I first laid eyes on Jon Dee Graham on April 16, 1984. He was 25. I was 23.
We were at the Ritz, a giant rock club in Manhattan’s East Village. Jon Dee was playing in a band from Austin, Tex., called the True Believers, who were opening for Los Lobos. I am impatient with opening acts, and I was prepared as always to dislike whatever this thing called the True Believers would turn out to be.
Then they came out on stage and blew my hair back. The Troobs, as their fans called them, were a roaring, three-guitar army like nothing I’d heard since Skynyrd’s plane went down. But these guys had done time in punk-rock bands. They united the Athens weirdness I had loved in college with the three-guitar stomp that stayed in my eight-track player all through high school.
What I remember liking about Jon Dee Graham was that even though he could clearly play like hell, he never showed off. His solos always served the song.
Then, over the next few years, the rest of the world and I pretty much forgot about the True Believers.
Thirteen years later, I wandered into the Star Community Bar in Atlanta to see a singer and songwriter from Austin named Kelly Willis. I asked a friend, “Is anybody opening?” Came the answer: “Some guy named Jon Dee Graham.”
I thought, “Well, this is gonna suck.” In my experience as a music nerd, I have rarely seen a great guitar player and a great songwriter occupy the same body. With rare exception, the guys who sling great guitar solos can’t write great words to save their lives, and vice-versa. That’s why they need each other.
When the 38-year-old Jon Dee Graham walked onto the tiny stage, I stood my 36-year-old self out on the floor and waited for him to bore me.
He sat in a chair, delicately finger-picking his acoustic guitar. Then he began to sing in a voice so gruff it sounded almost threatening, but what came out was so tender:
Well, I broke a hundred-dollar bill,
For two tickets on the bus into the hills,
My boy, he stood up in his seat,
He said, “I have never seen Christmas lights like that.”
He kept playing and began to moan. His voice carried the melody, but it sounded like the roar of a wounded lion. Then he played a gentle A-flat chord and delivered the only line in the song’s chorus.
All my angels have gone home; can we use yours?
I was floored. A story of a man and his son on a bus trip going somewhere. A story of the wonder that lives in the eyes of children only. But the father is in pain. For whatever reason, his own angels have exited the scene. But he looks at his son and sees a reason to be faithful and to hope that the angels might, just might come back.
It was a story that could wind its way off for thousands of words, for two dozen chapters.
But Jon Dee Graham told it in one verse and a chorus. One minute and 25 seconds. Five lines. Forty-three words and one long moan. For the record, that’s only 64 percent of the words it took me to describe the song to you just now.
In the art of American songwriting, where economy of language is so precious, that’s about as good as it gets.
At the end of the night, Jon Dee stood at the end of the bar selling copies of his first solo record, “Escape From Monster Island.” The first song on the record was “$100 Bill.” I bought two copies. One of my dearest friends and fellow music nerds, Martin Flaherty, had seen his son Michael enter the world only months earlier, and I knew Martin had to hear this record, with its tales of a father and young son. “Escape From Monster Island” became a little landmark of our long friendship.
Jon Dee was pleasant enough, shook my hand and thanked me for buying the CDs.
I walked out into the fall chill on Moreland Avenue. I might as well admit it. That’s the night I began stalking Jon Dee Graham.
The late 1990s were an odd time in my life. I spent a lot of time alone, trying to teach myself lessons, one of which was how to enjoy life with no one’s company but my own. I decided to do something I’d never done: take a vacation alone. I booked a ticket to Austin and a room at the old Austin Motel on South Congress Avenue for a week. For seven days, I did nothing but see live music and eat migas for breakfast and barbecue for dinner. I saw Jon Dee Graham play twice that week.
As the years went on, I took other vacations to Austin, and I saw Jon Dee play at least once every time. I never talked to him, but I tracked him all over Austin. I was amazed that I could see this great songwriter perform out on the back porch of a Mexican restaurant. To me, Graham was in the same league as people like Leonard Cohen and Guy Clark in their ability to write entire novels in three verses and a chorus. So where was everyone? And why didn’t I have to pay at least $25 for the ticket?
