Jon Dee Graham
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Jon Dee Graham

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The best kept secret in music


4 stars
Having spent years as a sideman for acts ranging from the True Believers to John Doe to Kelly Willis, Austin's Jon Dee Graham didn't get around to releasing an album under his own name until he was thirty-eight. Now seven years and four albums into his solo career, he's proven himself to be one of the finest songwriters in the Americana arena -- an he's still a hell of a mean guitarist, to boot. For newcomers, The Great Battle will be a revelation; it's not everyday you discover an artist who growls like Howlin' Wolf and Tom Waits locked in a death match, rocks a cover of Neil Young's "Harvest" and makes it his own and delivers original songs as beautiful as "World So Full". For veteran Graham fans, The Great Battle is the big one, as ferocious as his primal roar through the opening "Twilight" and as human as the everyman struggle he grapples with in the title track. - Richard Skanse

On his third solo album, the former True Believers guitarist depicts a Texas where you can practically hear the echoes of Blind Willie Johnson and old border-radio broadcasts riding on the dry, hot wind. Graham's coarse voice makes Tom Waits' "Way Down in the Hole" a perfect cover choice, and he's backed by a ruggedly rocking three-piece band - including Jim Keltner on drums - that makes even and old mexican love song like "Volver" sound like an act of courage. - USA Today

In "Big Sweet Life", the gratitude-infused romp that galvanizes his 1999 album Summerland, Jon Dee Graham erases the line that separates dreams from real life. Instead of waiting for things to happen that never do (something he admits he's done before),the Austin roots-rocker, ex-punk and former True Believer fashions his dreams out of what's at hand. In a bracing imaginative leap, he manages, if only temporarily, to see the sum of things hoped for in what's already there.
"Get a look at that sky," Graham bids his love over the truck's bounding guitar figure. "It's like a dream I had one time/Ah, the sky was on fire/Yeah, but that was just a dream/And this is real life/And it's a big sweet life," he blurts, his words spilling out as if sprung by the wonder of the moment. With the firmament as his lens or window, Graham looks beyond the mundane or taken-for-granted to see that something more- much more- has been there all along. "Come here you beautiful thing/Come here you beautiful ev'rything," he beams, ready to throw his arms around not just his sweetheart, but around the entire universe as well.
Here Graham encounters what some, and not just those of a religious bent, would describe as the sacred or holy. Specifically, he uses what psychoanalyst Donald Winnecott calls, "transitional" or "potential" space- the space between the world and ourselves- as a threshold to something deeper and more abiding than he ordinarily experiences. He glimpses God in this connective tissue, in these details, or, if you prefer, the eternal in the now.
Graham forges such mystical connections throughout Summerland ("It's a singular thing," he exults in "Look Up") and on much of its sublime successor, Hooray For The Moon. But the trick, he knows, is sustaining and living with this second sight, which perhaps explains why that's the subtext of his groove-rich new album, The Great Battle.
"It's as close as your left hand/It's as far as the promised land/Do you believe it's right where you stand/Well, I do," he begins in sphinx-like fashion on the opening track "Twilight", alluding to his cherished transitional or scared space. "In the twilight/In a little question mark/Punctuating up the dark/Hold out your hands as it falls apart/Like I do," he goes on, talking about that luminal zone between darkness and light where, paradoxically, murk gives way to clarity.
Not that it's been easy for Graham to achieve this mystical insight- this art, for lack of a better term, of unknowing- "I used to wonder what it was in the middle/I used to wonder what it was in between," he confesses, spurred by surging guitars in "I Don't Feel That Way Anymore". "I was under the false impression/I had to know what everything means."
This isn't a facile claim to transcendence or a case of what theologians call cheap grace. It's hard won. Graham isn't saying you can somehow will away suffering or strife. He's come a long way to get where he is, and, as lines such as "Now I'm just a little bit better/I'm a little bit better now" attest, he still has a ways to go. Hence the album's blues-ravaged cover of the traditional “Lonesome Valley” (“You’ve got to go there by yourself”), and hence its title, which alludes as much to Graham’s inner conflicts as to a world rent by poverty, apathy and aggression.
“It ain’t that the dream is dead, but it ain’t feeling very well,” he laments to the yearning chord progression of “Something To Look Forward To”. “Let’s prop it up in a corner and hope that no one can tell/Suck it up, baby, and step into the light,” he urges. Here again, the transformation Graham envisions, graced by Patty Griffin’s vocals on the chorus, hinges on realigning oneself vis-à-vis the world, on seeing the world as precious or holy- and treating everything in it accordingly.
Graham isn’t pushing some arcane or quaint approach to living here, but rather an intuitive and necessary one, a spirit of openness and attunement. That’s surely some of what he’s driving at in “E. 11th Street”, with its otherwise peculiar appeal, “Children turn your cell phones on.” It’s unclear who these children are (the latchkey kids who live along the besieged strip of East Austin’s 11th Street, or those who score drugs there?) There’s no doubt, though, that Graham is urging them to stay connected, no matter how tough, or tempting, things might get. He’s beseeching them- and anyone who’s listening, really- to keep hope alive by remaining open to those twilit spaces that give way to the sacred, and this to new possibilities.
The album’s tensive, pressing music does a wonderful job of conveying the struggle at the heart of Graham’s songs. Likewise, the layered arrangements of most tracks- guitars, bass and drums, Reshed out with Wurlitzers, pump organs, lap steel and such- underscore Graham’s sence of living with ambiguity, and his efforts to do some with grace and self-depreciating good humor. Witness, as a case of the latter, the creaky
”Robot Moving”, where, in a - No Depression

