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Waiting for the Resurrection
Jon Dee Graham talks about meaning, mortality, and messaging within the context of an extraordinary new album
(by Lee Zimmerman)
Jon Dee Graham is not only an exceptional singer, songwriter and session player, but a deeply spiritual and philosophical individual as well. That comes with cause, given that he was once pronounced clinically dead after falling ill following a live performance. Yet with ten solo albums to his credit, seminal roles in the influential punk country outfit True Believers with Alejandro and Javier Escovedo, and contributions to albums by such esteemed notables as John Doe, Exene Cervenka, James McMurtry, Eliza Gilkyson, Kelly Willis, John Hiatt, Michelle Shocked, Patty Griffin, and Lone Justice, not to mention the one-off super group, The Hobart Brothers and Lil’ Sis Hobart, with Susan Cowsill and Freedy Johnston, Graham’s clearly capable of purveying his presence.
Consequently, Graham combines his passion with a purpose. His songs deal with real life scenarios and the challenges faced by those who are simply striving to find a place in the world even when the odds seem immeasurable and consistently stacked against them.
Graham’s new album, Only Dead for A Little While, his first new effort in seven years, is no different. Although it ostensiblý relates to his near death experience, it’s perhaps more sobering than somber, a reflective and meditative look at the realities of the world and finding a Zen-like peace of mind in terms of acceptance and understanding. Like the 2008 documentary that detailed his career up to a certain point, Jon Dee Graham: Swept Away, it offers further insight into an extraordinary artist who remains unafraid to strive for success even in the face of extraordinary challenges. It’s shared from the perspective of an artist who has nothing left to prove and indeed, nothing left to lose.
The Alternate Root recently spoke with Jon Dee Graham from his home in Austin, and the resulting conversation was both revelatory and refreshing. A chat with the man leaves one walking away feeling both promise and perseverance.
Lee Zimmerman: It’s great to speak to you Jon Dee, and also great to have a new album from you. The obvious question is: what took so long?
Jon Dee Graham: Well, I’ve been doing a lot more art. And then there was some serious health issues. And then covid happened. This record was ideally supposed to come out four years ago, but we didn't start making it till three years ago. It was sort of like, a difficult childbirth.
We have to say it was worth the wait. Your music is so emphatic and so revealing. And it's so emotional as well. Obviously, you don't do anything half-heartedly because you put a lot of meaning into your music. So, what inspired these songs? Where was your muse coming from with this particular record?
I started writing the songs after, after I died in Chicago. That’s sort of when the songs started coming back, and peeking around. And, and then Covid happened. And there was just this sense that everything was turned upside down. And my friends said to me ‘Oh, man, don't make a death record. Come on’.
Yes, that would be a bit of a downer by any means.
I really appreciate that you use the word ‘emphatic’. Because the thing is, I would hope that that’s true. It may be my darkest record, but if you look closely, there's a golden thread of hope that runs through all of it. If anybody says they know what happens after you die, run. Because having died, I can say one thing. It's it's nothing to be afraid of. It’s actually fairly easy.
You're opening up a lot of doors here, sir. So how did that experience come about?
In 2018, I was playing the Fitzgerald American music festival. And I came offstage and I was really overheated and dehydrated. I felt a little bit lightheaded. So, I thought I'm gonna go lay down in the van with the AC on. And next thing I knew, I was being revived at the hospital. I actually died. They think I was dead. When the EMTs dragged me out of the van I was unresponsive. No heart rate or respiration.
Was it a heart attack?
My heart ratcheted up and then stopped. So, I actually died. It wasn’t a near death experience. It was actually a death death experience
So the inevitable question is, what did you see? Did you see a light?
Here it is. I have to tell you something. Every single person at some point that I’ve talked to has asked me about that. What did you see? Did you go over to the other side? And I’ll be honest. I saw nothing. Nothing. There was no white light, grandma was not there waiting for me. There was none of that, but it was very gentle. It was really just like going to sleep. So that’s why I say there is really nothing to be afraid of. Is there something after? I don't know. I mean, this is a tricky issue. I shouldn't even get into all this. But what I will say is that you won't have anybody come away from my album with any sense at all of one thing or another, and that's okay. It's nothing to be afraid of. I understand what my friends were talking about, about not making a death record and all of that. So, this is not like a sackcloth and ashes death record. This is a getting together by the fire death record.
Can you give us an example?
The song “Lost in the Flood” that's on the record is literally about how people, different people, have different interpretations of life and death. What I intended with that song, was to explain that change is the language of the universe. If you look around you, everything you see will eventually be gone. Everyone you know will eventually be dead. That's just the minutes, months, weeks, the flood of time. So, it’s silly to fight that idea. It's so silly to be afraid of it because this is how it is.
Some people might say that’s a bit fatalistic.
Fatalistic? Yes. It is also realistic. To me, fatalistic means a view of things, like a stance that you take. And what I'm talking to you about is just the nuts and bolts of it. This is a beautiful world filled with all kinds of amazing things and some of the sweetest people you'll ever meet. But eventually it will all be gone. That's just a fact. I think I walk a tight line on this record, but between accepting that this is all temporary and yet also going, let’s keep living. That's honestly how I feel. It's like, I don't know what comes next. I don't even know If there is anything that comes next. All I know is that we're here. We're here to help each other. And yes, it's temporary. But wow, what a beautiful time, you know?
You have an advantage that many of us don't, obviously, because you have that peace of mind since you were there to experience it. And you're able to allay the fears that many of us, most of us, I would think, have about death.