A half-year before I turned 50 in January of 2011, my second marriage broke up, and I wanted to celebrate my half-century on my own terms. So I invited my oldest and tightest childhood friend, Eric Sales, to join me for a long weekend of music and food in Austin. We checked into the Austin Motel, and on Sunday night, we walked across the street to the art gallery above the Continental Club, where Jon Dee has a weekly residency called “Jon Dee and Friend,” in which he shares the stage (or two folding chairs, as it were) with another songwriter. Eric and I sat in the front row, which was only two chairs wide. Best seats in the house.
When Jon Dee sat down in front of us to tune his guitar, I introduced myself and told him I was in Austin to celebrate turning 50. I asked him if he would play a song called “Butterfly Wing.” It’s a little love song I have always considered among the best examples of what a great songwriter can do with very few words.
She’s as pretty as a butterfly wing.
A butterfly wing,
A butterfly wing.
She’s as pretty as a butterfly wing.
She’s as pretty as that.
“Oh, man,” he replied. “Haven’t played that one in a long time. And it’s the only song where I gotta use a capo. And I don’t carry a capo.”
“But I’m turning 50,” I said.
“Well, I’ll do it for you,” he said, and got up to beg a capo from one of the other guitar players in the room.
After the show, Jon Dee came over to me at the bar and thanked me for coming. “You’re gonna love being 50, man,” he said. “Your give-a-shitter just stops working.” We’ve kind of been pals ever since.
Eric and I were scheduled to leave the next morning, but it was Snowpocalypse ’11 in Atlanta, and Delta was telling us we’d be delayed another day or two. Normally, this would have worried me. You know ... responsibilities and all. But on Monday night, we just went back across the street to the Continental Club to drink tequila and hear Dale Watson play some of that old-school Texas honky-tonk music.
I was 50. I didn’t give a shit anymore.
If you are interested in learning about the craft of songwriting, you have an advantage when someone you believe is among America’s best songwriters sleeps on your couch when he comes through town.
Recently, I decided to use this advantage, so I got Jon Dee on the phone. We spent a couple of hours talking about songwriting. It did not surprise me that he started by talking about the value of economy.
“The thing about a song is: You've got all this structure but none of the real estate,” he says. “It's very little space that you've got to work with, and so it's like every fucking word has weight. Early on, I figured out that the song is a delivery system, just like the missile that delivers the warhead. It’s like, how much information can you convey in the delivery system? That sounds kind of clinical, and I swear to you that ‘clinical’ is not the word to use for how I work. It's not clinical; it's fucking bloody. But I did figure something out pretty early on. I'd write something and go, ‘Wow, that's just so clever or beautiful.’ Or, ‘Look at the internal rhyme here.’ And then I’d go, ‘It has to die.’ I had to take it out. Because as beautiful as it is, it doesn't carry enough information.”
The ability to look at one’s own work and pare it back to its essence is difficult to develop. Anyone who creates things knows this. It’s an idea that’s even begun to spill over into the business community. A Wharton School grad named Matthew May, who runs an “ideas agency” in California, wrote a book a couple of years ago called “The Laws of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything.”
May probably makes scads more money than Graham ever will, but I wonder which one could teach the other more about the laws of subtraction.
If you parse the verse above from Graham’s “Butterfly Wing,” you will notice that it has a grand total of seven words. Each of them is repeated as many as a half-dozen times, and only the final word — “that” — is used just once. I’m not trying to reduce songwriting to mathematics here, because that can’t be done, but putting the words of “Butterfly Wing” into a spreadsheet seems to magnify what a marvel of verbal economy the song actually is.
The song is three verses, one of which is repeated. Verse 2 uses only nine words and Verse 3 just six. The entire song is constructed of just 19 words.
Of course, such a delivery system, no matter how mathematically elegant, is only as powerful as the weapon it delivers.
“Butterfly Wing” consists essentially of three lines.
She’s as pretty as a butterfly wing. She’s as pretty as that.
I ain’t talkin’ about what I deserve. I ain’t talkin’ about that.
I’m as happy as a dog in the yard. I’m as happy as that.
The narrator marvels at the exquisite beauty of the woman he’s with, who makes him as happy as a dog in the yard. Yet he questions, somewhere inside himself, whether he deserves such happiness.
