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Jon Dee Graham

Jon Dee Graham travels to St. Louis on heels of strongest solo album

June 01, 2005 - Jon Dee Graham comes to St. Louis next week to open Twangfest, the city's annual roots rock festival, on the strength of his most popular CD yet, "The Great Battle."

"That record has done just in terms of exposure and airplay, that record has done so much better for me," Graham said in a recent telephone interview from his home in Aus-tin, Texas.

Graham can only theorize about why "The Great Battle" has reached a larger audience. But one factor has not been a promotional support from New West Records.

In fact, Graham has been dropped by the label and now is involved in a lawsuit with New West.

"Legally, I am prevented from saying anything," the affable singer-songwriter said. "But let's just put it this way, their newest acquisition is Alice Cooper. So basically they had to let me go to make room for Alice Cooper. That should give you some idea of the general direction the label is moving in."

New West, which up to now has had a roots music roster that includes the likes of John Hiatt, the Drive-By Truck-ers, Old 97s and Buddy and Julie Miller, did not run even one advertisement to help promote "The Great Battle,'' according to Graham.

Still the CD has gained momentum behind a stack of enthusiastic reviews and Graham's own efforts to expose the music.

"I've just been in front of people pretty much nonstop for the last couple of years," he said. "I mean, last year I did almost 200 dates outside of the state of Texas.

As the reviews have indicated, the quality of "The Great Battle" has had plenty to do with the popularity as well.

"The Great Battle" features several potent rockers, such as "I Don't Feel That Way" and "Twilight," that are driven by tough but tuneful guitar riffs and Graham's sandpaper-rough vocals. They mix nicely with a few ballads that are by turns stark — "Robot Moving" and "The Great Battle" — and a couple of fine melodic mid-tempo tunes — "E. 11th Street" and "Something to Look Forward to."

Together the 12 songs make for Graham's strong-est and most well-rounded solo CD yet.

Graham has earned the gradual increase in popularity, having spent some 25 years in the music business.

He gained his first taste of notoriety outside Texas in the late 1980s as a member of the True Be-lievers, a roots-rock band that featured the highly respected Alejandro Escovedo as its frontman and lead songwriter.

The True Believers never made a huge impact outside of the Texas region, but the group in some circles has taken on legendary status.

Like many of the band's fans, Graham feels the True Believers' albums didn't do the group justice.

"Oh, it was a ferocious band live," Graham said. "I still think honestly that it was one of the best rock 'n' roll bands in America, and that has nothing to do with me, and not really anything to do with Al (Escovedo) or who was in it.

"It just, it was one of the chemistry things where that group of guys playing together at that intersection of time and history and everything, that's why it's gotten such a reputation and why people still talk about it. How many years is it now? I still have people coming up talking about True Believers shows they saw in 1988,'' Graham added.

When the True Believers broke up, Graham didn't move right into a solo career. Instead he moved to Los Angeles and recorded and toured with the likes of Michelle Shocked and bassist/singer John Doe from the group X.

"I sort of retreated to the comfort of sideman and did that for the next seven years," Graham said.

It wasn't until after he returned to Austin in 1995 that Graham finally decided to test the waters as a solo act, getting his first solo gig with country-rock singer Kelly Willis.

After releasing his 1997 debut, "Escape From Monster Island," on Freedom Records, he became the second signing to the then-fledgling New West Records.

He since has released three more CDs of gritty rock and heartfelt balladry that frequently has been darkly hued, but always laced with humor.

Gradually, the albums — "Summerland" (1999) and "Hooray for the Moon" (2001) were sandwiched between "Escape From Monster Island" and "The Great Battle" (2004) — earned Graham a reputation of one of rock's most under-appreciated singer-songwriters.

His troubles with New West might seem like an obstacle to Graham gaining a larger following and higher profile.

But Graham himself expressed confidence that the lawsuit will be settled soon and is optimistic about his future prospects.

"If they were going to pick a time to drop me, they couldn't have picked a better time because I'm getting more press now than ever," Graham said. "I'm playing more than I ever have.

"There are several (record label) homes that have made themselves known to me, and there's one in particular that would definitely be a step up," he said.

Jon Dee Graham and his band play June 8 as part of Twangfest Night One at the Schlafly Tap Room, 2100 Locust St. Tickets are available at the door for the 8 p.m. show, which also features Milton Mapes and the Meat Purveyors.

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