Have you ever wondered where all those slick sayings come from? The source of the axioms is usually rooted in experience. Take “fits like a glove” for instance. Somewhere along the line, some enterprising first century Englishman discovered that by working closely with others to establish international institutions and a set of norms to govern civilized behavior in an era of escalating weapons and an increasingly interdependent world, he could accomplish the impossible – or something like that.
The adage has been around for thousands of years. But if experience is the root of all dictums, the magical musical husband and wife team of Alyssa and Doug Graham – The Grahams – could have come up with the maxim to describe the subtle but flawless shift in their music on the remarkable album, “Riverman’s Daughter.”
The stellar effort combines soulful bluegrass with hints of earthy Americana, adding colors from traditional folk and country blues, into an infectious blend of storytelling that results in songs of love, loss, yearning, and the view from rural American roads less traveled. And we do mean roads less traveled.
The talented duo put their city lives on hold and, armed with just guitars and backpacks, traveled the 2,500 miles of highways and byways of the Mississippi River from Minnesota to Louisiana – playing the part of a modern day Huck and Tom.
The singer-songwriters followed the Great River Road that parallels the waterway, met the unassuming folks, and heard first-hand where European folk music – brought to these shores generations ago – took root alongside rhythms and chants from Africa, forming the diverse backbone of our 20th Century American musical heritage.
The album is a winning culmination of The Grahams’ journey into the heart of America, the inspiration they derived from immersion into classic American music, and the natural and honest talent they have for bringing forth a modern musical idiom steeped in tradition.
Alyssa was kind enough to chat with me as The Grahams toured the U.S., playing wonderfully intimate venues. The joy of two insightful artists touring the country playing cozy settings wasn’t lost on Graham.
“We love it. We had a great night last night. We played the Record Exchange, a record store in Boise and then we played a show last night in Boise that was broadcast on the radio, the whole show. So we’re psyched.”
“Yesterday after the gig, some guy probably in his early sixties came up to me and said, ‘You know, I grew up listening to Gram (Parsons) and Emmy (lou Harris) and you guys are the next best thing.’ And I was like, ‘Oh my God that makes it all worth it (laughing).’ That was the biggest compliment I've gotten in weeks.”
It’s easy to look at the tour as an extension of their long journey along the Mississippi. And for that reason alone, it was only appropriate that the twosome offered their affecting melodies unplugged, without a backing band.
“There are several factors that go into that. One is, obviously, it’s costly to bring a full band with you. But you know the journey that Doug and I did, The Great River Road, the Mississippi, the houseboat. It was sort of this personal exploration.”
“So yes, we recorded with the band in Nashville and yes, the album sounds great and we love the players on it. We had a great time sharing the music with them. But you’re right, this is sort of an extension of that journey.”
“Could we have brought a band? Yes, but I don’t think that we would’ve been as connected to the music. I don’t think we could tell the stories as clearly to the audiences if it was a full band. And that’s really what was important on this.”
“Last night we had friends that drove in from Jackson Hole, about five hours from Boise. They love the record and I said, ‘I don’t want you to be disappointed because there’s not a full band.’ And they’re like, ‘Oh no, we’re sure we’re gonna love it.’”
“They said afterwards, ‘You know, the album is great. But the magic and chemistry you and Doug have on stage and the way we can hear the lyrics and listen to you guys talk about the stories and tell the stories and then hear the lyrics to the stories and see the two of you interact, I mean that’s priceless.’”
The collaboration is priceless to be sure, particularly when the artists’ music would lose some of its precious intimacy by bringing in instrumental support. “I'm definitely torn because management and some people are saying for certain shows or special events we should have a full band. And I agree it would be great to have people sit in on a few songs.”
“Some of the musicians who played on the record who live in Nashville – certainly for our Nashville performances we’ll probably have them sit in. And in New York, we might invite some old, old friends. Malcolm (Burn), the producer, played a lot on the record and he lives in New York, so we might have him sit in on a few songs.”
“But the best way for people to be introduced to these songs live is stripped down to the nitty gritty and just hear the stories. There’s a place for all of it, but the best way to really get in touch with what we’re trying to tell in these stories is to hear it as stripped down as possible.”
