“You’re about to see hard rockin’ John Dee tonight!’ one anxious Chicago-by-way-of-Austin fan explained as Jon Dee Graham and his band The Fighting Cocks (Veteran Austin drummer George Duron and bassist Andrew Duplantis – Son Volt/Jay Farrar) plugged in and tuned up as the Fitzgerald’s crowd awaited the looming set at the 35th Annual American Music Festival.
Known for playing everything from raucous roadhouses to festival tents to intimate living room sets, to say Jon Dee Graham is a journeyman is an understatement. He’s a three time inductee into the Austin Music Hall of Fame: once for his accomplishments as a solo artist; once as a member of the punk band The Skunks; and finally as a member of the True Believers with fellow Austin staple Alejandro Escovedo, a band many herald as pioneers of Cowpunk and alt-country.
Jon Dee was on full display Saturday night—as a growling singer, a ripping guitar player and a soft spoken lyricist, bringing the crowd from rocking frenzies to almost-hear-a-pin-drop moments in the main music hall. His eclectic set featured “Big Sweet Life” and “October” from 1999’s Summerland; “Faithless” from 2003’s Escape from Monster Island; and “Volver” (written/sung completely in Spanish), “Tamale House #1” and the rowdy show closer “Laredo (Small Dark Something)” from 2002’s Hooray for the Moon. Thanking his fans and making sure to clarify that they were so happy to be back in BERWYN—this Fighting Cocks set was—as reported by Jon Dee faithful in the crowd—very representative of what you’d get if lucky enough to see him at his residency at The Continental Club. One thing was certain—while he may not have been in Austin, he was certainly at home at Fitzgerald’s.
The Chicago Ambassador’s James Clarke had a chance to catch up with Jon Dee Graham in advance of Saturday night’s show at the 35th American Music Festival.
CA) Welcome back! Your site lists this weekend as a stop on your Annual Run for the Roses. Would you explain Run for the Roses and its connection to the American Music Festival at Fitzgerald’s?
GRAHAM) The AMF is the whole reason for the RFTR…it is the crown jewel in our summer tour. My absolute favorite event of the year.
CA) You’ve had a long-standing Wednesday night set at The Continental Club in Austin. Your son William is now part of that bill. What’s it like watching such a tradition evolve into a family affair?
GRAHAM) It’s a wild and weird humbling trajectory. I’ve been playing the CC off and on since I was 18, and every Wednesday I’m home for the past 19 years. To have William Harries Graham on the bill makes a beautiful sort of sense. It’s a family dynasty. When I’m gone, he’ll inherit the gig.
CA) You once compared your touring to missionary work—bringing the music to the people. Your living room shows are certainly testament to that.
GRAHAM) Our job is to lift people up, to shake them up, to hold them up. Once you know that, everything else becomes secondary.
CA) At this year’s American Music Festival you’ll be accompanied by your band The Fighting Cocks. What’s it like transitioning from one night playing an electric set to a lively crowd and the next to the intimate confines of a living room?
GRAHAM) Like putting on a different pair of your own boots.
CA) Many bands cite True Believers as early pioneers of the Cowpunk movement. What bands/writers inspired you to move in that direction?
GRAHAM) It would take too long to cite them. I’ll give you one Easter egg though: Chris Spedding.
CA) Your own tour schedule is extensive—-over 200 live shows per year. On a rare night off, what musicians does John Dee Graham want to see perform live?
GRAHAM) Jon Dee Graham likes to spend his rare night’s home at home. With his family.
CA) Do you feel that you have a stronger side—electric or acoustic? Do you have preference?
GRAHAM) No. I love them both equally and for entirely different reasons. But a song is a song however it’s played.
CA) You’ve described your approach to writing as “bloody.” Does that hold true for performing as well?
GRAHAM) I don’t mess around. And YES.
CA) Could you imagine at the time when you were performing with The Skunks that one day people fans would be using your song at their weddings? A friend’s recently featured “Butterfly Wing” as their first dance—
GRAHAM) Nope. Not ever in a million years. But what a humbling honor. And better than half those marriages are still going.
CA) While “Butterfly Wing” presents the delicate side, you’re often confronting the hard times. You were once quoted as saying “what defines us is how we handle the unthinkable”—
GRAHAM) When you hit YOUR unthinkable you’ll understand.
CA) What are you writing or recording these days?
GRAHAM) A new EP in the fall, new album in the spring. That’s all I can say without giving too much away.
Jon Dee Graham has an EP due out in Fall 2016 titled Knoxville Skyline.