Alyssa and Doug Graham are lifelong friends as well as a husband and wife musical partnership. Their first album composed along the Mississippi’s Great River Road was their 2013 debut, Riverman’s Daughter. To follow-up they decided to ride the rails and recorded 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. The second album Bound for Glory will be released as a deluxe edition next year. It is available now in it’s orginal form on a single CD or as a double vinyl album with the second disc being the soundtrack for the short documentary film Ratlle the Hocks. Lonesome Highway caught up with them before the final date of this European tour in the Seamus Ennis Centre in the Naul.
Tell me a little about your background and how you got together.
A: We grew up together, but we're not brother and sister. Douglas was on my older brother's baseball team and they were best buds. So I was about 7 years old when we first met. We started hanging around as kids then we started playing some music together. But it was when we started to write songs together that we really fell in love. We got married soon after finishing high school and we became The Grahams. It was a done deal once we started to write and to harmonize together.
D: We would write separately and then challenge each other to write better songs. But it wasn't until we started to write together that the songs really gelled. It was both of us refining each other’s wisdom and contributions.
Did you each bring a different set of influences to the table?
D: As we'd grown up together and had the same set of friends in high school we had a lot of the same influences.
A: Actually, it's funny as we'd know each other’s families our whole lives. We were cleaning out Douglas' parent's attic, as we'd been storing stuff there, and we both pulled out our old crates of records which we'd put there years before that and we thought "sweet, we just double our collection". We looked through them and there was only one different album between the two of us out of 50/60 albums. So our tastes were the same Neil Young, Bob Dylan, The Band, Pure Prairie League …
D: Neil Young specifically. We were also big Grateful Dead heads.
A: Yeah, Total Dead fans. But we feel in love over Neil Young for sure.
Was that different from what the majority of your contemporaries were listening to?
D: Well, there's an interesting little interlude in all this in that we were in a psychedelic rock band in our college years and Alyssa got a demo deal from a major label around that time and we recorded 100 hours of studio time and we brought it to the label head at the time. He said "we love it, but we just want to get some choreography together" and Alyssa came out of the meeting crying and …
A: It was "I don't dance".
D: Within a year she had enrolled in music school in Boston. We took a long head first dive into jazz.
A: That record deal being dangled in front of us was contingent on fancy backing musicians and dance moves and stuff . That just wasn't us, we'd grown up on Neil Young and we didn't want anything to do with that world, so we walked away and I went to music school to study jazz. Douglas had already done some of that so we wanted to grow as musicians. But after studying jazz for a while we came back to our three chord folk songs and here we are!
You wanted to make the music more direct?
A: We had this huge toolbox from going to jazz studies, but when we sat down to play 'three chords and the truth' as they say, and sing some simple songs together, that's when our hearts were bursting.
D: When were into the jazz stuff we started to listen to a lot of Brazilian music and to João Gilberto and I was trying to work out a bunch of his songs and I realized that it was really just folk music. It just had a different sensibility and that woke something up inside us. So if we were to continue with jazz it would have to be Brazilian folk music. But we're American and the listener doesn't want to hear so much 9s and 11s and those chords are a little harder to understand and their ears just wash them out.
The trip around the country and visiting various studios was that a chance to get back to those basics?
A: We had actually gone back to that before the trip. Our first album, Riverman's Daughter, had come out a couple of years back and doing that made us The Grahams. That was when we started getting back to our roots. You gain all this knowledge in school and study and you can let it go. When we wrote the song Riverman's Daughter it all came back to us how much we appreciated those simple structures.
D: 1, 4, 5 progressions and chords.
A: And simply singing harmonies together. So that record really established what we wanted to do.
D: On that record we decided to be Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer and to live on the Mississippi River. So when we travelled and we met all those different musicians, it was those simple songs that drew us back to songwriting. When we started to write these new songs it was inspired by gospel and Americana music. We found that we could just flow and write songs in real time.
A: Right. That's what we wanted to get back to.
Having done that to a degree where do you feel the next step will take you?
D: That's a good question.
A: We always want to evolve and grow as musicians. Every good artist does. But I don't think there's ever going to be a path that takes us back to being complicated. But you don't know, as we'd always said that some day we'd do a João Gilberto record (laughs). But we just want to tell some good stories as we think of ourselves as more storyteller than musician. We just put those stories to music.
D: That's why we went down the Mississippi and on the trains. We wanted to see what would hit us. I think some of the newer songs we're writing have more of a Memphis influence and because of that a bit more rock 'n' roll is coming out in some of the songs.
A: Yeah, Big Star.
You seemed to have created something of a look for The Grahams. How conscious was that?
A: I think our managers are more conscious of it than we are. We got the hats - what else do we need (laughs)? There's the brand. As you can see when you see us play and we feel that we are in a place in our lives where we feel so lucky to be able to do this together. What you see onstage is the same people as (those) you’re talking to now.
Being together is less difficult than being apart with one person on the road I would imagine.