Listening to The Grahams perform, it’s easy to pick up on the passion behind the songs – especially when Graham often thinks of a song’s earthly genesis as she plays.
“It’s funny you ask that because I often have my eyes closed on stage and I have to remind myself to open my eyes and connect with the audience a little bit more. But when I'm closing my eyes, I'm thinking of one of two things; I'm either thinking I'm sitting on the house boat, on the swing in the swamp writing these songs with Doug and how it felt when we were writing them, or I'm actually envisioning the characters in the story and what they’re going through.”
“A song like ‘Heaven Forbid’ where I'm talking about the loss of this young boy who was never found and who drowns, I'm really envisioning who this character is that we dreamed up and what he’s feeling and what the people who love him are feeling for the loss.”
“It helps me to be true to the song and to bring it to the audience the way it was meant to be. Because if I'm not thinking about it and remembering what the point of the story is then I might as well think about my laundry and that wouldn’t be a good connection (laughing).”
The Grahams even fussed over that connection during the recording process, recording live to tape. “The reason we did it to tape was not just to be hipsters and to be super cool – which it is, by the way (laughing). The reason we did it to tape was because the musical and artistic inspiration – our heroes – really, really inspired us to write this kind of traditional folk music.”
“This is how they were recorded and we wanted to complete the journey. We wanted to harken back to the days of old, where people wrote stories that they wanted to get across that were all about the lyrics and all about the story telling and the characters. Then they would sit down and record them live to tape.”
“It didn’t give you the opportunity to perfect it into some magical, clean, slick production. That was what was so special about artists like that – the Carter Family, the Louvin Brothers, Mississippi John Hurt.”
“You and I talked about the imperfections and that’s one thing. But the actual quality that you hear in these recordings is like you’re sitting right next to them and that comes from analog. That comes from the stories they told and the simplicity of it, but it also comes from the style in which they recorded it.”
“That was what we were feeling the whole time we were taking this journey. So when we went into the studio, we didn’t want to stray from that and come into this modern age. We wanted to really respect that and honor that tradition.”
Some of Graham’s biggest fans might view the new album as a departure for her. But it actually represents moving forwards by moving backwards. “For Doug and I there is no question, this is the kind of music we grew up with. Doug and I fell in love over this kind of music. For me, ‘Lock, Stock and Soul’ was sort of the bridge. ‘Lock, Stock and Soul’ was the bridge between my experience in music school studying jazz.”
“When I got out of music school we made the record ‘Echo.’ That was singer-songwriter songs that were worked over with great jazz musicians and turned into a jazz record. ‘Lock, Stock and Soul’ was a bridge to somewhere. It was not a jazz record and not a folk record. It was somewhere in between.”
“It bridged the gap between our enthusiasm for learning and studying jazz and our coming home to the music we grew up with, which is certainly ‘Riverman’s Daughter.’ There’s no question people listening to this record will hear influences from The Band and Neil Young and Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris.”
“When you look at the grand collection of vinyl that we both grew up with since we were young kids, those are the records we have and those are the records we grew up on. So this was certainly the roots and home that we’ve been jonesing to come back to. ‘Lock, Stock and Soul’ was the bridge between ‘Echo’ and ‘Riverman’s Daughter.’”
As Graham explained, there are similarities between the albums if one just takes the time to really listen. “Honestly, it’s been amazing, the incredible positive feedback we’ve gotten on this record so far. ‘Lock, Stock and Soul,’ I absolutely got that. Fans of ‘Echo’ were very confused by this right turn we took.”
“The truth to me is ‘Lock, Stock and Soul’ isn’t that far away from ‘Echo’ because ‘Echo’ is a bunch of singer-songwriter songs that we just put a jazz band on. ‘Lock, Stock and Soul’ was singer-songwriter songs that we didn’t put a jazz band on.”
“Several people commented Facebook or iTunes saying, ‘I was so excited for Alyssa Graham’s next record and this isn’t what I expected.” With this record, it’s a much different market for one thing and I'm not even sure if people connect the Grahams with Alyssa Graham – and we’re fine with that by the way.”
