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 was 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 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 (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.”