Intelligent and uncompromising, lyrically poignant and well-crafted throughout, The Great Battle represents a new high-water mark in Graham’s career (no easy feat considering his rapsheet). His Waits-like croak gets warmer with age as do his wicked Fender Strat Skills. (SC) - HARP

Jon De Graham gives away much in the way of his music just by his very appearance. Here’s a man, thick and broad-shouldered, hair receding a but to reveal deep wrinkles collected over the years, and massive hands, who doesn’t come across as a musician, an artist. In reality, Graham, in all his glory, seems more suited to a factory or a mine or some God-awful construction site and all the worries that go along with that. You can almost see the dirt under his nails. And the fact of the matter is that it’s this idea, this reality of real life in America that Graham portrays so well. On The Great Battle, his fourth record in what has become quite the solo career, he’s at it again, fighting to understand the complexities and difficulties of everyday life and love. Bolstered by the devastating truth of the title track and the slow burn of “Majesty Of Love,” and covers of the traditional “Lonesome Valley,” and Neil Young’s “Harvest,” The Great Battle steamrolls its way through an array of human emotion, most of which listeners won’t have any trouble seeing him struggling with. The Great Battle is Graham at his best, his gritty, hands-in-the-muck best. – C.F - An Honest Tune


Great Battle - 2004 (New West Records)
Hooray for the Moon - 2001 (New West Records)
Summerland - 1999 (New West Records)
Escape From Monster Island - 1997 - Resissued 2002 (New West Records)


Feeling a bit camera shy


With The Great Battle, Jon Dee Graham continues his humble, rugged explorations of the dark side of the clock, the complex shadings and hard work of relationships, the emotional roller-coaster of family responsibilities and the utter bone-weariness of life in general--all leavened and energized by unsinkable hope and muscular, electrifying grooves.

In nearly every facet of Art, there is an elusive 'sweet spot'--a place where talent, insight, poetic grace and experience intersect with such transparency and natural ease that the place, the moment, the emotion conveyed come to palpable life...where the 'illusion of truth' sheds its illusion and transcends into Truth itself. The ability to evaporate the barriers from representational endeavors is a quicksilver gift that eludes all but the best folks most of the time, yet it's a gift that envelops Graham like skin.

