Based purely on great shows in small venues the list of contenders for this title is long but is there any characteristic that particularly sets apart a hero? The music of course, but there is also dedication and sheer hard work. Why they do it and how they keep going but what really clinches it for this writer is the connection between performer and audience. An artist who passes all those tests with a distinction in forging that all-important bond is Canadian singer songwriter Tia McGraff, who with her co-writer, fellow musician, producer and husband Tommy Parham have toured all kinds of small venues in North America and the UK. Whether a small theatre, pub, cafe, bookshop or village hall, they have played all over making long-lasting friends and connections through their music. Many of their shows have become an annual event.
So how did a couple of artists from Ontario gather such a following over here? First there’s the music. McGraff and Parham met in Nashville but decided to cut loose and release their first album together ‘Outside Of The Circle’ on her own independent label. “Just put it out on that” advised her astute manager, her dad. Eight studio albums later that proved a wise move. To a blend of country, folk and americana McGraff and Parham tell stories. Her expressive voice has a range to fill a stadium but their tales about people and places, her roots in Scotland and Transylvania, his in Colorado, are best appreciated up close and in person.
Not long after that first album came out in 2005 a friend just back from touring the UK urged them to do the same. Now for the hard working bit. Instead of hiring a booking agent and armed only with a few contacts, McGraff started dialling the UK. Her first bookings were some house concerts which she turned into a 28 show tour.
After one of those shows the editor of a highly respected music publication gave them a phone number suggesting, “you really need to meet Bob Harris of the BBC”. McGraff admitted she wasn’t familiar with the name but gave him a call. “Hi Bob, we’re Tia and Tommy over here from Nashville and we’d love to meet you.” The direct approach worked, “ok, come to my house for tea.” They gained a new fan and have been friends ever since.
Thus began an annual pilgrimage of small venues up and down the country with McGraff booking each venue on their four week long tours. Finding new venues came largely by word of mouth. They did once use a promoter who noticed how they would, “hang out for an hour and a half after every show talking to every single person” but “that’s what we love to do”. So came recommendations for other venues as the network expanded.
McGraff and Parham have made many strong attachments. One came from a regular song on their set list, ‘Abigail’ about Abigail Becker known as the Angel of Long Point who saved the lives of many sailors shipwrecked along the coast of Lake Eire in the late 19th century. She struck a special chord at the Old Low Light in South Shields when in return, the audience introduced their own heroine Grace Darling. Before shows McGraff and Parham often go into a local primary school to sing and tell stories with the children. Having done that in South Shields the local children wrote a song about Darling which they performed a year later in an online concert in partnership with their counterparts from a school in Ontario who sang ‘Abigail’. In the village of Hillesley near Bristol parents and their children not only gathered to share music and stories but they turned the show into a fundraiser for the local primary school.
Parham likens these connections to planting trees. Through these small venue shows they have made many friends, seen children grow up and seen these roots spread. “Our shows are like family reunions”. The pandemic put paid to the past two years and probably this year’s tour too. But McGraff and Parham are working on a new album just now and plan on returning to the UK in spring 2023, unless an opportunity arises sooner.
These two musicians each equipped with only a guitar and a voice give a performance of songs, storytelling, fun and above all, a lasting rapport with an appreciative audience. That is why Tia McGraff and Tommy Parham are worthy small venue heroes.