Blue Collar Rocker
Jon Dee Graham is a dyed-in-the-wool alt-country hero.
Thursday, February 17, 2005
In the Second Annual No Depression Critic’s Poll detailing the best releases of 2004, the bimonthly alt-country magazine places Jon Dee Graham’s The Great Battle above albums by roots music heavies like Wilco, Steve Earle, Dave Alvin and Willie Nelson. The Great Battle sits at number five, right behind legends like Loretta Lynn and Brian Wilson.
Even though Graham’s name is not readily recognizable outside of his hometown of Austin, Texas, it should be. Graham started his music career by dropping out of a University of Texas pre-law program to join an Austin-based punk band called the Skunks. Following this stint, during which the band opened for groups like the Ramones and the Clash, the guitarist jumped onboard legendary singer/songwriter Alejandro Escovedo’s group, the True Believers. Despite being pioneers of the burgeoning roots-rock movement, the group parted ways after record label EMI dropped them just days before the release of their sophmore album.
After that crushing blow, Graham moved out to Los Angeles, where he befriended John Doe, former frontman for punk pioneers X. Graham ended
up playing guitar and co-writing two songs on Doe’s 1990 solo debut, Meet John Doe.
But, in 1996, after working with artists like Michelle Shocked and Patty Smyth, Graham decided to abandon the music business and become a construction worker.
“It was years and years of accrued anger and bitterness,” he says from his home in Austin.
Graham’s career in manual labor lasted less than a year. Graham says he decided to return to music after singer/songwriter Kelly Willis asked him to play with her. “The money was very good,” he says, laughing.
He then launched an impressive second act as a musician. His first solo album, Escape from Monster Island, was released in 1997. The Great Battle (already his fourth solo release) is the result of work with guitar prodigy-producer Charlie Sexton that has Graham very excited.
“[Sexton] brought an orchestral feel to it that’s not easy to get,” Graham says.
The gruff opening number (“Twilight”) sounds like Tom Waits fronting Crazy Horse. Later on, Graham throws in a foot-stomping version of the traditional number “Lonesome Valley,” a great, rocked-out cover of Neil Young’s “Harvest” and moving originals like “E. 11th Street.”
In Graham’s original work there are evocative images of working-class life—possibly gleaned from his construction career. At the beginning of “Something to Look Forward To,” he sings: “Comin’ home worn out/ In the middle of the night/ Turnin’ on a cop show/ Watching poor people fight.” Meanwhile, the song’s chorus is about the hope that everything will be all right after the work week ends and Saturday rolls around.
With The Great Battle receiving lots of critical acclaim, it’s possible that this longtime musician has finally made it to Saturday afternoon.
Jon Dee Graham plays the Hidden Valley Theater, Carmel Valley Road and Ford Road in Carmel Valley, Saturday at 7pm. $20. 625-9244.