If you want a little history lesson on Jon Dee Graham, as well as a taste of his blunt humor, just click on his homepage at www.jondeegraham.com. There you will encounter a playful 10-panel cartoon, with a drawing of a bear on each, who simply lays out the basics of the 41-year career arc of the Texas-based singer-songwriter.
On panel No. 1, the bear explains that young Jon Dee played his first gig at tender age of 13.
Panel No. 2 asks "So you’d think by now I’ve gotten the hang of it, right?"
Panel No. 6 recounts his recording output: "Either 8 or 9 solo records-depending how you count -- and All Music Guide says I have 60+ album credits. That seems right."
You know you have been at it a long time when you have lost track of exactly how many records you have made.
In a recent e-mail, the gravel-voiced troubadour (who will be appearing tonight at Popolo’s) discussed his latest project, a yet-to-be-released solo album titled "Do Not Forget."
"Well, I’d like to think that every record I’ve made is different from the others, but ultimately it’s still me playing guitar and me singing songs I wrote, so how different can they be, really? The thing that changes from record to record is the songs/writing."
Long-time fans who expect Jon Dee to go for the emotional jugular in his writing will not be disappointed.
"’Do Not Forget’ is taking shape as a group of songs trying to explain the nature of things. Ambitious? I guess. Nebulous? Maybe. Interesting? I hope so. My writing is in a pretty confident and adventurous place right now ... it has to be because I’m trying to explain things I don’t fully understand and probably never will. Cormac McCarthy said the only things worth writing about are Love and Death. ... We’ll see how I do."
Although huge commercial success has eluded the Austinite, he certainly has gotten the hang of writing brutally honest, deeply moving, durable songs, songs that earned him legendary status in Texas and an extremely loyal cult following elsewhere.
And he has proven to be as durable as his songs, surviving a horrific car crash after falling asleep behind the wheel while driving home from a gig after his third induction in the Austin Music Hall of Fame.
"I guess now that I’ve proven how hard it is to kill me, I can just move on and focus on the work," said Graham. "My career has seen every conceivable permutation and scenario ... sideman, sideman/gunslinger, silent co-writer, frontman, solo, duo, trio, all the way up to a 10-piece band. ... I’ve toured in vans, buses, rented cars, borrowed cars. I’ve toured most of Europe, the Benelux, Japan, endless circles of the U.S. While I still do band tours with my guys The Fighting Cocks a few times a year, the last three years have seen me playing mostly solo shows, touring with Mike June and playing listening rooms and house concerts. I finally feel, at 54, that I’m all growed up."
Part of that maturity is embracing his place in the music biz and learning to occasionally slow down and small the roses. "I hope I get to do this for the rest of my life. And if I died tomorrow, I’d go happily, because I’ve had a remarkable and delicious run for the last few years. At 54 I am at the height of my powers and smart enough to enjoy it."
Dave Madeloni writes a music column for Ovation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.