Continuing his critically acclaimed series of solo discs--including 1997's Escape From Monster Island (re-issued by New West in 2002), 1999's Summerland and 2001's Hooray For The Moon--Jon Dee continues to hone his craft and, incredibly, push the arc upward on The Great Battle.

Fellow Texan Charlie Sexton, who served as multi-faceted guitarist and whip-hand in Bob Dylan's vaunted touring/recording band from 1998-2003, was tabbed by Jon Dee to produce The Great Battle. Sexton's session experience with such varied heavyweights as Lucinda Williams, Terry Allen, Alejandro Escovedo, Rufus Wainwright, James McMurtry and Dylan made him the perfect choice to capture the sprawling emotional depth of Graham's soul-mining.

To bring further punch, clarity and engagement to the project, Graham is backed on The Great Battle by his working/touring band as the core group--long-time sidekick Mike Hardwick (Gene Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker, Michael Fracasso) on guitar, dobro and pedal steel, Andrew Duplantis (Bob Mould, the new Meat Puppets, Escovedo) on bass and vocals and Jason White on drums and percussion. Jon Dee's own inimitable guitar rides high in the mix, Sexton adds piano and some grace notes on mando-guitar and octave guitar. Bruce Hughes (Bob Schneider, The Resentments) and songbird Patty Griffin each contribute a pair of notable cameos.

The result of this stellar confab is a powerful mix of ten potent Graham originals, one traditional tune (a blistering gospel shakedown on the deathless "Lonesome Valley") and a scintillating re-make/re-model of Neil Young's "Harvest."

Much has been made of Jon Dee Graham's voice. Cracked, raspy, passionate and endearing, it's drawn predictable comparisons to Tom Waits, a trainwreck or two, nine miles of bad road, and the tired "whiskey-soaked" and "two-pack a day" allusions...get over it--it's HIS voice, and you won't find many singers who have the spiritual immediacy of this one. When the singer, the music and the words come together, THIS is the stuff of greatness.

There is no short route to Graham�s level of artistry; indeed, it is the culmination of a winding, eclectic path over the years, beginning with Jon Dee�s membership in his early-twenties in Austin�s legendary proto-punkers, The Skunks. Following a year in Lou Ann Barton�s band, Graham (with Alejandro and Javier Escovedo) co-founded True Believers, a transcendent, rafter-rattling guitar army whose influence on the alt/roots rock scene of the mid-�80s and beyond far exceeds its relatively brief (1984-87) and stormy existence.

Between 1988 and 1995, Jon Dee was a much-in-demand sideman, touring and/or recording with the likes of John Doe and Exene Cervenka (both ex- of X), Ryan Hedgecock (Lone Justice), Dan Stuart (Green On Red), Michelle Shocked and Kelly Willis. And he continues to find time for a brilliant side project as a member of Austin�s beloved Resentments.

The Great Battle is loaded from pillar to post with hard-won revelations and the kinds of illuminating (if shaded) vignettes rarely found in this increasingly black-or-white world. Best of all, it's propelled by a blistering, Crazy Horse rock�n'roll grind that'll at least let you dance to it while you poke around for salvation. When all is said and done though, Jon Dee Graham makes it pretty damned clear that The Great Battle cannot be WON--it can only be FOUGHT--

"Suck it up one time/you're gonna suck it up twice
Strap it up baby/and step into the light..."

So, uh, keep on swingin' it, okay?

Sharon Agnello
Jon Dee Graham - Songwriter of large repute. Gruff voiced. Intense guitar player likely to include bone crushing rock and delicate ballads all in the same set, just 'cos that's the kind of guy he is. An unimpeachable musician. Team player. Much finesse. Even more heart.

1959 - Born in Quemado, Texas, on the Rio Grande River - population 320.

1970 - Started playing piano in church.