Several friends told Jon Dee Graham, “Don’t make a death album.” It’s just too hard, they said, to write songs about the subject without being clumsy or depressing or both. His answer? “How can I not?” After all, he’d had three close brushes with death between 2008 and 2022: a car wreck, a stroke and a heart attack. During the last, Graham’s heart stopped beating for at least five minutes.
“These are things people are afraid to talk about,” Graham explains. “That’s part of my gift. I’m not afraid to spell out what’s going on in my head. And frequently, it’s stuff people think they don’t want to hear. But the audience goes, ‘Oh, he’s talking about the thing we’ve been thinking about for months and months, but he’s not dodging it. He experienced it, and he came out the other side.’ Part of my job as a service to these people is to confirm that. As a musician, I want to be useful. With this new record, I’m as useful as I’ve ever been.”
That new album, the first in seven years, is titled Only Dead for a Little While. The lyrics imply that death is such an essential partner to life that we can’t live to our fullest until we acknowledge the endgame. And the music itself is proof of that message. Graham’s signature electric guitar attack and baritone growl are in full force, conjuring up both the existential threat and the undeniable thrill of facing mortality head-on rather than hiding from it.
“I was dead,” Graham insists. “And having died, I found it’s just not that big a deal. It’s nothing to be afraid of; it’s more like a long, deep nap. Everyone’s afraid of death. Most people think, ‘Yeah, death, that’s not me.’ But, come on, every single human being on earth has the same ending. I thought it would be painful and difficult and fearsome, and it was none of those things. It was actually fairly gentle and peaceful. Believe me, I’m super happy that I came back, but the experience relieved some of my deeply ingrained fears about death.”
This is not a peaceful record. Graham does not, in the words of Dylan Thomas, “go gentle into that good night.” The album begins with a garage-rock guitar riff, marching through the jungle like a guerilla army that can’t be stopped. The opener asks: What was the pivot point “Where It All Went Wrong?” When did it all turn south? When did human beings become haunted by death and loss? And Graham answers in the very first line: “When the first monkey fell out of the chattering tree.” In other words, it’s been like this as long as there’s been homo sapiens, and it always will be like this. Don’t kid yourself.
If anything, the album-closing track, “Lost in the Flood,” is even bleaker. This time the riff is sadder, wearier, as Graham catalogues all the things doomed to oblivion: “Medical Plaza and the Fortune Bond, the Money Store and the Payday Pawn, all gone, lost in the flood.” It’s all temporary, everyone and everything we know.
“‘Lost in the Flood’ imagines, ‘What if days and weeks and years were water, just washing us away,’” Graham explains. “All the things we take for granted; it’s all going to be gone, lost in the flood. But that’s OK. Change is the language of the universe. And guess what? You’re also going to be gone; you’re going to be lost in the flood. All of us.”
But between those two bookend songs, the album offers moments of the light and joy life contains, moments we might enjoy more if we make our peace with mortality. There’s a moving love song, a gruff ballad claiming that everywhere the narrator’s been and everything he’s done — his mistakes as much as his triumphs — have “Brought Me Here to You.” There’s a chiming blues number, “Going Back to Sweden,” that describes Stockholm as a kind of heaven on earth, the only heaven he’s likely to find.
“A lot of people ask me, ‘Did you find yourself with a greater appreciation of life?’” Graham says. “I tell them, ‘Well, yes, but I also have a greater appreciation that something awful could happen to me at any time.’ At any moment, someone might run a red light. At any moment, a stroke could happen. It gave me a greater appreciation of life and death both. Every cup of coffee is a miracle, but I also realize it could be my last one.”
The album also has a tribute to the American war correspondent Marie Colvin, who was killed in 2012 covering the war in Syria. Graham recites the verse lyrics (by his wife, Gretchen) but sings the chorus tagline, “I wish I was as brave as her,” in a yearning wistfulness. The slashing, three-minute rocker “Lazarus” pulls together the Biblical title character, Ernest Hemingway, Warren Zevon, the prophet Mohammed and Graham himself as five folks who know a thing or two about the no-man’s zone between life and death.
