Songwriters and Spirit Chasers
Jon Dee Graham and Stephen Bruton riff on their new albums and their resentments
It's not just that they're unlikely bandmates. After all, the Resentments are an unlikely band. But (Turner) Stephen Bruton and Jon Dee Graham are such well-established local singer-songwriters that being in a band together is almost an afterthought. Both graduated from lead guitar to songwriting, both have new releases on New West Records, Graham's Hooray for the Moon and Bruton's Spirit World. Both play at the Saxon Pub, alone and together. So what could be more obvious than sitting them down for a roundtable discussion on their new albums and the vicissitudes of making music?
Nothing, except it was a long rectangular table in the Saxon's pool room where a little arm-wrestling ensued. The border-born Graham and Metroplex-raised Bruton bounced off each like rubber balls with comic-duo timing. They required little guidance and provided a great deal of laughter. On a brisk February day, the Saxon provided the perfect backdrop: warm, friendly, and steeped in both musicians' history.
Turner Stephen Bruton: Who's gonna ask questions first?
Jon Dee Graham: Let me start. I didn't do a lot of research but ... [eyes Bruton cagily], you're some sort of singer?
TSB: [Looks huffy] Performer. I was. But it's no act. Suddenly, it got too real.
JDG: Here's my first real question, a little trick I learned from Andy Langer. Out of the 5,000 CDs that come out each week, why is yours any different?
TSB: Uh ... that's a great question. Remind me to ...
JDG: ... punch you in the nose when it's over?
TSB: Why wait that long? I never liked you anyway.
JDG: See? It's a fucking good question.
TSB: It's like a bee sting on the nose.
JDG: But it's valid, because it is different. You gotta verbalize it.
TSB: Maybe it's no different than the other 5,000. But I think it's a picture in time of where I am. This particular album is different for me in the sense that it's the first time I've done an album that wasn't a two-week wonder. I didn't have any old songs to bring into it, it's all new material. I had a lot more confidence going into this one.
At one point, I did the butt-in-chair, guitar-in-hand, pencil-and-paper in front of you thing, and an amazing thing happens when you Follow the Procedure. I'm sidestepping the first question, by the way.
JDG: Don't think we don't see that.
TSB: When you landed in Austin from South Texas, it was for music. First, the Skunks, then the True Believers. Did you come in as an equal writing member or a sideman?
TSB: When did things shift for you, because they shifted drastically for me when I did my first record, when I got up with Little Whisper & the Rumors and sang my own songs. Did you ever see yourself as a solo artist?
JDG: No, never. It wasn't even anything I was interested in. The songs came first. When I went into the Believers, I did it with the idea that I was the support guitar player. I'd done it before, I'd do it again. Alejandro [Escovedo] heard some of the songs I was working on. I offered them to the band to sing and he said, "No, no, no, you sing them." From that moment it started.
I was writing more and more and then it reached a tipping point where I had enough songs for a couple of albums. When I started doing my own shows, I had my own songs, and once you do that you can't go back.
TSB: I was blessed to be around great songwriters like Kris Kristofferson, Billy Joe Shaver, Willie Nelson, Delbert McClinton, and Bonnie Raitt, but I always had the redheaded stepchild thing. I felt like I could never write as good, sing as good, play as good as them, but I was really glad to be at the party! It took Kris, Glen Clark, Delbert, and Bonnie to get me to sing.
JDG: I'd sing my songs at soundcheck. The deal is, you were writing them anyway. Without thinking, "Okay, my next step is ...," you were writing them anyway. Why? Because you had these songs and they were gonna come out. Then, you get stuck in this embarrassing position where you have this whole bag of songs and they just keep coming and you realize they've gotta go somewhere. They've gotta do something. Otherwise, what's the point? There must be something of value or they wouldn't be forcing their way to the surface.
TSB: When you got your first solo deal, did it come as a shock or was it something you were going for?
JDG: None of it was conscious. It came about by accident. Once I had it and we made the record, there was a forward motion. I never stopped to think about what any of it meant.
I remember sitting with my guitarist Mike Hardwick at the Hit Shack, saying, "You know, if we see this record in a record store, I'll consider it a success."
TSB: Like Steve Martin in The Jerk seeing his name in the phone book.
JDG: I have a question. You've produced all three Alejandro records, three Chris Smither records, Storyville, all this stuff. Obviously, you have strong ideas of how to produce. How was it working with a producer on Spirit World?
TSB: I loved it. I gotta have someone to bounce off of. I have co-producer credit, but Mark Goldenberg did the whole thing.
JDG: You told me you let him do his job.
TSB: Because I don't think a patient can operate on himself. It would be one thing if I had my own studio and could operate it with my own engineer. Not only is Mark Goldenberg a great musician, he has his own studio he can operate. He gets great sound, and he does the most important thing a producer can do: He gets you to do what he's thinking about and makes you think it was your idea. What about [your producer] Don Smith?
JDG: What he did that was so good was, like Goldenberg, he listened to all my ideas, but if he had something else, he'd go, "You know, you're right. That's the way to approach it. I got this other idea I want to try. Let's do it as a quick thing and if it doesn't work we'll go to your idea." And 100% of the time he was right. He's like the photographer with the best equipment ...
TSB: ... who captures it with a Polaroid.
JDG: Just like that. It was the truest and best we'd ever sounded. I don't know how he did it.