“This is just its own thing and it’s really a debut record. We’ve teamed up as The Grahams. And the enthusiasm we had for shiny new things – jazz which was sort of new and exciting and challenging to us. We shed that and came home to a place that’s really comfortable for Doug and I. That’s why we joined forces and became The Grahams.”
As much as the new album represents a logical progression for Graham, she confessed that being “off the grid” also made for a different songwriting experience. “It was. First of all, we wrote ‘Riverman’s Daughter’ in New York City and that was the first song we wrote. The song itself was the first song written. We wrote it in New York because it had been quite a while since ‘Lock, Stock and Soul’ and we started writing again. That song just came out.”
“I had just read Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn again. So we wrote this song then Doug started singing to me, which he hadn’t done in years. It was just this eye-opening experience where we said, ‘You know what? The stuff we used to play sitting around our basement when we were growing up, when we were young, young kids together, that’s what comes so naturally.’ That’s why that song came out so quickly and easily. And then we decided to take this journey.”
“Once we broke through that barrier of freeing ourselves from needing to be jazz musicians and just went back to our roots of singing and playing guitar together, everything else came very naturally.”
“Of course, being on the road and meeting all these incredible people and characters and musicians and then being down on a house boat, there’s so much around you and so many stories that you write down on a piece of paper, but since we’re musicians, it comes out in song.”
“So really that’s what they are. They’re just stories of our journey that we took. By the time we got on a house boat, there’s no TV, you can’t walk off the house boat into the swamp. You have nothing to do but smoke a lot and write a lot of songs (laughing). So that’s what Doug and I decided to do and it falls in very, very naturally. All the stories were written for us. It’s a journey.”
More than just the birth of a brilliant record, the unpretentious trek made both of them better songwriters. “I'm a much better songwriter than I used to be. I learned something on this project which was the reason to try to write a song and there’s certainly no reason to not try to write a perfect song.”
“For Doug and I, what we learned was telling the stories that are part of the experience we live in a much more natural and stream of conscious. We didn’t need to sit down and write a song. These stories just wrote themselves and we were sort of the vehicle for which they could come out on paper.”
“And we worked with our best friend who we also grew up with, Brian McCann, and he came down to the house boat as well and wrote songs with us on ‘Echo’ and on ‘Lock, Stock and Soul.’ He came down to the house boat for a time and the three of us just sat around together and told each other stories. Then they manifested into these musical pieces that are now songs.”
“I'm really grateful for this journey. I feel like a much better songwriter. I feel like I have a long way to go and I'm excited about that. But I really feel grateful for the time we had to sit down and tell these stories.”
The discerning stories of “Riverman’s Daughter” could easily be seen as The Grahams’ masterwork – which presents a unique challenge for the gifted artists.
“Every artist has fears that they will not be able to write another record or match the intensity and experience of the prior, particularly if it's a great success commercially or personally. When we first met Malcolm Burn, who is a Grammy winner and creative force, I asked him point blank why he was so interested in working with The Grahams. I wanted to make sure he was in it for the right reasons.”
“His accolades were impressive, but not what interested us. We were looking for someone to ‘get in the boat’ with us. His answer was flattering and terrifying. He said something like, ‘I've been following your musical history and the songs you are now writing and I think you are at that place where you are ready to make a great record that will stand the test of time. A record that you will look back on and say that was the moment.’”
“’This is when I like to step in as I think you’re ready to make your pinnacle record.’ That was exciting but it also terrified us. After working with Malcolm on our debut record as The Grahams we quickly realized that the record would be one we would always be proud of and one that would stand the test of time and in fact one that would begin our career as The Grahams, which was always meant to be.”
“But we also realized that the experience made us grow as artists and the future was even brighter. ‘Riverman's Daughter’ is a concept album and the journey we took to get here is unique and the music will live forever.”
“But it’s the magic between Doug and I that was really harnessed on the project and that is something that will always continue to grow as it has since we were children. ‘Riverman's Daughter’ has only unleashed that potential but the magic between us will only get better with age and that's exciting.”
Never was a truer statement spoken…exciting for The Grahams but more so for fans of exceptional music.