Artist: The Grahams
Album: Glory Bound / Rattle The Hocks
Label: Giant The Dog Music
Release Date: 05/18/2015
Rather unexpectedly, a fairly simple concept resulted in three major projects. Following their 2013 debut, Riverman’s Daughter, husband and wife team, Alyssa and Doug Graham, decided to ride the rails to form the theme for their next album as folk duo The Grahams. Along the way, they planned to visit seven to ten producers in their journey throughout the summer of 2014; a trip that fortuitously ended in Memphis. There they reunited with Cody Dickinson, who played on their debut. Cody liked the concept of fusing roots music with railroad history and as Alyssa explained, “Cody’s idea was to do a film. He had some success with Take Me to the River and wanted to do something in the vein of field recordings (like Alan Lomax, Doug added) in a guerrilla style where we ended up recording in Mississippi, Tennessee, and Louisiana. We had no idea we’d be recording in Sun Studios, Royal Studios, and even on that iconic train line, The City of New Orleans. The short documentary, titled Rattle the Hocks, will be released at the same time as the album(s) and will really give you a good idea of who we are.”
Alyssa went on to explain that while the live recording, Rattle the Hocks, preceded the studio album, Glory Bound, they had met with that album’s eventual producer, Wes Sharon, earlier that summer in Sharon’s studio in Norman, OK. Alyssa and Doug sad, “Wes has this really basic studio in a strip mall, not something you’d be immediately attracted to, but Wes is an encyclopedia of music and especially of sounds. Little did we know he’d round up such great players as John Fullbright and the Turnpike Troubadours but we knew all along that he was the one to produce the studio record. He has no interest in live recordings so it worked out really well.”
While their debut was a very good recording, one that also featured such roots luminaries as Cody and Luther Dickinson, Colin Linden, Bryan Owings, Phil Madeira, and producer Malcom Burn, these two albums (which feature many of the same songs with different musicians backing them and have equally impressive casts) have a captivating energy that takes The Grahams to a higher level. When I complimented Alyssa on the incredible enthusiasm in her vocals, she responded this way: “My parents were hippies. They had a whole room of vinyl so I listened to lots of stuff. I used to let it all hang out, kind of like Janis Joplin. Then I went to music school and later tried to forget everything I learned.” Guitarist and harmonizer, Doug, added, “In music school she learned how to sing softly. Now she has it all.”
The Grahams have known each other since childhood when Alyssa was seven and Doug was nine; Alyssa’s brother and Doug played together in high school bands. Asked if they always knew they’d be making music together, Doug responded, “At her sweet 16 party Alyssa surprised us by not only singing but playing the guitar too. She has somehow kept that a secret but from that moment on, the future was clear.” The couple hails from the New York suburbs but relocated to Nashville to record their first album. Given their travels across these projects, they haven’t seen much of Nashville recently.
You’ll notice the name, Bryan McCann, in the song credits. The couple explained that Bryan is a lifelong friend, who, interestingly enough, is not in the music business but is a college professor. Commenting on the songwriting process, Alyssa and Doug explained, “It’s the only time we ever argue. Seriously, though, in terms of the process Alyssa will often get a melody and some chorus lines, we’ll send it to Bryan and he’ll fill in the lyrics. Then it goes back and forth until we’re all happy with it.”
“After we recorded Riverman’s Daughter, we were listening to a lot of Woody Guthrie,” Alyssa stated, “The song “Farmer Labor Train” kept sticking in our minds, so we wanted to write a song about trains. We wrote “Glory Bound”, then decided that we really wanted to ride the trains in honor of Guthrie, Lead Belly and other old folk legends who used the train system to bring voices together. We had to go to Oklahoma, obviously, because Woody was our mentor”. Doug said, “We say in the film, and it’s really true we’re not trying to re-create anything, we’re trying to let the echoes ring in our ears”.
Not to recount every track, but to offer a brief commentary on a few of them, here’s what I heard from Alyssa and Doug. “Gambling Girl” is their version of Dehlia coming back. “Blow Wind Blow” is about memory and history but with a haunting quality. “Kansas City” is inspired by an awesome train stop, Folk Alliance, and lots of cool places to gig. “Mama” is for Doug’s mom and was one of the first songs written, of which the live version on Rattle and Hocks is especially touching, featuring just Alyssa and Doug recording in Sun Studios. “Borderland” is about the dichotomy of the virtually crime-free El Paso versus the dangerous Juarez, across the river in Mexico. I don’t want to spoil your discoveries. Dig into their catchy, honest songs yourself to feel the vibrant energy.
You’ll also notice that while Sharon brought together some stellar musicians for the studio effort, Cody Dickinson enlisted some of the best Memphis musicians for the live album and film. His brother Luther, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Duwayne Burnside, Sharde Thomas, The Norman Sisters, and Lester Snell, among others, provide support as well. Doug says, “As a guitarist I can’t believe how blessed I am to be playing with these people. I’m learning all the time”. Alyssa adds, “We play music and we love playing music and we love meeting people who want to play music”. That love comes through resoundingly in these recordings. All three projects were released on May 19th.
Catch The Grahams on tour this June along with a film screening of Rattles and Hocks here:
June 6 -Bump ‘n Grind (special screening & performance) – Silver Spring, MD
June 13 -The Soho House (special screening & performance) – New York, NY
June 13 – Rockwood Music Hall 2 – New York, NY
June 25 – AEC Convention – Hollywood, FL
June 30 – Club Cafe (special screening & performance) – Pittsburgh, PA