A: I don't know how people do it. We have lots of friends where one of them is a musician and I guess people find a way to make it work. We have a different situation because we grew up together and have been 24 hours in each others company since we left our parents. We are super co-dependent now.
When you record do you like to do it over and over, or try to catch the magic quickly?
A: It's always the second take for me.
D: Yeah, by four or five we’re done.
A: We should have another record coming out next year and we've been listen to rough mixes and it’s always the first or second take that works best. We realize at this point in our lives there's no need to be precious about everything. We invite people up onstage. We play with other musicians - this whole movie (Rattle the Hocks) is about that. Being with people who have something different to offer and just letting it happen. Mike (Meadows - percussionist) we just met a couple of days before the tour and we had no set list and he'd barely ever heard the songs and it's sounding great.
D: Recording and playing with new people brings new life over time. It doesn't kill things at all.
A: For the Rattle the Hocks project Cody brought something; obviously him and his brother are both phenomenal musicians, they have played on both of our records and they offer something totally different to what we do. He brings in people like Duane Burnside, we've never played with those kind of guys or styles. Or the Norman sisters, major blues musicians and that's not something that's cosy in our wheelhouse but it added great flavour.
How do you define a category like Americana? It's now such a broad palate.
D: It's really a catch all category. Country music is really is one thing, but then there's California country with Neil (Young),The Eagles and all that. Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons, they brought that undefined element. But what do you do with all the other people who want to play pedal steel?
Does any Celtic connection figure in your approach?
A: He has totally Scottish heritage. His full name is Douglas Campbell Graham.
D: Yeah. But not specifically as a musical influence, though my Mum jokes that I came out playing the bagpipes. We grew up with American Jazz and folk music.
Any Bluegrass influences then?
A: We don't play bluegrass, what we do is more folk oriented.
D: Going to the Folk Alliance Festival and touring, you can't help but run into bluegrass bands but we don't hang out in the bluegrass scene. One reason is that it reminds us a lot of jazz. You have to be a talented, fast musician to play it. A lot of those guys play to be competitive. That's a scene we have backed away from a little bit.
A: interestingly, one of the guests on the deluxe version is the Watkins Family and we were talking to them about bluegrass and they grew up in that world and you have to know the rules and the ins and outs of every song in order to be able to jump into that world.
D: Old Crow Medicine Show, that's who I think of when I think of as great bluegrass as they're largely original while a lot of the bands we see are all doing covers.
You mentioned that you are going to release an expanded version of the Glory Bound album next year. Will that include the DVD?
D: We haven't worked that out yet. The film is still doing the Festival circuit right now so we can't release it. But the new edition has a lot of great guests on it from the Americana scene. They're trading verses with us on our songs. That's really exciting for us. On the current version we have people like John Fullbright playing on the album but it was just us singing. Now were going to have guest vocalists singing instead of us.
Cody Dickinson also directed the movie. Is that that a new direction for him?
A: Cody was involved with a five year project called Take Me to the River. It's an amazing film that's basically about the blues, North Mississippi and Memphis mainly. It won all sorts of awards including the People's Choice Award at South by Southwest.
D: Cody was the co-producer on that movie. So he really wanted to branch out and we're old friends and as we'd ended our train journey in Memphis we went to hang out with him.
A: We told him about our expedition and he said "I'd love to make a short about that". But we told him that we'd actually just finished. We'd been on trains for three months. But he's a really creative person who thinks in so many different ways.
D: He asked us which train lines we hadn't travelled on. We hadn't gone from Memphis to New Orleans on the City of New Orleans train.
A: So he wanted to base it around taking the train on that route. He wanted to get all these different musicians in different places and to tie in the history of the rail with modern day folk music. It was really his brainchild. A good friend of ours who writes with us, Brian McCann - a good Irish name - is a friend form childhood and he has written with us a lot. He is also an historian and he wrote a lot of the narration. That, coupled with Cody's vision and our music, made it a really fun project. It's been nominated for the best documentary short at the Raindance Festival in London. We were there for that. It's been at a bunch of festivals in the US with more to come.
As working musicians, what to you feel the current state of Americana is right now?
D: That's a good question. It's hard to follow because, as we said, it's so diversified.
That someone like Chris Stapleton is having success at award shows might help swing the spotlight.
A: That's amazing. I think it's his time. His producer Dave Cobb obviously has his finger on the button with Sturgill and Jason Isbell and many others. For Doug and me, what’s going on outside of Nashville is more exciting. There's little that surprises in Nashville these days. We had gone to Oklahoma to record Glory Bound and then to Memphis for Rattle the Hocks. But while Nashville will always record some great music there’s a lot going on in other places. It's interesting, as for a time it was about the Toby Keiths and Faith Hills and you don't think of Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline or Hank Williams, but now I think it's coming back. One thing we talked about recently is that backlash to really meaningless music. There a lot of great music out there but also a lot that is meaningless.
D: You need something that you have to pay attention to to get the meaning from.
A: The 90s music scene gave us Nirvana and then we lost that storyteller thing but now it's coming back. People are craving it again.
Interview by Stephen Rapid. Photography by Ronnie Norton.