“Jon Dee is about music … and that’s all it should be.” That’s what long time friend, former band mate and fellow Austin musician, Alejandro Escovedo, has to say about guitarist, songwriter and somewhat unsung hero, Jon Dee Graham, in this lovingly produced documentary by writer/director Mark Finkelpearl.
Despite being a member of the Austin Music Hall of Fame and being named Musician of the Year during 2006’s SXSW music conference, Graham is relatively—and criminally—unknown outside of central Texas. Raised in Quemado, near the Mexican border, Jon Dee Graham is a native son. In the late ’70s, he was in the punk band The Skunks (which opened for The Clash, among others), and in the ’80s, he formed the True Believers with Escovedo. The True Believers combined the energy of punk and new wave with the singular storytelling style of traditional Texas songwriting. After the Believers, Graham became a sideman and session player for artists like John Doe and Michelle Shocked. He released his first solo record in 1997, when he was nearly 38-years-old.
Graham’s fifth album, 2006’s Full is heavily featured in Swept Away (the film’s title is taken from one of the many stand out tracks on the disc, “Swept Away” about the decision to disappear during a Texas flood), and listening to these songs and the man who wrote them, it seems unbelievable that Jon Dee Graham is not a household name.
Photo (partial) © Eddie Verosky found on Austin Music Photos.com
“I don’t fit the criteria for ‘Rock Star’, even vaguely,” Graham asserts during one of the many candid moments captured by Finkelpearl (this one as he puts air in a flat tire on the way to South Austin Music for a guitar sale). “You can’t throw a rock in this town without hitting someone that plays better than you do,” he says of Austin’s formidable local talent. “I like it that they still let me work here.” He seems at once comfortable with his place in the Austin music scene, yet still acknowledges that a little more recognition would not be unwelcome.
“Life is unsatisfactory. Everybody feels like they haven’t quite got it … If you scratch the surface, there’s someone who feels like they could be doing better somehow…” Graham says, explaining the first noble truth in Buddhism at the start of the film. It has been pointed out to him that all of his songs are about loss. However, he likes to think he also conveys hope. “It’s human nature to feel the loss. It’s human nature to want more and it’s human nature to feel like you’re not there yet,” he explains. “It’s like, yes, I know things are fucked up. I know things are the way they are, you know,” he says, considering each word carefully, “But I still like it.”
His humble attitude in these personal moments is perfectly juxtaposed with examples of his prowess as a performer. For most of the DVD’s live studio and concert footage, Graham is joined by John Chipman on drums, Andrew Duplantis (Son Volt) on bass and Michael Hardwick on guitar. Along with Escovedo, Geoffrey Himes (music journalist) and Katherine Cole (Voice of America radio) make appearances to praise Graham, the man and the musician.
Chipman compares Graham’s power on stage to that of a tiger in a cage, while Escovedo calls him “the white Howlin’ Wolf”. Shows from local haunts The Continental Club and the Saxon Pub, as well as songs played live in the studio at Austin’s Top Hat Recording, show a consummate showman, a masterful guitarist, a peerless songwriter and, above all, a man who loves music. And in Texas, Graham is revered by fans and fellow musicians alike. One intimate and impromptu gig at Ruta Maya Coffee Company captures Graham, alone and acoustically armed. But before he begins, he spots a familiar face in the crowd, and suddenly he’s joined on the small stage by Scrappy Jud Newcomb. Later, another legendary guest, James McMurtry, steps up to sit in with Graham.
These live clips alternate with pieces showing Graham at home with his two sons, which are interspersed with informational asides (he referred to the release of his first solo album as “a questionable career move”), and which, of course, are accompanied by his stunning songs, to form a portrait of the artist who is Jon Dee Graham. Swept Away gives a unique look into the life of the man behind the music, as well as the music within the man.