Jon Dee Graham Wends His Way to the Tavern
By Brett Leigh Dicks
After bringing the likes of John Doe, Pieta Brown, and Peter Case to town for a six-show series last spring, Tales from the Tavern, at the Firestone Brewery in Buellton, is coming back with four more concerts to round out the year. First in the lineup is Jon Dee Graham, who broke through as a punk-rock star with the Skunks before becoming one of the True Believers and dropping four solo albums. As Interstate 35 galloped beneath his feet, the western sky wrapped itself around the horizon, and the Texas plains rushed past the car windows, I offered Graham some company while he made the three-hour passage from his home in Austin to a Friday-night performance in Dallas.
You maintain a rigid touring schedule. How do you find constantly being on the road? I do a lot of solo stuff where it’s just me and my guitars and a rental car and I have to run a tight schedule. So when people ask me what I thought of Portland, I say, “Well, the club I played was great, the Motel 6 was passable, and I ate at a really good fish joint.” And that’s the extent of my Portland experience. But there’s something about bringing your wares to people who don’t know you, that I love. And that’s why I do it.
You’re currently on your way to play a solo gig in Dallas, but when you venture to Tales from the Tavern, you’re playing as part of a series. How differently do you approach the two? It’s a different process. With a series, winning them over becomes your job. The first part of that is getting their attention and the next part is forcing them to like you. That might affect song choice or how you relate to the audience, but more than anything else it ultimately comes down to the songs. They either get it, and like your songs — or they don’t. And I have very little control over that.
Your musical career was bisected by a spell as a carpenter. What gave cause for the interlude? At that point I’d been living in L.A. for seven years and working with a lot of different people and it just seemed like I hit the ceiling — being a sideman was where I was going to go. I am a fifth-generation Texan and no matter how glorious California might be, it’s not home. So I decided that I no longer wanted to play guitar behind everybody else and came home to Texas to figure out what the fuck I was going to do. I moved back, put away my guitar, and started working as a carpenter.
Were there ever any thoughts of leaving music behind completely? I think the notion of the gunfighter hanging up his guns for good is kind of ridiculous. You know, 37 might be an absurd time to launch a solo career but, when you are a musician, you don’t have much choice in it. Like it or not, this is my work. This is what I do. So, successful or unsuccessful, I realized I was going to do it anyway.
Your new album Full was recorded in a phenomenal three days. Are you always that focused when recording? This record was self-financed, which meant a huge money limitation. And it was never really intended to be a record as I simply wanted to record a collection of the songs I’d just written. Maybe they were just going to be demos, I didn’t know.
How did the recording session evolve into an album? Sometimes something just settles over a session. An album is like a snapshot of the intersection where time meets talent and this snapshot was so accurate and compelling. And it wasn’t just me — it was the producer that guided us through it and the band. The band was brilliant. To be able to learn a song at the kitchen table in 10 minutes and then go in and cut it in another 10 minutes was just phenomenal.
Some of the most engaging and beautiful music arises from experiences like that. Absolutely. There is something you get from a musician in the performance when they’re off balance. You are more likely to get the essence of their feelings for a song if you don’t give them time to think about it. They are more apt to play from their center.
Why do you think there is this inherent need for the industry to gloss things over? Man, I wish I could make an intelligent response to that question. Even after 30 years, I do not understand how the industry works. I don’t understand why people buy what they buy and I don’t understand why the majors do what they do. But I do have a general sense of fear and chaos among the majors right now, which is damn well deserved.
What do you think is the cause of their fear? Things are breaking down into these niche markets and, I hate to say it, but the Internet has played a big part of that. It enables like-minded fans to find each other. If someone likes Wilco for instance, they will share music with other fans and, at some point, Jon Dee Graham’s new album will rear its head. All of a sudden a new fan is made not by advertising or marketing, just by free floating out in the ether. Like-minded fans are hooking up on their own, and markets are self-assembling.
The summer/fall season of Firestone Brewery’s Tales from the Tavern begins next Wednesday, August 16, with Jon Dee Graham, and continues with Rosie Flores on September 27, Tom Rush on November 8, and Tom Russell on December 6. Call 688-0383 or visit talesfromthetavern.com.