people and yes, funny AF.

What I find fascinating about all your records Jon, is they all sound so uncluttered, spacious even, is that something you try and achieve or just how they turn out?
Again, very deliberate. What you DON’T play is every bit as important as what you DO play. I like my recordings to breathe and that cannot happen if there’s no AIR in them.

Do you still enjoy performing, Jon? Guess you have got to the stage now where you can do what you like and when you like?
Some days that ninety minutes is the only part of my day I can count on to feel good and right and true. To appropriate Patton’s infamous line about war, ‘God help me, but I love it so’. As for being at a stage where I can do whatever I want, for right or wrong, that’s kinda how I’ve lived most of my life. Not always the wisest policy, but there you have it.

I’m so excited to see your son play on this tour with you. His album is a wondrous thing. You must be very proud of him?
good Lord, YES. He is an amazement. People ask if or assume that I ‘taught’ or ‘tutored’ him, when the truth is he rarely even asks my opinion about music or songs. This phrase gets bandied about too often, but in his case it’s actually true,  he sounds completely and wholly unlike anyone else. And I’m delighted that while most nineteen-year-olds don’t even want to be SEEN with their fathers, William and I PLAY together. It’s a particular JOY.

Will you be playing together on these dates? He clearly knows his way around a fretboard!
Oh yes, he does, and yes we will. The working plan for these shows is for him to do a solo set and then accompany me for my set. We did a number of shows together this last SXSW and it’s dynamite.

For someone who has played with most of the scene’s greats over the years, who out of the current crop is grabbing your ears, Jon?
For better or worse, I don’t much listen to what other songwriters are doing. When I listen to music, it has to be jazz or classical…something without lyrics; otherwise, it clutters up the attic, you know?

I hope you are really looking forward to these UK dates. I know a lot of people here are thrilled you are coming over, me included.
WE CANNOT WAIT!!

‘Knoxville Skyline’ is out now on Decor

Jon Dee Graham & William Harries Graham UK Dates

May

23rd Monroe’s, GALWAY
24th Coughlan’s Bar, CORK
26th Cleeres, KILKENNY
27th The Harbour Bar, WICKLOW
28th Whelans, DUBLIN
31st Hen And Chicken, BRISTOL

June

1st  Prince Albert, BRIGHTON
2nd  Dusty Knuckle Pizza, The Printhaus, CARDIFF
4th  The Railway, WINCHESTER
6th  The Running Horse, NOTTINGHAM
7th  Naked Lunch, LIVERPOOL
8th  The Cluny, NEWCASTLE
9th  CCA, GLASGOW
10th  The Voodoo Rooms, EDINBURGH
11th   String Theory, HARWICK
12th  Night People, MANCHESTER
13th  Aces and Eights, LONDON

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