Jon Dee Graham

Jon Dee Graham: Only Dead for a Little While By Don McLeese

The gospel according to Jon Dee Graham, on the holy trinity of songwriting subjects:

“Really, there are only three things to write about,” he explains. “Life, love and death. With this record, it’s life, love, and death all at the same time.”

His first release in seven years, Only Dead For a Little While finds Graham hitting the trifecta. And in the process raising the stakes.  A native Texan, fifth generation, he has found that spot where life and love and death converge, where they are so deeply connected, inextricably bound. And he makes you feel that connection with the same raw intensity. that he does.

This is the album an artist makes when he has nothing left to prove, nothing to lose, nothing to hide.  Think of Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, but sharpen the blade and crank the volume.  You might even think of Frank Sinatra’s September of My Years, though Jon Dee Graham is a very different sort of saloon singer.  There’s a certain darkness, bittersweet, whenever you stare mortality in the face.  And especially when that face is the one you see in the mirror.  But there’s also the richness of being alive and in love and open to it all. And that’s where the magic lies. 

As Jon Dee says, “Without the dark, there is no light.”

Take “By the Fire.” It starts with a dream, or maybe an apparition, of a friend who has died some time ago. But here he is, and he offers an invitation to the fire up ahead, the gathering where we all end up.  By the end of the song, it is the singer issuing that invitation to meet him by the fire.  Just a little abracadabra, a switch of pronouns, and the line between the dead and the living disappears. And it’s a singalong, a campfire singalong.

“I want to do real magic in my songs,” says Graham. “I mean, I can do sleight of hand with the best of them, and, you know, alliteration, and make the words line up and dance. But I want to be one of those people who actually make the woman disappear. In this song, it’s like, hey, you know those people who are gone? They’re not really gone. Because way up ahead I see that glow. And we’ll all meet each other by the fire.”

Such magic abounds within Only Dead For a Little While. There’s the entire history of humankind’s fall from grace in “Where It All Went Wrong,” a take-no-prisoners blitzkrieg through centuries of perdition.  The majestic “Lost in the Flood” has an equally Biblical sweep. And there’s “Lazarus,” which challenges mortality and wins, at least this round, paying homage to Warren Zevon and “Papa” Hemingway in the process. The album also breathes new life into “Death Ain’t Got No Mercy.”  the rawest, starkest rendition of the Rev. Gary Davis classic you could conjure.

Two other songs from within the family hit even closer to home: “Astronaut” peers at the earth from a great distance, from a point of no return, from a realization that “we can never go back,” as the haunting refrain reminds. Like has something has changed, irrevocably and irretrievably. The spoken-word revery of “Brave As Her” hits even harder, sounding like an almost whispered confession from the deepest part of the soul. Jon Dee truly inhabits both songs, making them his own, but the former was written by his son, and the words to the latter are from his wife. That’s the bloodline of the album, the legacy and love that permeate it. 

Jon Dee Graham is one of those artists that most people don’t know about, but most of the people who do know about him think he is one of the greats. An unheralded and underrated master at saying the absolute most in the fewest words possible, a gruff voice with a melodic gift, a songwriter’s songwriter, and a musician’s musician. He’s an artist’s artist and a true survivor (the title of his album is no joke, even though I’m sure he means it with his usual excellent sense of humor). He’s been making excellent albums since the 80’s (True Believers!) and his new one is as great as anything he’s ever done. – Patterson Hood (Drive-By Truckers)

Jon Dee Graham should need no introduction, as someone whose artistry and accomplishment are well-known throughout his native Texas and the music community well beyond.  But still it seems that too few know all that they should about him, as a seminal figure in Texas punk and Americana, as a hotshot guitarist for others artists, as an explosive performer whose club sets leave no prisoners, and, most of all, as a singer-songwriter whose range extends from a whisper to a howl, and from the highest highs to the lowest depths. 

“You know, I’m really tired of being called the best songwriter in America that nobody’s heard about,” he says with a laugh.  “I don’t know how many times that has been written about me.”

So, a brief bullet-point recap:

  • Three-time inductee into the Austin Music Hall of Fame. As a member of the Skunks, the True Believers, and a solo artist. Named Austin Musician of the Year in 2006 at South by Southwest. 
  • An in-demand guitarist, he has backed Alejandro Escovedo (his former True Believer bandmate), John Doe (from X). Kelly Willis and many others.
  • The subject of both a 2005  tribute album (Big Sweet Life: The Songs of Jon Dee Graham) and a feature-length 2008 documentary (Jon Dee Graham: Swept Away)

Only Dead For a Little While gets its title from Jon Dee’s own resurrection, from what he laughs “wasn’t a near-death experience, it was death death.” In 2019, he was making his annual appearance at the FitzGerald’s American Music Festival, outside Chicago, a tradition over the Fourth of July weekend. It was as hot as it usually is, and Jon Dee had been touring hard, as he usually did.  He played the sort of blistering set for a couple hours that he always does.

“That’s always one of my favorite events, and I’m sweating and I’m not drinking enough water, and, you know me, I pretty much leave it all on the stage,” he remembers. “So I went back to the van and turned on the air conditioner and that’s the last thing I remember. I found out later that when they found me my heart had stopped and I had quit breathing. Apparently, they had hit me with the paddles, and I came back.

“I wish I could tell you. Oh, I saw a white light, and there was my grandmother telling me you have to go back, but no, there was nothing like that. It was really just like a super, deep, peaceful sleep. And so a lot of those fears about death kind of resolve. People ask whether it gives you a new appreciation for life, you know. make you see things differently? What it showed me is that something really stupid can happen at any time. And you have no control over it.”

The result is a full-circle album that brings Graham’s career full circle—back to the New West family, where the three albums he released after the turn of the century helped launch him as a solo artist.  It’s his first release in seven years—following the highly-acclaimed Knoxville Skyline EP in 2016—and his first full-length album of new material since 2010’s It’s Not As Bad As It Looks. I

He began recording it in anticipation of his 60th birthday, a musical meditation on that milestone, and has finished it as a 64-year-old survivor of Covid and everything else the world wants to throw at him. . The result is a full-force triumph that reflects the seismic challenges we’ve been through—the pandemic or all of us, financial and medical and psychological issues for some of us, a return from the dead for it least one of us—and reassures that everything will somehow work out.  You can hear that assurance in “Brought Me Here.”

everywhere that I have been
everyone that I have met
every sun that rose and set
brought me here to you
that’s right
it brought me here to you

every word that I have heard
every word that I have said
every thought bouncing round my head
brought me here to you
that’s right
they brought me here to you

So long, so hard
So good so far

every mistake that I have made
every single mistake I’ve made
-let me repeat-
MAN, the mistakes I made
brought me here to you
that’s right
they brought me here to you 

Things may not always work out the way you want them to, expect them to, or hoped they would. But they always work out.

“I know the truth, which is that all this at any moment could just be over, and I have to be okay with that,” he explains. “Making music is how I process things, because this thing that I do is the thing that keeps me alive.”

It’s after you’ve arrived at that sort of knowledge that you can make an album like this.

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