Austin rallies to help Jon Dee Graham's son save his legs

Willie (l) and Jon Dee Graham
Willie (l) and Jon Dee Graham (Photo By Todd V. Wolfson)

The Great Battle

Jon Dee Graham, one of the premier singer-songwriters in Austin or anywhere else, admits the idea of a benefit, even for his son Willie's rare hip ailment, was hard to swallow at first. Then, he says, "A friend pointed out, 'How many benefits do you think you've played in 25 years? It's your turn to be on the other end.'

"But it's not about me, it's about Willie."

Willie Graham, now 6, was diagnosed last December with Legg-Perthes Syndrome, a mysterious condition that cuts off blood flow to the head of the femur, eventually causing it to disintegrate. Medical opinion on its origin varies wildly, but according to Graham, some doctors think it could be tied to a viral infection: "You know how you can feel the flu in your joints?" Treatment likewise ranges from allowing the bone to regenerate on its own to multiple hip-replacement surgeries.

Willie is still in the very early stages of Legg-Perthes, and has good days and bad. "He'll be running around the yard on Monday, and he'll have a slight limp, but you wouldn't know anything was wrong," says Jon Dee, sitting and smoking at the Saxon Pub before the Resentments' evergreen Sunday-evening gig. "But on Wednesday, he rolled over in bed and yelped like a dog. He said, 'I felt something crack.'"

One of the most difficult things Graham says he and his wife have had to do thus far was take apart the trampoline in their yard, because Willie loves to jump. They've found plenty of other ways to keep him active, including bicycles, horseback riding (which eases the pain by forcing the femur out of its socket), and swimming.

"Willie's like a little stuntman," says his dad. "He's always been almost comically physical. We take him swimming every day because that's the only place he's able to jump. For a 6-year-old, that's a right."

Further complicating the situation, the Grahams' health insurance provider filed for Chapter 11 protection shortly after Willie was diagnosed, evaporating the Health Savings Account they had been paying into for three years. Although the company defaulted before covering even the first round of diagnostics (the Grahams visited six specialists), Willie's Legg-Perthes is now considered a pre-existing condition by other providers, meaning when it comes to paying for its still-undetermined treatment, which could stretch out over several years, the Grahams are basically on their own.

"All that money is gone," Jon Dee sighs. "I might as well have piled it on this table and set fire to it. It confirms every-thing I've thought about insurance companies for years.

"Luckily," he smiles, "we live in Austin."

Graham says the SIMS Foundation and Health Alliance for Austin Musicians have "really stepped up" to help the family navigate the labyrinthine U.S. health care system. Furthermore, word of Willie's condition had barely leaked out before friends like Graham's Resentments bandmate Scrappy Jud Newcomb and Dianne Scott at the Continental Club were burning up the phone lines organizing Friday's benefit.

Make that benefits. The outpouring of support for the Grahams has been so effusive that one club couldn't contain it all. Twenty dollars buys a night at the Saxon Pub, while across town, the Continental Club has several more hours of music on tap for $30 ($25 in advance; donations over and above are obviously welcome).

Graham himself is pulling triple duty, appearing at 6:30pm at the Continental with the Resentments, migrating over to South Lamar for an 8pm Saxon stage time with the Skunks, and back over to South Congress, where he'll sit in with Honky on ZZ Top's "Francine" (en Español, no less) and close out the night trading songs with Alejandro Escovedo and Charlie Sexton. "Rock & Roll," written by Willie, tops their set list.

"It's the best Velvet Underground song never recorded," beams his dad. "Willie's already got three CDs' worth of songs."

The Graham family's health care crisis coincides with a pivotal point in Jon Dee's career. He's already spent most of the year on the road, both solo and touring with Escovedo and John Hiatt, and is finally seeing a return on all those nights in an anonymous Motel 6, where even after years of sobriety, he still wakes up without knowing what city he's in.

"I've finally crossed the line where I actually draw in some places," he says. "I can go to Pittsburgh and there'll be people there. I'm at a point in my career where I can't afford to back off."

Graham is also between record labels, not entirely of his own choosing. His three-album deal with New West ran out, and was not renewed, after last year's The Great Battle. Even though Graham calls it "the best record I ever did," and critics from the Washington Post to this paper agreed, he says the label barely lifted a finger to promote it: "I never saw even one print ad."

"We went above and beyond the call of duty on that record," counters New West's Peter Jespersen. "Everyone here worked their butts off. If he feels we didn't do a good job, maybe it's best this way." Jespersen insists that even though New West chose not to re-sign Graham ("the term was up"), the label harbors no hard feelings.

"I couldn't love Jon Dee more," he says. "He was a hero of mine before I even got to New West."

Though nothing has been signed, Graham says he's very close to a deal with Sovereign Records, a label started by some executives who retired early from WEA, already home to the Crickets, Loudon Wainwright III, and Chris Hillman. He's just put out the acoustic First Bear on the Moon EP on Freedom Records, which also released his first solo LP, 1996's Escape From Monster Island. Bear's "Betrayal" records his opinion of the New West split in no uncertain terms, while he calls new song "The Best" "the flattest, least affected song I've ever written." Dealing with Willie's situation, he figures, has stripped away his notions of "preciousness and artifice," and the songs have come pouring out.

"Oddly enough, I'm probably writing more than I ever have," Graham says. "I just started writing. Maybe it's therapeutic, maybe it's just coincidental."

Both of Friday's benefits will be recorded and released on Freedom in a package Graham, chuckling, calls "a bargain-basement version of Por Vida." (Each performer will do at least one of Graham's songs during their set.) Flatbed Press will donate the proceeds from a fine art auction next month toward Willie's medical bills, while Graham and Escovedo's legendary 1980s band the True Believers will reunite for a September benefit at Antone's. They and guests Los Lobos will each re-create the set lists from their shared 1987 tour. Graham admits the outpouring of support for him and his son has left him "humbled."

"It's almost baffling, the level of response," he says. "It's gone from the level of 'What are we going to do?' to there being some hope."

Friday, June 24


6:30pm: Resentments

7:15: Matt the Electrician & Beaver Nelson

7:45: Walter Tragert

8:15: Troy Campbell

8:45: Kathy McCarty

9:10: Steve Poltz

9:40: Bob Schneider

10pm: Shawn Colvin

10:10: The New Hot Damn (Trish Murphy, Kacy Crowley, Renee Woodward)

10:35: Honky

11:20: Ian MacLagan & the Bump Band

11:55 James McMurtry

12:30: Ray Wylie Hubbard

12:55: Alejandro Escovedo, Charlie Sexton, Jon Dee Graham


8pm: The Skunks

9pm: Sumner & Roky Erickson

10pm: Standing Waves

10:30: Delinquents

11pm: Driver

12mid: Stephen Bruton & Malford Milligan

Photo By John Anderson

In Step

Last weekend's Alvin Patterson Battle of the Bands, sponsored by the Eastside Story Foundation, brought some 9,000 people to Nelson Field to watch high-schoolers from Texas, Louisiana, and Tennessee strut their stuff. The Leadership Louisiana band out of Baton Rouge took first place in both the overall and drumline categories, with the Memphis All-Star Band placing second and Austin All-City Band third. All the bands, including the Dallas-Fort Worth All Star Band (pictured), marched in Saturday's Juneteenth parade, which drew 10,000 onlookers along its route from Disch-Falk Field to Rosewood Park. With the weekend such a success, event coordinator Derrick Norris wasn't wasting any time getting ready for next year. "I'm working on the sponsorship letter right now," he said Monday.

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