“If anyone says they know what’s going to happen afterward,” Graham warns, “run away from them, because we just don’t know. I talk about the finality of death, but I also talk about the stuff that happens after death, the stuff we don’t really know about. ‘See You by the Fire’ is a song about that. It literally came from a dream. I woke up and wrote it down. Nobody knows what happens after death, but as a metaphor, isn’t that beautiful?”
In “See You by the Fire,” the narrator is walking through an ice-coated forest toward a light in the distance. That glow turns out to be a campfire surrounded by his dead friends, who are laughing and passing around a guitar. A related song, “There’s a Ghost on the Train,” describes a dead man walking down the aisle of a train, past the sailor and the salesman, the conductor and the brakeman, trying to find the guy who’s steering the train — if anyone.
“We all want to meet the engineer,” Graham claims. “We all want to know who’s driving this fucking train. I’m not an atheist. I study a lot of spiritual stuff, and the best of it is not all that different from atheism. This might be true and that might be true, but no one really knows. I’m probably as up in the air about what happens next as any atheist. One of my feelings coming out of the death experience was ‘That wasn’t much.’ I’m willing to accept there’s nothing after death as much as a fire in the woods.”
As the title character in “There’s a Ghost on the Train” walks past the teens in Yazoo Park and the deacon in the Kingdom Hall before he boards the Pullman Sleeper, inside the train he sees Steve Goodman playing penny-ante poker in a dimly lit car.
“It’s not about how the dead experience death,” Graham clarifies. “It’s about how we experience the dead. It’s like the Jewish prayer: ‘Let his memory be a mitzvah, let the dead’s memory be a blessing to you.’ That’s what a lot of the album is about. I’ve lost so many friends in the last five years, I’m going to have to buy a new black coat. I’m not getting numb to it; I’m at peace with it. I would hope that this record will ease the listeners’ fears about that. It’s gonna happen, and it’s natural. No one’s story has ever ended differently.”
In a weird way, Graham’s “Goldilocks” level of success — not too hot, not too cold, just right — has enabled him to make this album. He’s not rich, but he can support his family without a day job. If he were less well known, there wouldn’t be a label willing to put out a record like this, and very few would ever hear the songs. If he were more famous, he couldn’t jeopardize the cash flow of the multiple-employee business that surrounds every best-selling act.
“I have a pretty clear idea of my place on the musical food chain,” Graham concedes. “People who are bigger fish in the food chain can’t afford to do this, because it will freak people out. My fan base is smaller, but they’re more like friends than fans, and they’ll follow me wherever I go. And after everything that’s happened to me the last five years, this is the record I had to make.”
What happened to him was a heart attack and a stroke. But even before that, he nearly died in a car wreck. Driving home tired and drained after a late show is an occupational hazard for musicians (and music critics, too). It was July 2008, and Graham was returning from a gig in Dallas.
“I was almost home,” Graham recalls, “40 miles from Austin, and my last thought was. ‘I’m getting blinky, I need to pull off.’ The next thing I knew air balloons were going off, and my kneecaps were shattered. Someone was tapping me on the shoulder, and it was a state trooper, Trooper Daniels.
“I said, ‘We need to get my guitar out of the back of my Volvo before someone rams into my car.’ And he said, ‘I think we have more important things to think about than getting your guitar.’ I said, ‘No, we don’t. If you don’t get it, I’m crawling in there to get it myself.” He said, ‘Sit right there and don’t move,’ and went in and got my guitar. Blood was pouring out of my mouth onto my shirt, and I said, ‘It’s not as bad as it looks.’ And he said, ‘Sir, it looks pretty bad.’”
An empty ambulance happened to be driving back from Florence and picked up Graham and took him to Brackenridge Hospital in Austin. The toxicology report showed no alcohol in his system. He spent three weeks in the hospital but was soon back at his every-Wednesday-night gig at the Continental Club. He called his next album It’s Not as Bad as It Looks.
Graham’s strongest fan base outside of Texas is in Illinois, and he often plays FitzGerald’s, a club in Berwyn, just outside Chicago. On July 4, 2018, Graham had finished a two-hour-plus show at the club’s annual American Music Festival. He hadn’t had much to eat or drink, and he was hot and exhausted, so he decided to take a nap in his air-conditioned van.
