Jon Dee Graham – A Big Sweet Life

It was the final weekend of SXSW and the good weather had finally broken. There’s a great club high up South Congress called C-Boys. They have a sponsored festival (ie everything free to enter, tips only) called the Soco Stomp, a five-day, 50-band live music extravaganza with room for several hundred in the parking lot behind and maybe 150 in the club, where I’d just been watching Charlie Sexton’s band, Mystic Knights Of The Sea, with Ray Wylie Hubbard guesting. The main appeal of seeing SXSW shows is discovering new music, and, anyway, it was raining out. I bought another beer and waited to see who came on next.

A grizzly bear of a man appeared and began teasing the sound guys about the length of his setlist. Then the band began to play. Most of the bands in this corner of SXSW have some kind of loose country/Americana affiliation, but the band four feet in front of me had more of a grunge feel with a guitar sound somewhere between let 80s R.E.M. and ZZ Top. It was very much my kind of crunchy, melodic rock. And then the big, bearded guy started singing. Something very wonderful is going to happen. And it just got me, this positivity was aimed at me, that day, emerging from all the trauma of bereavement and trying to make sense of my new world. After the first verse I pulled out my phone and recorded the next one. I wanted to preserve the moment. I wanted to be able to hear this song again. Here’s what I got.

For the next fifty minutes or so I was utterly absorbed in the show in front of me, hearing one brilliant song after another. Graham’s voice is gruff but melodic and resonant, it was easy to make out every word. Not that there are many of them. Graham’s lyrics have an almost haiku-like economy and simplicity. He rarely uses more than a hundred words in a song. His lyrics can be world weary, with a kind of naive wonder that always manages to find a kernel of hope in a view of the way the world works that is fundamentally cynical. I suppose the main thing I took away from that hour was a real sense of joy.

He and his great band, The Fighting Cocks, played a set which, I later discovered, covered most of his career (going back to the earliest of seven albums that I bought while in the US, 1997’s Escape from Monster Island), including tracks like $100 Bill, Amsterdam and what might be his signature song, Big Sweet Life (here’s a video of him playing it at The Continental ten years earlier – JSG’s residency is the longest in the club’s history, over 30 years). When he was done, I went outside, where it had stopped raining and joined a cigar smoker by the small seated area. A couple of minutes later, Jon Dee Graham stumbled out and asked me if the chair next to me was free. I warned him it might be a little wet and he said he didn’t give a shit, plonking himself heavily down on it.

‘That last act sounded pretty good,’ the cigar smoker said to me. ‘Do you know who it was?’

I pointed to Jon and said ‘it was this guy, and he was fucking awesome.’

I knew nothing whatsoever about JDG beforehand but my pal Glenn soon told me who he was, that he’d been around forever, played with everyone and made a load of albums, which were consistently great (as has proved to be true). We were on nodding terms when I found myself next to JDG at the superb Magnolia Cafe a little later that day, but I was warned that there wouldn’t be much chance to see him again. Graham had nearly died of a heart attack after a gig some eighteen months earlier and was about to have major spinal surgery which would take him out of commission for a long time. Hence his need to sit down as soon as he got off stage that day. The next time I saw him, he would perform in a chair.

By then, I’d listened to most of his albums and watched a long interview that talks through a big section of his career, going back to his joining The Skunks back when he was a teenager in 1989 (they supported The Clash) and later playing with Alejandro Escovedo (who I also saw at C-Boys, in the car park) in The True Believers. He’s been inducted into the Austin Music Hall of Fame three times, for his work with those two bands and for his solo work. He has played with just about every major music figure in Austin yet remains little known beyond Texas. Presumably this is partly due to what he described on stage as ‘a fatal lack of ambition’. His current band includes a grammy nominated guitarist, Mike Hardwick, another modest genius. There’s a documentary about JDG called ‘Swept Away’ which used to be on Prime in the US (maybe still is, if anyone knows how to see it, please LMK, I can’t find it anywhere). Eighteen years ago, after his medical insurance company went broke just as his song was diagnosed with a chronic, rare childhood disease called Legg-Perthes, loads of Austin musicians got together to make a tribute record and play a benefit concert to fund his treatment. In this recent interview he talks about The Clash, how Mike Hardwick got his solo career going, nearly dying, and fearlessness. There are some great Continental Club anecdotes too. He is, all told, a much loved Austin institution.

Until quite recently, JDG shared a residency with one of my favourite singer-songwriters, James McMurtry, who I plan to write about next, but now, when he’s in town. McMurtry’s band plays on the Tuesday night while Graham’s is on the Wednesday, with James doing a solo show upstairs at half eight and JDG playing from 10.34 to 11.30 (Uber home job), preceded by his son’s band. JDG doesn’t have planned setlists but the core of the set was the same as at C-Boys, with a crucial difference. This wasn’t part of SXSW but a couple of weeks later (I was in Austin to work at the Harry Ransom Center, so around for another fortnight) and university students were back The front part of the club was full of young women dancing. The set got more anarchic the longer it went on, climaxing in a wild jam, after which JDG stumbled out. At the McMurtry set upstairs I’d got to know a couple who had come a long way and knew JDG (they were at the show where he nearly died and wanted to see him one more time before his operation), who told me he’d be outside having a smoke, so, before I called my taxi to the other side of Austin, I wandered into the parking lot behind The Continental (officially my favourite music club, ever) and found him on the steps, surrounded by young woman, obviously having the time of his life. We had a few words, and he was as gracious and friendly as his songs would suggest, and I told him that I planned to write about him when I got home. ‘Please do,’ he said, and now I have. Here’s to Jon Dee Graham and his fantastic catalogue of beautiful, world weary, yet worldly wise songs, wishing him a speedy recovery. His music is hard to buy in the UK but there’s loads of stuff on YouTube and available for download, so please support his music by paying for it as well as listening to it, maybe via his website (although note that the website is currently down, I hope that this isn’t a bad omen and wish him all the best in his recovery from surgery). He’s in a league of his own.

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