Jon Dee Graham almost gave up on music; good thing it didn't give up on him

But after licking his wounds back in Austin for a bit, Graham was offered some session work by guitar wizard Mike Hardwick, who had played with ex-Byrds Gene Clark and Michael Clarke, Jerry Jeff Walker, Kelly Willis, and Michael Fracasso. "I don't even remember who the session was for," Graham says. "The fact is, I needed the money real bad. So it was, 'OK, I've quit, but I'll go do this because I need the money.' So I went, and in the course of the session, I started sitting around with Mike playing some songs. And he was like, 'Hey, that's really interesting. We should get together and work on some songs.' So we started doing that just for our own sanity, not with any idea in mind. Then we started doing it in public, just kind of fucking around, and this whole cycle of songs and body of work started taking form."

After Graham and Hardwick played the Live Set show on Austin public radio station KUT-FM, fellow musician Matt Eskey (a.k.a. bassist Earl B. Freedom from Mojo Nixon's Toadliquors) offered to put the show out on CD on his tiny yet tastemaking Freedom Records label, just as he did earlier with a Derailers Live Set taping. "At that point it had never even occurred to me," Graham admits. "We told Matt, 'Give us the money you would spend to have this mastered and redone, and we'll give you a real record.' He goes, 'I don't think that can be done.' We were like, 'We can do it.'" And they did, for less than $5,000. The record was recorded in three days, then mixed for another three days.

"On the seventh day, we rested," Graham says. "When we finished mixing, I remember thinking, 'If I see this on the shelves somewhere, I'll be happy.' But we ended up getting pretty substantial radio play. With '$100 Bill,' we were on 51 stations at one point. And we're still getting play; I'm still getting publishing money on that. We ended up selling close to 5,000 copies, and when you spend $5,000 on a record, that's pretty good odds. I wasn't even thinking in terms of a second record, much less having any kind of success with the first one. It's all this unexpected stuff."

His recently released follow-up, Summerland, finds Graham now on the far larger St. Paul, Minnesota-based New West label, and presents an upbeat flip side to Monster Island's dour meditations (just compare and contrast the titles).

"I think that a lot of people are saying, 'Oh, well, they're radically different.' I think it's like two halves of the same sword. But sonically, I think the second one has more to offer. There's more color to it, more variety, more breadth. Some could argue that there isn't the focus on the second one that there is on the first one. But I find the second one easier to listen to, you know?" he says with a laugh.

"On Escape, with the songs, there was this linear, sequential story that was told," Graham explains. "On Summerland, there's still a story that's told, but it's more about the pieces in the whole story. You can put any three of those songs together, and they will tell an essential aspect of the whole story. Also, on Escape I got to do one thing I do really well, but on Summerland, I got to do everything I like to do. There's the acoustic songs, there's the bad-ass rocking songs, there's the kind of quasi-pop songs, so the story is a little more complicated. This is the story about what happened when we left Monster Island, I guess.

"I think that record kind of made itself, and with this record, I got to actually make the record instead of the record making me," he notes, even though Summerland still took only a mere 13 days to record and mix. "There's something to be said for both processes. I think the second way made for a more colorful album."

On both records, Graham has eschewed the big-picture rock and pop focus for something more subtle and personal. It's a style that may embrace most of his prior experiences, yet it doesn't quite comfortably rest in the Americana bag it gets stuffed into. When asked to define his place in the musical spectrum, he can only say, "It's hard, man. The closest that I've come to is that it's grown-up music. And the people who get it are the people that are five years on either side of me in age, and who have sort of a shared experience. And that's great, because I don't know that there's necessarily a voice for those people."

Graham sits back on a wooden bench and almost glows with satisfaction as he talks about his current life and career. "I didn't set out to do this, but I am damn glad it happened. For 15 years I was basically everybody's guitar player. I did a lot of writing, and I wrote for or with all the bands I was in. But primarily, all I did was play with people and basically made my reputation as the guitar guy. I think L.A. kind of changed that in me for a few reasons. I realized when I was out there that I was writing all these songs, and in order to get them heard I was going to have to play them myself."

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