Hill Country Live Presents:

Music Calendar

Jon Dee Graham

Also Featuring: Bonnie Whitmore Monday 04/03
Doors: 7:00PM Show: 8:00PM
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This show will be a general admission, non-seated show. Dinner reservations are not available for show time and can only be made in our main dining room upstairs.

Jon Dee Graham

Jon Dee Graham

“Jon Dee Graham is the Titan of American songwriters.” – Jason Isbell

In Greek mythology, the Titans were the earliest gods, descendants of Gaia, the earth, and Uranus, the sky. The Titans ruled during the Golden Age of humanity, which was not named for its riches but for its people, who were good and noble.

Golden, as it were.

We’re not sure Jason Isbell was thinking about a specific race of Greek gods when he called Jon Dee Graham the Titan of American songwriters, but the comparison is apt. More deeply than perhaps any other songwriter working today, Graham works his way through the cracks and fissures of life to find the goodness and nobility of regular people — the gold inside them.

“There’s not one lyric that I’ve recorded anywhere that I cringe when I hear it now,” Jon Dee says. “Not one. Some are better than others, but there’s not one that I’m embarrassed about.”
You say you’re an orphan,
I’m an orphan, too.
You say you’re on your own,
Well, I’m on my own, too.
If you need some help,
Some help to see you through,
Then stand next to me,
And I’ll stand next to you.
It could be all right.
It can be all right.
I will be your brother for tonight.
Lyrics like those, from “The Orphan Song” on Graham’s latest LP, “Garage Sale,” are the sort that have long earned him the praise of critics and his fellow songwriters and the undying devotion of fans all over America. They demonstrate Graham’s ability to express empathy for his fellow humans with an incredible economy of words.

John Fullbright, the brilliant young Oklahoma songwriter whose debut studio recording, “From the Ground Up,” was nominated for a Grammy, says this about Graham: “Jon Dee Graham is the silver lining, reluctant as he may be about it. He’s humor in heartbreak and tears at a wedding. He’ll break the fifth (and sixth) wall and pull you with him to a world of darkest nights and brightest days. In two words: sucker punch.”

Graham’s ability to land his punches comes not only from his prowess as a lyricist, but also from his inventiveness as a guitarist. Graham has been making mighty noises issue from his guitar since he joined, in 1979 at age 20, the pioneering Austin punk band the Skunks. The next two decades led Graham through stints with the True Believers and in the touring bands of X founder John Doe and Austin songwriter Kelly Willis. Graham also lent his guitar chops to records by the Silos, the Gourds, his former True Believers bandmate Alejandro Escovedo and the masterful Texas songwriter James McMurtry.

But it wasn’t until 1997, with the release of his first solo album, “Escape From Monster Island,” that Graham showed himself to be that rarest of musical combinations: an ace guitar player and master songwriter in the same body.

After eight solo albums, Graham’s career has turned into a social media-driven and uniquely inspiring collaboration between him and his fans. Last year, Graham did more than 160 nights on the road with his fellow Austin songwriter Mike June — most of them in the homes of his fans.

“I’d just get on Facebook and go, ‘Hey if there is anybody in this area of Illinois, would you like to have us come play at your house?’ Without fail, three or four people would write and go, ‘Yeah, what do we have to do?’” Graham says. “We go to people’s houses whom we’ve never met, and they take us into their homes. We play for their friends. You never know who you’re going to be playing for. Most of them don’t know who you are. Sometimes everybody knows who you are, but more frequently, nobody knows who you are. It’s almost like this missionary thing. We spent the last year literally going door to door in America playing for people.”

And Graham’s next release will be a “fan-sourced bootleg” that assembles live performances, most of them from independent tapers across the world who have recorded his shows from 1992 to now. “We canvassed Jon Dee’s followers on Facebook and asked them what songs they’d like to hear on a downloadable live album, then asked them to vote on their favorites,” says Mike Fickel, the project’s curator.

The result is likely to be a two-volume effort, with 20 songs each. “Jon Dee wanted to lean toward the most impassioned performances, more so than something that might have impeccable recording quality, so there are a couple we chose that might have some sonic quirks,” Fickel says. “There’s no doubt about the fire in the performances, though, and we’re sure that the fans will be excited by the result.”

As the fan-sourcing project nears release, the three-time inductee into the Austin Music Hall of Fame continues holding down his remarkable 17-year Wednesday night residency at Austin’s Continental Club, a gig he typically shares with McMurtry. The two writers are more-or-less lovable curmudgeons who seem ideally suited to share that legendary stage. “I used to think I was a misanthrope,” McMurtry says. “Then I met Jon Dee Graham.”