A completely universal experience, one all of us encounter at some time in life, captured in 19 words. If he could manage to trim 44 characters from it, he could tweet the whole damned thing.
“There’s not one fucking lyric that I've recorded anywhere that I cringe when I hear it now,” Jon Dee says. “Not one. Some are better than others, but there's not one that I'm embarrassed about.”
It’s no wonder. Turns out you can learn the laws of subtraction at Wharton, or you can learn them the Jon Dee Graham way.
But take caution: The latter would probably hurt more.
If any of you are thinking, “This guy’s from Texas. Why are you writing about him in The Bitter Southerner?” let’s just go ahead and take care of that. People of goodwill may disagree about whether Texas is part of the South.
Before we launched the BS, I sent a draft of our opening manifesto to Jon Dee. He wrote back: “Fascinated. I'd subscribe even if I'd never eaten biscuits at your table. There are things here that need to be articulated. And you're right about Texas. We couldn't even agree whose side we were on in the Civil War. We are our own country, taking in the sense of honor and tradition from the South and the hard-headed self-reliance of the West.”
He concluded with a story about a conversation with his son Roy. Jon Dee was telling his eldest son about the gallant — and often suicidal (remember the Alamo?) — undertakings of the early 19th century Texans who fought Mexico to establish the Republic of Texas, when Roy exclaimed, "The Texas state motto should be 'Texas: Insanely Proud and Proudly Insane.'"
“That's my boy,” Jon Dee wrote.
We already know Southerners are nutty as fruitcakes. It appears Texans are nutty as a piñon on the bank of the Brazos. Or whatever they'd say over there.
That’s close enough for BS work. Welcome to the party, Texas.
Every Wednesday night when they’re both in Austin, Jon Dee Graham and James McMurtry, the songwriting son of “Lonesome Dove” author Larry McMurtry, play the Continental Club with their full bands. Sometimes, they go on tour together. “We spend a lot of time with each other,” Jon Dee says.
“We were over in Germany one time, and we were talking about songwriting,” he says. “We were both a little lit at that point, and I said to McMurtry, ‘You know what, I wish I could write the way you do. I wish I could just imagine people who have never lived, just think about them doing things that have never happened.’ He looked at me and he went, ‘Well, I wouldn’t mind writing like you write, except I wouldn’t like having to bleed to death on stage every night.’
“But that’s the deal. That’s the price comes with it,” he continues. “Every time I sing ‘$100 Bill,’ I’m back on that bus. I’m just laying it all out there and I’m living it and I’m singing it and it’s literally like opening up my chest and going, ‘Here it is. Here’s what happened. Here’s how it felt.’”
Picturing the pleasure that might have come from a trip up into the Hill Country with his son to see the Christmas lights, I say, “I expect that’s a fairly pleasant place to be.”
“Actually,” he replies, “at the time I felt like I was going to die. At the time, I thought that it was the most painful, horrible place where I could possibly be.”
The origins of a story are rarely as simple as the story itself. The song came from a Christmastime trip in 1995. Graham had recently seen his first marriage break up, and he had moved from California back to Texas with Roy, who was 3 years old, to start over.
“It was like, ‘Oh my god, my marriage is gone. I’ve gone back to Texas to start over with nothing but nine hundred-dollar bills and I’ve got to build a life here all over again with a 3-year-old, which was unthinkable, just fucking unthinkable,’” he says. “We were going to see my sister, and everyone was sort of viewing me with horror. Mine was the first divorce in the family, and I was so destitute. I had to ride the Greyhound bus to see them. I was sort of acting like everything was fine, but it was really clear that nothing was fine.
“But I remember we were on our way back to Austin, and he was asleep in my lap. I’m looking at him and I’m thinking, ‘At this point, I’ve used up all of my ideas.’ But I looked down at him and I thought, ‘He’s got some luck in him. Maybe we could survive on his luck for a while.”
And so they did. Which is why the song connects with such force. It’s not just a song of a pleasant trip with your kid. It’s a song about overwhelming fear and uncertainty, underneath which shines a faint glimmer of hope. And as a song, its power comes from Jon Dee’s ability to distill fear and hope into a single line.
All my angels have gone home, now let’s use yours.