The dream that I had, that I talk about on “See by the Fire” was really profound. When I woke up, I had just this amazing sense of peace and relief about everything, because in the dream, I’m walking in this frozen wilderness with some friends. And we're thinking we're gonna die out here… it’s nighttime, it's freezing in the forest, what the fuck. And then we see this glow up ahead, and we realize it’s a fire. So, we get to the fire. And as we come into the light of the fire, and as I look around, I realize that everybody that's with me are old friends of mine. People that I’ve known throughout my life, who've already passed over. And here we are all laughing and telling jokes around this fire. Now, I'm pretty sure there was a guitar there. And people were singing songs. And they were all musician friends I hadn't thought about it years. Then I realized, we're all just heading for the fire, we're all just gonna go get warm, and then we'll hang out and we're gonna laugh and tell stories. And I'm not saying that that's what's going to happen. I'm saying metaphorically, it's like that, you know?
It’s wonderful to have that assurance, but most people are terrified of the inevitable. And you have a very sort of meditative sensibility about it that it's a wonderful thing.
I feel like dream lives are reflections of not just our lives, but sort of how the world works. I'm not professional by any means, but I am a hell of a language person. I would say that there's gotta be balance, even in our dream life. There's got to be balance. You're always looking for the saber-toothed tiger, right? In the last verse of “See You by the Fire”, I say, If you look up and you don't see me, it's just because I've gone ahead. Just remember what I said, meet me by the fire. And that's kind of the thing, whether you're dreaming about your past life or your future life or whatever, just keep your eye on the prize.
That’s very cerebral, but more than that, it it's hopeful, uplifting, and spiritual. I mean, not many people make records like this anymore. So, thank you for continuing to make this music that's worthwhile, and has meaning and that really says something.
Thank you so much for your kind words, really. But here's the thing for me, and I can't speak for anyone else. I can only speak for myself. I don't have any choice. If I could write differently. I might do it. I played every Wednesday night with James McMurtry for years. I did a tour of Europe with him years ago. And I said to him, ‘Man, I wish I could write like you write where you just create situations that never happened, involving people who never lived, doing things that never actually occurred’. And he looked at me and he said, ‘I wish I could write like you, only I wouldn't enjoy bleeding to death every day’. You see his point? It’s like, what I do is not easy. But I don't have any alternative. It's like, all I can write is what I know and what I'm going through. Man, if I could write some other way I would, because this is not easy.
It’s very cathartic obviously.
Exactly. It is. Like, I wasn't even one hundred percent sure what “Lost in the Flood” was about. I just knew it had to be written really quickly. And it's just like this laundry list of places and things and people and yeah, we’re all lost in the blood. Everything in that song is a real place. I can actually draw you a map how to get to that place. I didn't make anything up. It's all going to be fine. That sounds pompous or arrogant, but that’s how it. Is.
It sounds very Zen actually.
That’s the thing. If I can get people to stop worrying about this whole death thing, then I feel like I've done my job.
Pay attention to what's happening today. Because guess what, that's all there is.
So, when did you when did you recognize realize that this was the kind of music and the kinds of songs that you wanted to create and could create? There are so many albums you've played on. Too many albums to keep count.
I’d say 60, but it’s actually more like 80.
So, again, when did you come to the realization that these were the kind of albums you wanted to make and the kind of music that you could make? Was that evident from the very beginning?
You know what the truth is? The truth is, it's not like I planned on making this kind of music. It made itself through me. When did I choose to write the kind of stuff that I write? Well, I believe that just like, McMurtry writes the way he does. I don't think he chose that.
His dad was a novelist too. So, there's something in his DNA.
That’s the genetics thing. But what I feel like is that I didn't choose this, this chose me. My dad and I weren’t terrifically close. That was more my fault. But the only advice he ever gave me was when he said, you need to pay attention. And so, I spent most of my adult life paying attention. And at some point, I started writing it down. And then at some point, that became the songs. It's not like I chose to do it. It's like it was waiting for me.
But that doesn't necessarily mean you were capable of being the
messenger, so when did you feel you were up to the task?
Now you're talking. Okay, here's the thing about writing songs for me. People go, ‘so how do you write a song?’ as though there's one way that I write a song. They come at me from every which direction. There are certain songs that are like downloads, where it takes as long for me to write them as it does for me to play them. So it's a really, really heavy and savvy thing that you say about being equal to the task. I don't know that I am, but I know that I'm close because I'm catching songs. With each cycle, songs come and I feel like I'm getting closer and closer, and like with this album, maybe the closest I've gotten to the center of my life and of the world. And it's weird because I’m wondering if there's gonna be a death record backlash from people. It's such a downer, but once you listened to it, did you feel like all down?
No, not at all. It moved me. And your delivery moved me as well. It's a stirring and rugged
So maybe it’s a record about dying, or it's not a record about dying. It's a record about the human condition, which includes death, which, you noted earlier, when you used the word, “emphatic.”
It’s very much that.
I just felt some joy when you said that, because it's like, that's what I want. I want people to hear these songs, and have them have that spark.
You makea deep impression, John Dee. And there's no doubt about the impact that you're making here in this music. It resonates, it resonates. That's the resonance.
That's high praise, because that's what I'm after. I love performing live, because it's probably when I feel closest to my purpose. And there's this thing that happens, and I've talked about it was all my musician friends, and some get it more than others. But everybody understands that on some level, where you're looking at an audience, and you're singing to them, and you're trying to not necessarily win them over, but you are trying to get through to them. And then all of a sudden, this spark happens. And people start pulling up next to the stage. And so that's what I'm after — that spark? And I think I think I got it on this record. I really do. I'm really proud of this record, but one of my fears is that it's going to be painted as, quote, unquote, a death record. Actually, it’s a life record.
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