By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
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One of the prime tenets of Hinduism and its Buddhist offshoot is the notion that becoming unattached to temporal objects and issues provides the means to achieve nirvana. By giving up the small shit, we can get the big enchilada. Simple, right? Hardly. Life on this earth is so fraught with desires, ambitions, attachments, and distractions that eschewing such things takes either years of disciplined work or the hand of fate. And the more you really want something, it often becomes that much harder to attain it.
Austin guitarist, songwriter, and singer Jon Dee Graham has learned that lesson. "The second you start chasing it, you get behind it," he notes between sips of coffee on the outdoor deck at Flipnotics, an Austin coffee house and performance space that Graham plays at once a month. With his ruggedly handsome countenance, receding hairline, and bulky build, he looks like a cross between an old-style Hollywood character actor and a rock-and-roll Buddha, and seems even more wise and well traveled than his 40 years.
For a good share of those years, Graham chased his rock-and-roll dream with diligence and even, at times, a vengeance. And now, some five years after he actually decided to quit music, he's enjoying a burgeoning, if unexpected, career of his own as a solo artist that's as satisfying as it is surprising to him. "I sure didn't set out to do this," he insists. "It's happened on its own."
Born and raised in Quemado, a small farming community on the Texas-Mexico border near Eagle Pass, Graham holds an impressive musical resume. He played his first professional gig in a country music roadhouse at age 13, something that gave his parents considerable pause, even if they did meet at a Bob Wills dance. After moving to Austin, ostensibly to attend college, he landed in the Skunks, a popular Texas new-wave band that opened shows for the Clash and the Ramones and toured with John Cale. ("After that, how can you return to college?" Graham says with a laugh.) That was followed by a genuine shot at stardom with the True Believers, Austin's great roots-rock hope of the mid-1980s, a band that either imploded, exploded, screwed up their big opportunity, or were fucked over by the music business system--or all of the above, depending on whom you talk to.
Graham then moved to Los Angeles, where he became a hired guitar gun for John Doe (appearing on his 1990 solo debut, Meet John Doe), Exene Cervenka, and Michelle Shocked; had a song covered by Patty Smyth ("One Moment to Another," a standout True Believers number) on her self-titled 1992 album; and composed soundtracks for now-obscure films
"I'd been doing it for so long," he recalls of that period. "I've gone through phases of doing really, really well with it, and then starving. I got a cut on a Patty Smyth record, and that was huge, and it went so well for me, but it was a fluke. I'd ridden the roller coaster for so long that I'd gotten sick of it."
Just as the tedium with his musical struggle began to take hold, Graham's marriage to fellow musician Sally Norvell broke up. So, with his tail between his legs, he headed back to Austin in the mid-1990s. "I'd quit," he says bluntly. "I basically moved back to a town I'd left eight years ago with a 3-year-old boy in tow. It was time to move underground and scab over. I really didn't tell anyone I was back in town. I got my own place. I started framing houses, which I'd been doing off and on over the years."
Yet Graham would spent the middle part of the decade appearing on albums by the likes of Dallas' TOOMuchTV (fronted by Bruce Dickinson, ex of pop poppins), Calvin Russell, Kacy Crowley, and Trish Murphy; last year, he also appeared on the Gourds' Stadium Blitzer. And now he's just released his second solo album, Summerland, and is enjoying a steady diet of touring and considerable amounts of critical acclaim. So what gives?
"There's a certain amount of hubris in saying, 'Oh, I quit, I'm not gonna do this anymore,'" Graham explains. "I don't think I can quit. I've been doing it too damned long, and it's what I do. Between Michelle and John, I got to tour the way I always wanted to tour--a bus, playing theaters, getting paid really well for it. And I kinda realized, if this is it, I need something else, something more. I think also by the end, I was not satisfied just to play guitar. I had a suitcase full of songs."
Out of that suitcase and the other baggage that Graham carried back to Austin from Los Angeles came his first solo album, Escape From Monster Island, a somber reflection on reaching mid-life, seeing one's dreams crumble, and trying to come to terms with it all as a grown man in an overgrown boy's business. It's an album that rests musically on the same fulcrum, meshing atmospheric washes of subtle and mature harmonics and rhythms with occasional splashes of two-ton power-chording, and marked by Graham's bluesy death rattle of a voice. It's an album he hadn't intended on making.