“I’ve been having this talk with a friend of mine, one of my grown-man friends, about this concept of the unthinkable,” Jon Dee says. “It’s like, if you live long enough, you will be asked to do the unthinkable. It touches every man in a different way, and it comes at different points in their lives. Your father’s dying and you have to stay there as it happens. Or you have to surrender your child. Or you have to go to the pen. Whatever it is that’s unthinkable waiting for you, what defines us is how we handle the unthinkable.”
Looking back on his bus trip with Roy, now almost 20 years ago, he says, “That was just my first unthinkable. Yet on the other side of it, when I look back, it’s like, you know, you’re getting up every day and doing the unthinkable, and pretty soon it isn’t unthinkable anymore. And in fact, with hindsight, the unthinkable actually turns out to be fairly beautiful.”
Notice that he said “my first unthinkable.” Jon Dee Graham has lived through others.
After he got that new life going in Austin, he married Gretchen Harries, a communications professor at Austin Community College, in 1998. Their son, William Harries Graham, was born in 1999 and was soon diagnosed with Legg Perthes Syndrome, a rare childhood disease that results in bone degeneration in the hip caused by lack of blood flow. A few weeks before the diagnosis, Gretchen and Jon Dee's health insurer had declared bankruptcy, leaving the Graham family uncovered and uncoverable, given their son’s now “pre-existing” condition.
“Immediately, the entire music scene went into crisis mode,” Jon Dee says. Benefits concerts by the dozens were thrown. Austin artists recorded a tribute album, their versions of Jon Dee’s songs. “By the end of the following month, we were taken care of. We were able to see the best doctors and he had the best medical care available thanks to the music community.”
William is now a healthy, wicked smart 14-year-old who already writes a shockingly great column for The Austin Chronicle.
Another unthinkable for Jon Dee, though, was the plague that always seems to affect more than than its fair share of musicians and artists: depression and addiction. Graham is clean and sober now and has been for several years. But there were dark periods before, which he captured directly, starkly and with his typical economy of words in the song “Laredo (Small Dark Something).”
I was living in a motel called Motel out on Refinery Road.
I was living in a motel called Motel out on Refinery Road.
The sandman’s dead, so we walk the floor.
The sandman’s dead. We don’t sleep no more.
We shot dope till the money run out.
We shot dope till the money run out.
We shot dope till the money run out.
The money ran out.
At the point when the money runs out, of course, every addict has a choice to make. Follow the addiction to its logical ends of jail, an institution or death, or find a way to trade the needle for an elusive faith that maybe somehow, the unthinkable could one day become beautiful.
That’s the space in which Jon Dee Graham lives today.
On the day I spoke to Jon Dee, the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead of an overdose in his New York apartment, and we talked about how sad it was to lose the man who was arguably the greatest actor of our generation. The conversation sent Jon Dee into a story about an experience he had on tour in Germany.
“I was in Berlin with a band, and I was in one of my depressive stages,” he says. “I was under it. I couldn’t get on top of it. I wasn’t sleeping, which is one of the ways depression manifests with me. I don’t sleep and nothing tastes right, nothing feels right. It’s just miserable. I couldn’t sleep and I didn’t want to keep my roommates awake, so I went out walking. It’s like 4 in the morning, and I’m walking the streets of the former East Berlin.
“I’m looking down at my shoes because that’s where you look when you’re depressed. You look down at your shoes. As I’m walking, something catches my eye off to my right, and I looked down and there’s graffiti on the wall. But it’s written about six inches off the sidewalk so that the only person who would see it would be someone who was looking down. I kind of tilt my head to see what it says and in perfect English, it says, ‘I promised you a miracle.’
“It would be great at this point to tell you that everything worked out. That this beautiful amazing thing happened to me, a miracle,” he continues. “It wasn’t anything like that. But what did happen is that it started a dialog in my head: What is a miracle? Then, because I was looking for a miracle, suddenly I saw them everywhere. Like the end of that first fucking cup of coffee in the morning, the way that tastes, it’s miraculous. The fact that I’ve done the things I’ve done and I’m still alive is a miracle. The fact that you and I are sitting here having this phone conversation — while Philip Seymour Hoffman is never going to have a phone conversation with anyone ever again — it’s a miracle.
