Jon Dee Graham, Ben de la Cour
An evening with Texas songwriter Jon Dee Graham. Doors open at 7 pm.
"Jon Dee Graham is the Titan of American songwriters." - Jason Isbell (Drive-By Truckers)
In Greek mythology, the Titans were the earliest gods, descendants of Gaia, the earth, and Uranus, the sky. The Titans ruled during the Golden Age of humanity, which was not named for its riches but for its people, who were good and noble.
Golden, as it were.
We’re not sure Jason Isbell was thinking about a specific race of Greek gods when he called Jon Dee Graham the Titan of American songwriters, but the comparison is apt. More deeply than perhaps any other songwriter working today, Graham works his way through the cracks and fissures of life to find the goodness and nobility of regular people — the gold inside them.
“There’s not one 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.”
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.
Lyrics like those, from “The Orphan Song” on Graham’s latest LP, “Garage Sale,” are the sort that have long earned him the praise of critics and his fellow songwriters and the undying devotion of fans all over America. They demonstrate Graham’s ability to express empathy for his fellow humans with an incredible economy of words.
John Fullbright, the brilliant young Oklahoma songwriter whose debut studio recording, “From the Ground Up,” was nominated for a Grammy, says this about Graham: “Jon Dee Graham is the silver lining, reluctant as he may be about it. He's humor in heartbreak and tears at a wedding. He'll break the fifth (and sixth) wall and pull you with him to a world of darkest nights and brightest days. In two words: sucker punch.”
Graham’s ability to land his punches comes not only from his prowess as a lyricist, but also from his inventiveness as a guitarist. Graham has been making mighty noises issue from his guitar since he joined, in 1979 at age 20, the pioneering Austin punk band the Skunks. The next two decades led Graham through stints with the True Believers and in the touring bands of X founder John Doe and Austin songwriter Kelly Willis. Graham also lent his guitar chops to records by the Silos, the Gourds, his former True Believers bandmate Alejandro Escovedo and the masterful Texas songwriter James McMurtry.
But it wasn’t until 1997, with the release of his first solo album, “Escape From Monster Island,” that Graham showed himself to be that rarest of musical combinations: an ace guitar player and master songwriter in the same body.
After eight solo albums, Graham’s career has turned into a social media-driven and uniquely inspiring collaboration between him and his fans. Last year, Graham did more than 160 nights on the road with his fellow Austin songwriter Mike June — most of them in the homes of his fans.
“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?’” Graham says. “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.”
And Graham’s next release will be a “fan-sourced bootleg” that assembles live performances, most of them from independent tapers across the world who have recorded his shows from 1992 to now. “We canvassed Jon Dee's followers on Facebook and asked them what songs they'd like to hear on a downloadable live album, then asked them to vote on their favorites,” says Mike Fickel, the project’s curator.
The result is likely to be a two-volume effort, with 20 songs each. “Jon Dee wanted to lean toward the most impassioned performances, more so than something that might have impeccable recording quality, so there are a couple we chose that might have some sonic quirks,” Fickel says. “There's no doubt about the fire in the performances, though, and we're sure that the fans will be excited by the result.”
As the fan-sourcing project nears release, the three-time inductee into the Austin Music Hall of Fame continues holding down his remarkable 17-year Wednesday night residency at Austin’s Continental Club, a gig he typically shares with McMurtry. The two writers are more-or-less lovable curmudgeons who seem ideally suited to share that legendary stage.
“I used to think I was a misanthrope,” McMurtry says. “Then I met Jon Dee Graham."
Misanthropes, of course, see cracks in everything, but as another great songwriter, Leonard Cohen, once wrote, “that’s how the light gets in.” That Graham can so masterfully shine that light on the veins of gold that run through our everyday lives makes him, in his fans’ estimation, a national treasure.
