Austin troubadour Jon Dee Graham has earned every wrinkle on his worn face. Each crease has its own tale—some grim and some fun, but all real. Over the years, Graham’s fans have been treated to his tales via his music, and he is back with perhaps his most meaningful offering, the album Only Dead for a Little While.
It’s the first album in seven years for Graham, a three-time inductee into the Austin Music Hall of Fame for his accomplishments as a solo artist, a member of the punk band the Skunks, and a member of the pioneering Texas rock group True Believers. He wrote Only Dead for a Little While after suffering a cardiac arrest in his van after a July 4, 2019, set at FitzGerald’s American Music Festival, outside Chicago. Doctors told him he was “dead” for five to seven minutes after that incident, and after they revived him, Graham said he realized something new about himself: “I’ve always thought and pretty much proven that I’m hard to kill, but now that I’ve actually been killed I realize that, ‘Okay, I can be killed, but I don’t stay dead.’ ”
Graham’s heart stoppage would not be the first or last time he skirted death. In 2008, he was hospitalized for almost three weeks after a car accident outside Jarrell, Texas, an event that still makes him sick to his stomach whenever he drives through the area. Then, about eighteen months after his cardiac arrest, Graham suffered a stroke, from which he says he is still recovering.
Yet, Graham said, although the new album is informed by his brushes with death, it’s not fatalistic.“No, not at all,” he said. “You can name any song and there’s a golden thread of hope that runs through them all.” He added that Joe Nick Patoski, the old manager of True Believers and a former staff writer at Texas Monthly, told him that a record focused on near-death experiences might be too gloomy.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Oh man, don’t make a death record,’ ” Graham recalled. “I said, ‘This is not a death record, it’s a life-and-death record.’
“Let’s face it,” Graham said, “in the history of humankind, no one’s story has ever ended differently. So, why are we all afraid of it?”
Only Dead for a Little While has been well received by critics and fans since it dropped in November, and despite its name, the album doesn’t dwell on death. Rather, it’s a collection of songs about real experiences, some grim and some hopeful. The yin and yang of Graham is evident even in the album art, which features one of his trademark drawings of a teddy bear, this one holding a bunch of balloons in one paw and a hatchet in the other. As Graham explained, “That’s my personality right there.”
Graham, who is now 64, said the difference between him and other songwriters is that many of them are fiction writers, while he is focused on the nonfiction of his life. “I think James McMurtry is among the top five American lyricists working today, along with Tom Waits,” he said. “Both of them write about things that never happened to people that never existed. I toured Europe with McMurtry a couple times and told him that I wish I could write like him. He responded by saying he’d like to write like me but that he wouldn’t enjoy bleeding to death every night.”
For Graham, the ups and downs of life are something he wouldn’t trade, even if he could, and he addresses them in the album’s track “Brought Me Here to You.” “It basically says that every single thing that happened, good and bad, brought me here,” Graham explained. “I kind of like my life right now, and no one can say that I was anything less than all in. I feel like I’ve paid my fare by living these things.”
Despite the hardships he often sings about, Graham is not morose. He’s correct when he says his a glimmer of hope runs through his songs. Perhaps this is because he has not only survived some perilous episodes, but also benefited from the trials life has sent his way. In 2005, the Austin music community banded together to host a benefit concert and release a CD to fund his son’s treatment for a rare childhood disease.
“Going Back to Sweden,” another song on the new album, evokes a feeling of gratitude that encapsulates Graham’s feelings about surviving his near-death ordeals and dealing with his current spot in life.
“You know what it is?” he said. “It’s when you drop yourself into somebody else’s culture and they may be more sophisticated and advanced, or they may not be, but when you’re immersed in a different culture and you don’t know the language and you’re performing for people, you realize, ‘Man, I’m lucky. I’m so lucky.’ ”
Late last month, Graham returned to FitzGerald’s for the first time since his heart attack. He went, in part, to gauge his stamina. Though he said he has no intention to play two hundred nights a year, like he did before 2019, he wanted to see how he would recover from traveling to Chicago (and doing a subsequent show in Madison, Wisconsin). Before flying to the Midwest, Graham said that in addition to wondering if he’d have the strength to complete the gigs, he was also curious how his body would react to returning to the site of his cardiac arrest. He wondered if his stomach might turn the way it does when he drives through Jarrell.
“I’m not dreading it; FitzGerald’s is one of my favorite clubs,” Graham said. “It’s my second-favorite club in the world [behind Austin’s Continental Club, where he’s had a Wednesday evening residency for more than two decades]. I just really don’t know what my body is going to do.”
After two successful gigs, Graham, back in Texas, said he was pleased with how things went and that he plans to keep his July date at the American Music Festival this summer at FitzGerald’s. “It was pretty emotional. I cried a little bit onstage, pointing out to the audience that I have terrible allergies,” Graham joked. He also said both gigs lasted about two hours and that he didn’t feel any more beat-up than before he left home.
Graham may have sworn off playing two hundred dates a year, but he said he does anticipate recording another album, noting that he already has two songs written for a future release. He added that he will not make his fans wait another seven years, and that fans should not be worried that the new album has a song named “Lazarus” on it, just like David Bowie’s final studio album did. That record, Blackstar, was released two days before Bowie’s death, in 2016.
“There’s a lot of songs named ‘Lazarus’ or some version of ‘Lazarus,’ ” Graham said. “But remember what I said: ‘Even if I die, I don’t stay dead.’ ”