“He was a sweet fucking man, a sweet man who was hounded by this. He had been clean 23 years. Twenty-three years! You know, I’ve have made no secret of my struggle with drugs and alcohol, but the whole thing is, why do some people get to survive and some people don’t?”
“Grace,” he says. “It’s grace, you know. Seriously.”
If there were something called the Church of Rock and Roll (and sometimes, I think there should be), certain Jon Dee Graham songs would be in the hymnal.
“I’ve had people religious people come up to me, and I’ve even played in a few churches,” Jon Dee says. “They’ll pick one of the songs and go, ‘Well, clearly this is a gospel or spiritual song.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, OK, it could be.’”
The reason religious folk relate to some of his songs, I think, is that they speak to the universal need to have faith. But the songs never talk about faith in a particular god. They speak of a more workaday faith, the kind that gets you up in the morning and makes you pay attention to the little miracle that is your cup of coffee and gives you the strength to try being happy, just for today.
“Don’t confuse religiosity with spirituality,” he tells me. “The two are clearly fucking different things. A friend of mine says that religion is for people who are afraid of hell and spirituality is for people who have been to hell.
“I don’t care for one second for people who believe they can tell you exactly what is going on, but only a fucking moron would take a look around in this world and not see that there is something going on. There is something happening. There is something at work in this world. I think it might be the human spirit. I don’t know. But some days, I walk out the front door and it’s as though the whole world is glowing with light. You can taste the air. Then there’s other days where you just can’t bear to get up.
“But when you pay attention and you look closely at the events going on around you and the interactions you have with your family and friends — even your interactions with total fucking strangers — something moves. It’s not me and it’s not you. What is that? What is that?”
Something moves beneath the surface.
Something moves beneath the surface.
Something moves beneath the surface.
I can’t see it, but I know it’s there.
Hold me up above the trouble.
Lift me up so I am tall.
I got eyes just like my father.
They don’t see too clear at all,
But something moves
Graham’s catalog is full of songs like that one, songs that grapple with the eternal question of why we’re here, songs that turn into oblique prayers for more insight into the forces that move us.
I get so lost, I get so down,
Inside out, and turned around,
That I turn away,
I turn away
From the world so full.
Make me willing, make me strong.
Make us brave as the day is long.
Open my eyes, and let me see,
And not turn away.
What’s remarkable to me is that Graham wrote so many of these songs not when he was beyond his darkest struggles, but while he was in the middle of them. It’s as if he never quite lost sight of the light, as if he never quite lost faith in the notion that somewhere beyond the unthinkable, there was beauty.
Maybe that’s why Jon Dee Graham is still here and Philip Seymour Hoffman is not.
Maybe he had the miracle in him all along.
Today, Jon Dee Graham leads a very interesting life. He’s got his regular gigs in Austin, but he spends a lot of time on the road in a car with his Austin compadre Mike June, a New Jersey native who is a powerful songwriter in his own right. In 2013, Jon Dee played 224 gigs, 160 of them outside of Austin.
“Most people go, ‘Oh, wow. That’s a lot of clubs,’” he says. “Do you know what? Less than half of them were clubs. I played in people’s living rooms. I played on patios. I played in the parking lot of a school for at-risk teens. I played on a beach. I played several guest houses. I played Water Valley, Miss., at 5 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon in little room above a grocery store.”
Jon Dee’s most recent album, “Garage Sale!,” came out in 2012, before he began last year’s marathon of house concerts with Mike June. When the record came out, Graham found himself struggling with the facts of his life: that he was almost 54, recognized in his native Austin as a musical treasure and a member of the Austin Music Hall of Fame, but he had never cracked a larger national audience.
His brother had to set him straight.
“My older brother is a doctor, actually a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force,” Jon Dee says. “He goes overseas and sets up field hospitals. He travels a lot. We don’t get a chance to talk too often, but when we do, it’s pretty good. I was bitching to him last year. It was right after ‘Garage Sale!’ had come out. He said, ‘Well, so how is your record doing?’ I said, ‘Well, it’s going to be the same shit. The same 7,000 to 10,000 people will buy it, and then I’m gonna tour the country and play to the same 500 to 1,000 people I’ve played for for the last 10 years, and it will be like that again all over again.’