Raised in Brooklyn, Ben de la Cour was was playing New York City dive bars with his brother a full decade before he could legally drink. A high-school dropout and former amateur boxer, he received his education by listening to his parent’s record collection – full of everything from Bob Dylan and The Everly Brothers to Lynyrd Skynyrd, Jimi Hendrix and Black Sabbath. At the tender age of nineteen he spent a year in Havana training with members of the Cuban national boxing team before moving to London with his brother to revive their doom metal band, Dead Man’s Root. They lived in a van and toured around Europe for several years until the band fell apart under the two-fisted attack of burnout and drunken brawls, and in 2008 de la Cour returned to the states with a head full of softer, bruised, but no less intense acoustic songs.
Following a short stint in Los Angeles where he released Under A Wasted Moon, which BBC Radio dubbed “brilliant”, de la Cour passed through New Orleans, fell in love and decided to stay. In 2011 Ben de la Cour released Ghost Light, which spotlighted his talent as a songwriter and received rave reviews in No Depression and other publications, with one journalist dubbing him “a vitriolic Leonard Cohen.” However, after a chance meeting with a successful Nashville songwriter in a French Quarter dive bar, de la Cour felt compelled to keep on moving. He recalls, “he made it pretty clear to me that if I was ever going to do anything with songwriting I was going to have to get the hell out of New Orleans. So I did. I guess I’ve always been pretty impressionable that way”.
Once again Ben was on the move, this time winding up in Nashville where he crashed on friends’ couches and worked as a doorman until he found his footing. His third album Midnight in Havana came out in 2016 on Flour Sack Cape Records and was met with critical acclaim from outlets like Red Line Roots, Nashville Scene, No Depression and The Huffington Post. That same year he won the prestigious New Folk Competition at the 2016 Kerrville Folk Festival.
In April of 2018 Ben de la Cour released The High Cost of Living Strange, eight tracks of his self-proclaimed “Americanoir” style – weaving complex, mysterious and sometimes shocking storylines with a unique blend of instrumental backing and the occasional glimpse of gallows humor. Along with his unique perspective towards songwriting and his lyrical attention to detail, de la Cour has a veracious studio ideology; live tracking, minimal overdubs, no headphones, one room, and just a couple of days. “I’m like a bargain basement Cowboy Jack Clement!” he jokes.
“I like stories that are specific and I don’t like them to be preachy” Ben continues. “If I think I’m being preached to or if there’s an agenda at play – I’m out of there. I think a lot of people feel that way. When I say I think this album is about dissolution, I mean it on a personal level. How do we cope with this feeling of being lost and unmoored? What happens to relationships when they fall apart? What happens when the unstoppable force of our dreams meets the immovable object of reality? Well, what usually happens is that it turns out our dreams aren’t quite as unstoppable as we once thought!”
Some of de la Cour’s most introspective lyrics can be found in songs like “Face Down Penny” and “Company Town”, which he wrote while on the road. “When you’re touring you do a lot of driving and you really get to see the way that corporations exert influence over every facet of American life… that’s the world we’re living in now. We have this illusion of control and freedom but in reality for the most part it really does feel like we are all living in a company town sometimes.”
Listeners hoping for some of de la Cour’s more terrifying tales need look no further than “Tupelo”, a claustrophobic and hypnotic homicidal minor-key stomp inspired by a chance late night meeting. “That song is something of a meditation on my personal theory that there are only two types of people in the world – those who pick up a hitchhiker and think of all the ways they could kill or be killed by that person… and liars.” “Dixie Crystals” is a scorched earth tale of methamphetamine addiction set against an unforgiving southern hellscape, while “Uncle Boudreaux Went to Texas” and “Guy Clark’s Fiddle” are beautiful narratives about broken-hearted dreamers waking up in a world they never felt like they belonged in, but are still doing their best to love anyway.
The High Cost of Living Strange may seem bleak, but never self-consciously so, and it’s shot through with moments of real beauty. There is also enough humor and hope in all but the darkest moments to tell us what we all need to hear sometimes; it’s okay to be human. At least until a better alternative comes along.