Jon Dee Graham has the voice of Enrico Caruso. Of course, Caruso has been dead for more than 100 years. Graham sings like he has the voice of a dead man with his decayed mouth filled with dirt. That’s not an insult. It’s a joke. The sick kind that Graham likes to make. He sings in a gruff, gravelly, low tone and comes off as a mean older man. But he’s a sweetheart of a human being who is more than willing to put himself down to make one laugh than to hurt another person purposely.
I’ve seen the Texan singer-songwriter perform more than a dozen times during the past 20 years, have interviewed him professionally, and conversed with him socially. Graham is well-known for promoting other artists more than himself. He believes in his talents and isn’t shy. He is just bighearted.
This is evident on Only Dead For a Little While, Graham’s first album in seven years. It showcases the Lone Star musician’s sick humor, creative talent, and generous spirit. He literally did die in 2019 but miraculously came back to life. As the title indicates, Graham’s better now. He’s learned his lesson—the existential one—that we’re only on this planet for a short while and that one thing we all have in common is that we all die eventually. “Move over Lazarus,” he croons, “I’ll help you carry your bags.” Coming back to life may not be for everyone and is only temporary.
So even though Graham repeatedly sings the line “You can never go back, never come back” more than ten times on “Astronaut” (credited to his son William Harris Graham), he has. He’s been there and returned. Presumably, he will return to the land of the dead in the future. Graham references many people already there, including similarly cool and literate singer-songwriters who have also written about death, such as Warren Zevon and Lee Hazelwood. Graham belongs in this company of musical weirdos with a poetic bent and dirt in their mouths. And like those versifiers, Graham has a comic and a cosmic sensibility. Life may not be a joke, as Bob Dylan famously wrote, but death is funny.
Graham pens parables about ghosts, monkeys, the country of Sweden, and the person he once was in glib tones. He knows things are both simpler and more complex than they may appear in the present moment. The rasp in his voice gives him the authority of one who has seen and done it all—and maybe he has—but he knows it’s not over for him yet. He’s still “Lost in the Flood” with the rest of us. Everything changes. No one can accurately predict the future except for that one basic fact. We will all be dead one day.
The most potent song on Only Dead For a Little While is Graham’s dark cover of Reverend Gary Davis’ “Death Ain’t Got No Mercy”. The song’s title says it all. The Texan howls the lyrics more than sings them over a martial guitar accompaniment. We are all headed to glory, as the shibboleth says. But as Graham reminds us, we are not dead yet.