One of the biggest characteristics of the Stillwater-born music known as Red Dirt is its emphasis on lyrics that are honest, real and sometimes painful. As befits a musical style that rose up in our agrarian state, it’s usually very close to the soil, metaphorically speaking, rooted deeply in the earth.

And, at the risk of torturing that metaphor, I’ll add that the music on A Pound of Rust, a new disc from Oklahoma native JD Graham, amounts to some of the deepest Red Dirt music ever recorded.

It’s confessional, it’s frank and it’s often brutal. At the same time, there’s a poetic quality to the lyrics that conveys some powerful imagery, and the unrelenting darkness in Graham’s songs can be downright cathartic.

“People ask me, ‘Do you always try to go so deep?’” he says. “I don’t really try. I don’t sit down with an agenda to write a song. It just comes. The majority of them are introspective, and I also write songs about the things I’ve seen out there. Living the reckless life I lived provides a lot of subject matter for a songwriter.”

Reckless, indeed. That’s where the darkness comes from.

“Until the day I signed my plea, I’d never had more than 40 or 45 days of sobriety in 20 years,” he says. “So with clarity came the need to get some things out, to write songs and to not be afraid of telling some dark stories.

“I get asked why I write such dark stuff. Well, I lived 95% of my life in the dark – that’s why. I’m not making this stuff up. If you were to make it up, I think it would come across as disingenuous at best.”

The plea he refers to happened in the Arizona courts, following a horrific car crash that landed him in the state prison for five years. It turned out to be the end of a torturous path that had begun when he was a pre-teen.

“I had an anxiety disorder when I was 11, and they started giving me Valium,” he explains. “By the time I was 15, I was taking about everything that I could. I’d go to friends’ houses and get into their parents’ medicine cabinets, and get into my mom’s medicine cabinet. Benzos [benzodiazepines, which treat anxiety disorders] like Xanax and Valium and Klonopin were my first love, my drugs of choice for years and years. Then I detoxed off those and I started taking just copious amounts of opiates, mixed with all kinds of other things – mushrooms and acid and peyote and cocaine and meth, all the stuff people were doing in Oklahoma back in 1987 to 1991.”

Graham was living in Yukon then. And while it wasn’t Stillwater, ground zero for the Red Dirt movement – which was just beginning to coalesce during the time frame he cites – Yukon was the home of several musicians who would become associated with that genre. That list begins, of course, with Garth Brooks, who honed his blend of rock, country and folk music as a performer in Stillwater and, for my money, belongs squarely in the Red Dirt camp. But Yukon was also home to four guys who would form one of the most influential and successful of the Red Dirt bands – Cross Canadian Ragweed.

“Garth’s older than me, and I’ve never met him,” notes Graham. “But I was in the same grade as Grady Cross, and Cody Canada and Randy Ragsdale were a couple of years younger; they were in my little brother’s grade. Jeremy Plato played bass in a metal band I had when I was growing up.

“Most of us lived in the same neighborhood. We went to the same school, we saw each other every day and we hung out a lot. But back in those days I was still a full-blown metalhead. I used to tell Jeremy Plato that my motto was ‘Happy sucks and sad rules.’  I’d go to his house and he’d be listening to Steely Dan and I’d say, ‘Man, that stuff’s slow and weak.’

“My mind was not open,” he adds, “and I have a regret about that. I don’t like the fact that it took me 30 years to say, ‘You know what? I’m going to expand my horizons and not be so singular-minded when it comes to music.’ If I’d made the decision to give other music a chance earlier in my life, I think it would’ve changed the world for me. But unfortunately, I didn’t and it didn’t, and I continued on the path of self-destruction.”

However dark things got, music remained a part of his life. He went from playing guitar in metal bands to working open-mic nights as a solo act, singing songs he admired that included material from the repertoires of such Red Dirt acts as Brandon Jenkins, Stoney LaRue, the Turnpike Troubadours and his old pals in Cross Canadian Ragweed. After a few years of that, he began writing his own songs – for the first time. By this time, he was living in Arizona, where he began playing and singing in a band called Sour Diesel Train Wreck.

“I was on a lot of drugs back then, so I wasn’t writing a lot,” he remembers. “I think I wrote 15 songs, and we recorded nine or 10 of ‘em for our album. This was back in 2012. Over the next few years, my drug addiction was supercharged, and it was very rare that I wrote anything at all – until I went to prison and decided to get sober.”

A Pound of Rust is full to overflowing with reflections on his former life, bringing back lost loves, bad decisions and even minutia like the dismal look and smell of cheap motel rooms. A song about his days in Yukon, “Runnin’ Through,” ends with a startling demonic image, while the title track finds him telling the listener, “I’ve got some things to get off my chest/A few more words to rhyme while I’ve still got some melody left.” Those lines could serve as a statement of purpose for the whole record.  

“The goal for this album,” he says, “was to just kind of let people know my story, help people heal through it, and to get me some credibility, so that I’m not just setting up in the corner somewhere in a place that only has live music on the weekends. And it’s done that.”

Among the gigs he’s gotten recently was one at the Cochise Country Music Festival, a two-day event featuring well-known headliners that took place in March in Benson, Ariz.

“I got 40 minutes as the first act of the day, me and my pedal-steel player. When I was done, there was a line of about 60 people waiting to talk to me. After I was finished talking and hugging all these people, and listening to their stories, my right shoulder was soiled with tears. When you get 60 people, and you hear, ‘Hey, my dad just got out of prison, and I’m going to call him and get him up here so you can talk to him, because he’s struggling.’ Or, ‘I just lost my mother, and this song “The Glory of His Throne” meant a lot to me’ – that’s why I do this.    

“I don’t play music for any other reason that to make a human connection,” he adds, “because I know there are people struggling right now the way I used to struggle. So that little patch of tears on my shoulder – it meant more than anything I’ve done this entire year. My goal isn’t making five million dollars or playing Madison Square Garden or being on the radio. It’s making that connection. And I know I can do it if I can just get people to listen.

Image cutline: Despite hardships and darkness in his past, musician JD Graham inspires others with his music. Photo courtesy Brandy Reed

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