TSB: If I can toot my horn here, on a lot of the records I produced, we captured the lightning in a bottle. You definitely caught it on Hooray for the Moon, because it sounds like the band's crawling through the speakers trying to get out.
JDG: Know what? Most of it was cut live. There are a couple of guitar overdubs and vocals are mostly overdubbed, but the tracks are almost all live. Everyone sitting in a big room looking at each other like, wow ...
TSB: Is this the first time in your life you've been able to hear outside opinions and realize they're valid? I know for a fact you were dragged kicking and screaming into this, but once you were there, you started thinking it was a good thing.
JDG: Absolutely. With all the records I've played on and my experience, and my Austin chauvinism, I felt like there's not a damn thing to be done in the studio that I can't do or I can't figure out. Then I got there and it was like, "I'm just full of shit! There's all kinds of stuff you don't know how to do! This guy mixed the Rolling Stones, for chrissakes!"
TSB: So how did the tour go?
JDG: I have modest expectations so I don't get crushed. I thought, Okay, I'm gonna go out there and plug it, and even if there's just 10 people, I'm gonna make those 10 people love it so much that next time they'll bring 10 people. I had only one empty club.
TSB: Band outnumber the audience?
JDG: No, there were twice as many in the audience as onstage. We played to eight people. Kansas City, Minneapolis, packed. Chicago, it wasn't packed, but close. I was stunned.
TSB: No gig too small. No fee too large.
JDG: No small shows, only small audiences. There's a great story about Joe DiMaggio playing an end-of-season exhibition game. He'd hurt his leg, but was running the bases full out. One of his teammates said, "Joe, this is an exhibition game. Why are you knocking yourself out?"
DiMaggio said, "Because there might be somebody here who's never seen me play." So don't be a pussy about it. If there's 10 people there, you get them to go, "That was one of the best shows I ever saw in my life."
TSB: When I was out with Kristofferson, if it was a movie star audience or just not particularly a good crowd, we'd just turn to each other and say, "The party's onstage."
As long as I've been doing this, I still can't get over playing music for a living. My dad was a great jazz drummer in Fort Worth. Operated a record store and had a cool thing where he'd play at night. If I wasn't on the road, if I didn't have a record out, I'd have a day job and be playing music every night. It's what I'd do, with or without a CD.
Austin Chronicle: Ever face a hostile audience?
TSB: Absolutely. With the Resentments, you just stop the song and call 'em on their shit right then and there.
JDG: [guffaws] It's the Way of the Resentments, all in capital letters.
TSB: Direct confrontation is bound to have great results, because if somebody says something, they'll have five guys on their ass.
JDG: You don't wanna fuck with this band.
TSB: You face people who wait until the song begins to start their conversation, then when they're finished, they just look at you like, "Well, aren't you going to play?" And it happens in places you wouldn't think. I'm hearing the conversation louder than the lyrics or my monitor.
JDG: Spirit World is very textured. Make no mistake, it's chock-full of guitar, but there's a lot going on sonically. Was that a choice?
TSB: It's like this: The last album was like cinema vérité. We went after that Miles Davis go-in-and-nail-it. With this one, the record company said, "You gotta play more guitar on this." I've never minded production as long as it doesn't interfere with the music. Even some of the records I've produced have pretty dense production, but as long as it is transparent ...
JDG: ... it serves the song.
TSB: That's the main thing. Everything must serve the song in production.
JDG: My last question. I heard a rumor you auditioned for the Monkees. Is that true?
TSB: But I was asked to join Up With People!
JDG: And didn't you have a shot at being a Banana Split?
TSB: No, but David Crosby was in the New Christy Minstrels.
JDG: How wrong things can go!
AC: He doesn't talk about that much.
TSB: Neither do the New Christy Minstrels. Where's your music in terms of where it started?
JDG: That's the thing, it's just a big old ball. I never saw the Skunks as being a punk rock band. We were just louder, harder, and faster than a lot of other bands. We just played the punk scene and what we took out of it was commitment, passion, and the belief in what we were doing.
I aspire to that still. And I think that informs a lot of what I do. Not that it's all Les Pauls through the Marshalls turned to 12, but I like to think that immediacy and fire comes out on Hooray for the Moon.
TSB: Yeah. If you stick around long enough, you find that we all went to different schools together. In the folk scene, it wasn't the Kingston Trio that got you, it was Mississippi John Hurt. Once you get past whatever brought you in, you get to the heart. Listening to the extremes of Dock Boggs and Howlin' Wolf, you learned that those guys know how to play their instruments.
That's where I went in thinking, "I'll learn to play better than anyone," but I was also 14 and wanting to rock like crazy. In Fort Worth, it was tough to say, "I'm gonna grow my hair real long and act like I'm English," because I was calf-roping on the weekends!
JDG: And you can't calf-rope wearing poet sleeves! But see, this goes back to what Margaret said at the beginning. We come from such wildly different backgrounds, yet here we are playing in the same band, on the same label, first guitarists then songwriters, records out at the same time, and from so many different places musically. That's the whole thing right there. Strip it away, boil it down, and it's all about a good song and the passion to play it and the ability to deliver when we play.
Everything else is just condiment. Genre, the business about roots, history, all that's topping on what's really essential and basic and necessary. The good song, played well, with a certain amount of belief. That's what we share.