Alyssa and Doug Graham have spent nearly their entire lives exploring music together. Friends since she was 7 and he was 9, they became a couple in their teens, then husband and wife. Somewhere along the way, they also became The Grahams, a dynamic Americana duo who've married their love of adventure with a desire to build on foundations laid by their musical predecessors.
Their first song-crafting expedition, along the Mississippi's Great River Road, became their 2013 debut, Riverman's Daughter. For its follow-up, they rode the rails - and wound up recording not only a studio album, but a documentary and live album on the move and in venues from Sun Studio to Amtrak's famed City of New Orleans train.
Their new long-player, the explosive and aptly named Glory Bound, was helmed by Grammy nominated producer Wes Sharon (John Fullbright, Parker Millsap) at his 115 Recording studio in Norman, Okla., and will be released on May 19. Recording in Oklahoma holds special significance for a couple raised as Dylan-loving New York City suburban kids who spent weekends strumming campfire songs in the Adirondacks. Like many Dylan fans, they traced their way back to his greatest inspiration.
Simultaneously, the band will be releasing Rattle the Hocks, a musical documentary focusing on the live recording, and the relationship between the railroad and American roots music. Both film and album (which will be released digitally on May 19) were directed and produced by Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars. The Grahams debuted the film at this winter's Folk Alliance International conference in Kansas City.
"After we recorded Riverman's Daughter, we were listening to a lot of Woody Guthrie," Alyssa explains. "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 or guide"
Adds Doug, "The river was the original way that people got around and moved through the country. And moved music around the country. The rivers are the veins. And now, here we are on trains, the next means of motion the arteries of America that brought people and music and cultures together. So that had to be the next progression for us."
The Grahams' songs for these projects, often co-written with collaborator-since-childhood Bryan McCann, capture the rhythms and energies of that transport system and the momentum of its time, with Doug's masterful resonator slide-work and harmonies fueling Alyssa's locomotive voice and acoustic guitar chords. With her big range and storyteller's delivery, when she sings, for example, in "Glory Bound," "Wish I'd never majored in caffeine and solitude/Wish I'd never let them see my nasty attitude," she curls her tongue around "nasty" as if she were simultaneously evoking Snidely Whiplash and some bitchy college girl you'd wanna tie to the tracks.
That's another element of these collections that distinguishes them from mere historical repetition. "We're still our own artists; we're still living in the modern era," Doug explains. "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."
"The modern echoes," Alyssa adds. After so many years together, they easily finish one another's sentences, and onstage, they share the sometimes-irreverent repartee of a seasoned comedy act. As the film conveys, though, they're still best friends - and they love nothing more than making new friends via the communal bond of music.
"Even when we were in the studio with Wes, doing this very traditional kind of recording, a few local musicians stopped by and we were like, 'Hey, we've got these people here we've never met before who sing and play music. Let's do something together right now,'" Doug recalls.
"For us, making music is sort of whimsical," Alyssa notes. "We're not precious about anything."
"Life is short," affirms Doug, who lost his mother two years ago. (In the 30-minute film's most poignant moment, as they prepare to record the original spiritual, "Mama," in Sun Studio, Alyssa says, "Sing so your mom can hear you.")
"The dream," he says, "is to play with as many great people as we can, and share the music as much as we can."
In Memphis, that meant not only visiting the train station, but celebrating its 100th anniversary by doing a live recording of "Big John" with the audience gathered onstage, singing around a microphone. In New Orleans, on the train, they covered "City of New Orleans," the Steve Goodman song made famous by Woody's son Arlo. (Cody's late father, famed producer Jim Dickinson, had played piano on Arlo's hit version.)
Though the studio and live albums share many of the same songs, they're treated differently. Sharon brought in Fullbright, members of the Turnpike Troubadours and Flying Burrito Brothers vet Byron Berline to accompany the Grahams on various tunes. Dickinson lined up brother Luther; R.L. Burnside's son Duwayne; Otha Turner's granddaughter, Sharde Thomas; the Norman Sisters; Alvin Youngblood Hart; members of Memphis band Lucero; and many others. The result of these unique experiences is that both recordings embody a sound and spirit authentic to their respective environments.
No, the Grahams hadn't planned such a big project at first.
The pair, who had moved to Nashville to record Riverman's Daughter with Malcolm Burn (Emmylou Harris, Chris Whitley), arranged their train trip to include meetings with potential producers; Sharon was one - not because of his location, but because they had a feeling he'd be a good fit for what they had in mind. "When we met him in person, we just fell in love with him because he's such a down-to-earth, sweet guy," Alyssa says. "We like to surround ourselves with easygoing, real people, and he just exudes that. When we left him, that's when we were like, 'Whoa, and he's from/in Oklahoma.' That's such kismet."
He also, according to Alyssa, "has some of the best ears in the business" - and is a perfectionist, which appealed to them after the intentional "anti-perfection" of Riverman's Daughter. "We said, 'OK, he's our guy.'" But Cody Dickinson was next on their list; they'd hung with him and his brother and fellow North Mississippi Allstar, Luther, when Burn asked them to guest on Riverman's Daughter.
Cody had just co-produced the successful documentary Take Me to the River, and wanted to make one of his own. He proposed recording on the go, almost guerrilla-style, creating a documentary and live album in the process.
"When we met with Wes, we knew we wanted to do a studio record, and when we met with Cody, we just knew we wanted to do anything with Cody," says Alyssa. "He's just fun and creative and so incredibly positive."
"We thought, 'Great, one will be a record and one will be a movie and soundtrack,'" Doug adds. "But Cody is such a big thinker, all of a sudden, we found ourselves in Sun Studio recording music and hanging out all around Memphis with l.
"We don't necessarily think things all the way through," says Alyssa, laughing. But they went for it, because, in the finest traveling troubadour tradition, seizing the moment is something they do; it's their version of hopping a rail car.
"We really wanted to get away from the environment we grew up in and do something that would open our eyes to the country we live in," Alyssa says. "We play music and we love playing music and we love meeting people who want to play music."
When they hire musicians to join them onstage, as they did at their Americana Music Association showcase last fall, they often get asked how many rehearsals they'd like.
When they say rehearsals are unnecessary, they're met with surprise, but as Alyssa explains, "Our songs are pretty simple. Just feel something. Have a good time. Enjoy the music and listen to the echoes."