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 forebears. 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, OK and was released on May 19, 2015 on 12 South Records via RED Music (through Sony Music). 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 released 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 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."
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 arteries. And now, here we are on trains, the next means of motion — the veins 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.”