“The next thing I knew,” he remembers, “I was waking up at Mercy Hospital. My circulation had been impeded for a good seven minutes. They’d had to use the paddles twice to bring me back, and I had three broken ribs. My legs didn’t work. The dying part was kind of gentle, like a sweet, restful nap, not really aware of anything around me. But coming back to life was really, really painful.”
The recovery was longer and more arduous than the car wreck, but he returned to playing live and wrote many of the songs on the new album. Before he could record them, though, the COVID pandemic stopped everything in its tracks. And in 2022, just as the world was opening up again, Graham had a stroke in August.
“I was in the backyard feeding the birds,” Graham says. “The birdfeeders were above my head, and as I was reaching up to unhook them — it was like someone cut the thread of a marionette and I fell in a heap. They released me with a diagnosis of a neurological event of unknown origin — which is every day of my life. My doctor said, ‘Man, you had a stroke.’”
There was no cognitive damage, but Graham’s right side still has numbness. He applies rosin to his right hand so his pick won’t slip out of his fingers. The frustrating part is the way the stroke symptoms dwindle and then resurge. Some days his daily walks are a breeze; some days they’re a struggle.
“What I hope will happen — and I’m going to do every fucking thing I can to make it happen — is that by January I’ll be in shape,” Graham says, “and I’ll work my ass off on the road to play these songs. But you and I are roughly the same age, and we know we won’t know till we’re there.”
The cover of the new album depicts a bear holding a clutch of colored balloons in his left hand and a hatchet in his right. It’s one of the hundreds of bear drawings Graham has done since the ’80s — and more and more frequently as he’s gotten older. He’s published four books of the illustrations so far, and he sells one-of-a-kind originals. It’s been a much-needed income source and creative outlet during the pandemic and his various recoveries.
“I was playing a house concert one night,” Graham says, “and I said, ‘Let’s do a Q&A.’ A guy said, ‘Why bears?’ and someone else said, ‘Come on, look at the guy.’ It’s true — the bears are all self-portraits. He’s kind of Everybear, like Everyman. In a weird way, they’re Rorschach tests; people will project upon the bears whatever they want.
“The very first bear I did after the stroke, maybe four days, was this drawing with a messy red thumbprint across the head, representing the stroke. I wanted that to be the album cover, but they said, ‘No, no, it will freak people out.’”
In some ways, the most powerful song on Graham’s new album is “Death Ain’t Got No Mercy,” originally recorded as “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” by the Rev. Gary Davis in 1960. While Davis, a gospel/blues street singer, did it with just voice and acoustic guitar, Graham does it in a whispery growl over a chunk-a-chunk electric-guitar riff and a rhythm section seemingly straining at the reins. If Davis captured the loneliness of death, Graham evokes its tsunami-like universality.
“I love that song. For the past ten years, I’ve been doing it as one of the rare covers I’ll pull out. I mean, come on, ‘Death ain’t got no mercy’ — that’s Rev. Gary laying the finality on it. It starts on the super general … death ain’t got no mercy in your land … then it gets more specific: in your town, in your home. You look in the mirror and another good man is gone. It doesn’t matter what you think about it; it is what it is. Rev. Gary can’t help but make it spiritual, but what I bring to it is a plain-speaking secular version.”
It’s not as if Graham has just discovered death as a songwriting topic. Look back through his catalogue, and the constant possibility of dying haunts songs such as “October,” “Sleep Enough To Dream,” “Swept Away” and “Beautifully Broken.” But that current in his music has now crested into a taller, more powerful wave.
“I’m not going to lie;” Graham says; “I’d like to have a No. 1 song on Billboard. But that’s not what’s important to me now. I’m doing some of the most important writing I’ve done in a while. What scares Americans more than death? Nothing. That’s always been my thing, to lay it all out there, and the audience is really responding to the new songs. These are some of my best shows ever — musically, emotionally, connecting with the crowd.
“I can sing about these topics,” he adds, “because the music behind these lyrics is urgent, very in your face to the point it makes you listen. The audience goes, ‘This is like a rock song; I can get behind this. Wait, what is he singing about?’ It’s like a stealth delivery system.”
Cover photo by Darin Back (Courtesy Propeller Publicity)