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

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

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

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


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