“There was this long silence, then he said, ‘You know, I’m sorry it’s not more. But isn’t it true that you’re the voice for those 10,000 people? What are they going to do if you don’t do this? Obviously, you’re telling the story of several thousand people. You serve them. You should perhaps be grateful that you’re serving those people. What are they going to do without you?’
“It was like, wow, what a self-absorbed fuck I am. Ever since he told me that, if I start getting all pitiful about how few people are at a show, I’m like, ‘You know what? There might be somebody here who needs to hear you, so fucking suck it up and do your job.’”
He does it voraciously. He just doesn’t wait anymore for a distant booking agent to make the gigs appear. He’s applying the laws of subtraction to the business of his music. He goes directly to the 10,000 people who depend on him. He plays in living rooms, on patios and in grocery stores, and the audience gets slowly larger.
“It’s beautiful,” he says. “In a weird way, I feel like Mike June and I have transcended the whole notion of the music business. It’s like we’re missionaries or something. All I care about is taking the songs to people and hopefully helping some of them with it.”
And the more he follows this path, the more miracles he sees.
“Oh, my god,” he says. “Toward the end of last year, Mike would call me and go, ‘You have a dead space between this city and this city. We have two days. We need something in between these two cities.’ I’d just get on Facebook and go, ‘Hey if there is anybody in this area of Illinois, would you like to have us come play at your house?’ Without fail, three or four people would write and go, ‘Yeah, what do we have to do?’
“I’d just call them up and say, ‘Call 10 friends, ask them to come over and bring five of their friends. Tell them all to bring a bottle of wine and something to eat. We’ll have a jar at the door that says, “Suggested Donation,” and then we’ll have a party.’ They’re like, ‘It’s that easy?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah!’ Then you just sit back and watch what happens. It’s nuts. We go to people’s houses whom we’ve never met, and they take us into their homes. We play for their friends. You never know who you’re going to be playing for. Most of them don’t know who you are. Sometimes everybody knows who you are, but more frequently, nobody knows who you are. It’s almost like this missionary thing. We spent the last year literally going door to door in America playing for people.”
Bear Illustration by Jon Dee Graham
So what is the message of modern-day missionary Jon Dee Graham, 55-year-old songwriter from Texas? The way I hear it these days, it’s pretty simple:
Hang in there. Have faith. Things always get better, or at least different. Pay attention to the small wonders that surround you, because the tiny miracles are your biggest rewards. And above all, help your fellow traveler.
The message seems to come out more clearly than ever on some of Jon Dee’s newer songs. On “Garage Sale!,” which finds Jon Dee stretching his musical palette with pianos, pump organs and the like, my personal favorite is a number called “The Orphan’s Song.”
You say you’re an orphan,
I’m an orphan, too.
You say you’re on your own,
Well, I’m on my own, too.
If you need some help,
Some help to see you through,
Then stand next to me,
And I’ll stand next to you.
It could be all right.
It can be all right.
I will be your brother for tonight.
Jon Dee wonders how long he can keep up the pace of spending half the year on the road, but today seems genuinely happy with his lot.
“At some point, you have to ask yourself, ‘How much success do I need?’ Would I take more money? Sure,” he says. “It would be nice to not have to worry from month to month, but on the other hand, when I was in high school, all I wanted was for somebody to listen to the song. That’s all I wanted. Now I can go anywhere in the country and at least 10 people will pay $20 to see me play.
“That’s fine,” he says. “That’s kind of a dream come true, isn’t it? Somebody asked Charles Bukowski what it took to be a writer and he said, ‘Oh, that’s simple. You either get it down on paper, or you jump off the bridge.’ That’s kind of what I mean when I say I don’t know that I could choose. I think this chose me. Figuring that out means getting in line with it and going, ‘Oh, so I’m going to do this regardless of what happens. Whether I have to worry about money or not, I’m going to do this. Whether anybody agrees if this is good or not, I’m going to do this.’
“Once you get there, man,” he concludes, “you’re unmovable.”
’Tis indeed joyous when the give-a-shitter ceases to function.