Misanthropes, of course, see cracks in everything, but as another great songwriter, Leonard Cohen, once wrote, “that’s how the light gets in.” That Graham can so masterfully shine that light on the veins of gold that run through our everyday lives makes him, in his fans’ estimation, a national treasure.

Also Featuring:

Bonnie Whitmore

Bonnie Whitmore may have a heart of gold, an outsize personality and a roof-raising laugh, but don't be fooled: her debut album has a body count. No fewer than two men die by Bonnie's own hand over the course of the record: one of them is burned alive, one the victim of a knife that, in Whitmore's own words, "just slipped." Take a look at that album cover and consider what secrets she's trying to get you to keep quiet. And then think twice before you spill 'em.

It's all part of a grand plan – one methodically designed by Whitmore – from album cover, to album content. The songs concern themselves with the slow disintegration of a relationship, and the album's title – Embers to Ashes – is meant to represent that story's painful arc – from the first fires of young passion to the scorched ruin of heartbreak. As a killer, Whitmore's the last you'd suspect: Embers to Ashes is full of sly, spry country music, whiskey-soaked songs that recall prime Loretta Lynn and early Neko Case and, in their more uptempo moments, Miranda Lambert at her rowdiest. But be warned: those revelers carry daggers, and there's a bit of arsenic in that glass of cherry wine. As Whitmore herself puts it, "Nothing says 'go to hell' better than an uptempo, catchy song!"

Whitmore learned her way around country music early, touring at the ripe old age of 8 with her parents and her sister in a traveling roadshow cheekily titled "Daddy & the Divas." "Basically, my dad had children so he could have a band," she jokes. "He really wanted a bass player, so I learned how to play bass. My sister played the violin."

Whitmore's father has a pilot's license – an accomplishment Whitmore herself would later achieve – so he'd fly the family to their gigs at remote Texas bars and overcrowded fall festivals. And though they were a family act, Bonnie often stole the show: "As a little girl with a big voice singing 'Gold Dust Woman,' a lot of times I'd get the biggest applause."

As much as she loved playing with her family, the older she got, the more she wanted to strike out on her own. "I started to realize that I loved playing music," she says. "So when I was 16 I started writing my own songs." As her teen years progressed, Whitmore began working as a session player with other local musicians, while still continuing to perform with her family from time to time. For her first proper statement as a solo artist, she wanted to do something conceptual – something that told a story from beginning to end.

"I wanted to set up the album so it's: 'Boy meets girl, they breakup, but then there's the kind of postscript. At the end of the album, you have to deal with the lingering memory of that lost love."

Whitmore realized that vision to a striking degree. The title track is the kind of rough-and-tumble country song that would do Kathleen Edwards proud, but its rollicking rhythms conceal a sinister message: "Well, the preacher said until death do us part/ so you're gonna have to pay for this broken heart." "Tin Man" barrels forward like vintage Liz Phair, Whitmore using the classic Wizard of Oz character to pillory a heartless ex. Its lyric is built on a sly double-entendre: "Replaced by a girl named Mary who shares my middle name" (Whitmore's middle name is "Jane"). "She Walks" is a sparkling, mid-tempo number with all the ache of Lucinda Williams or Gillian Welch, while "Cotton Sheets" plays out like a bright update of Mary Chapin Carpenter's "Passionate Kisses," Whitmore cannily using its central metaphor to stand in for the tension between upper and lower class.

She's just as adept on the record's softer numbers. "You Gonna Miss Me" is a slow ramble Whitmore wrote around the time she was moving from Texas for a brief stay in Tennessee. "I was really concerned about how leaving was going to be, and I think I was hopeful that I was going to be missed," she explains. "Sometimes, if I'm really emotionally involved when I'm playing a show, this song can get me to the point where I'm almost in tears."

The album was cut in a marathon two-day session in the studio, guided by the sure hand of producer Chris Masterson. "Chris produced my sister's record, Airplanes" Whitmore explains, "and it's unbelievable the things that he pulled together when we worked together. He had such great vision -– he could hear sounds that weren't there yet. I went into the studio with the intention of doing an EP, and he pushed me to do a full album."

The gambit paid off – Embers to Ashes is full of ragged, rugged, instantly memorable country songs, a document of a relationship where passion burns hot, bright and quickly, and danger looms like a thunderstorm in the distance.

"I'm so grateful I have songwriting as an outlet, because it lets me relieve some of my darker emotions," Whitmore explains. "Instead of going and maybe being a bit destructive, I just write songs instead. I know sometimes I write angsty songs, but that's how I get the angst out." Then she pauses and adds, with a wry smile, "Kinda makes you wonder about the people who write all those happy songs!"