Michael Graber has built a career outside of music, but he's a fixture on the local scene. Back in the '90s, he helped found Prof. Elixir's Southern Troubadours; more recently, we've heard his work with the Bluff City Backsliders, who have mined similar territory, or with the group Damfool, who are harder to pin down.
Now, another of his groups, Graber Gryass, is stepping to the fore, and, as the name implies, it's more focused on his own songwriting than any of his earlier projects. That's partly due to the realities of life during the coronavirus.
- Photographs courtesy of Michael Graber
- Michael Graber with son Leo and Graber Gryass
"When Amy LaVere and Will Sexton were on tour in March, and suddenly every gig they had was canceled, I thought, 'Shit, what can I do?'" he explains. "So I started that Microdose series [on Facebook every Saturday at 1:30 p.m.], where I do two originals and one cover, to raise money for full-time working musicians. And I raised over $1,000 dollars, just to give away to all my musical brethren and sistren. But by the fourth one, I ran out of songs that I had written. I had to start writing songs pretty quickly just to keep up because there was more interest than I thought there would be. I challenged myself to do more songwriting, and after I had about 24 of them, I thought, 'Hmm, some of 'em fit into a mold, some of them are way out, but we should record all of them.'"
Graber booked a couple days with Boo Mitchell at Royal Studios, and, fully masked, the band cut one song after another, mostly live in the tracking room. The players were so prolific and inventive that Graber is sorting the final tracks into two batches, to be released under different names. (An Indiegogo campaign under the name of Graber Gryass has been launched to fund the releases.)
- Michael Graber w daughter Rowan Gratz & grandson Ellery with Graber Gryass
Sometime next year, he'll release the most left-field compositions, which developed as the band grew more and more uninhibited in the studio. "The one with the weirder songs, I'm gonna call Spaceman's Wonderbox. In one band I play in, called Damfool, they started calling me Spaceman. And they'll never tell me why. It just kinda stuck. You can't really fight it, right?" Moreover, the name is a good fit with the material itself, which Graber describes as "this mix of shamanic spoken word and ecstatic love poetry, and everybody's playing behind me."
While the songs were written in the downtime of shelter-in-place, Graber notes that they apply to life more generally. "There may be some emotional truth, but there's no topical or literal way of talking about this time of quarantine. These songs run the gamut of the emotions, everything from jumping into a river to turning into light. It's crazy stuff. It's really more like a celebration of living fully, no matter what. Just flourishing. It's springtime!"
Meanwhile, the other batch is already being released online. These are more traditional numbers, in a folk/bluegrass/country vein, albeit touched with Graber's own old world-inspired lyrical imagination. These celebrate living fully as well, but in a different way. The first single, which dropped in late June, is simply titled "Marijuana." "An ancient herbal brew, it could take care of you too," he sings. Other tracks have dropped since, such as "Drinkin' Forties," celebrating another ancient brew, and "When the Water's This Low," which begins, "Now Daddy and Red been drinking since dawn and now the sun's waning low. Twilight crept in like a ghost as we rode through a cypress grove."
These first releases, which will emerge on a Graber Gryass album in August, are especially meaningful to Graber. "I'm gonna call [the first album] Late Bloom. I'm 50 and this'll be the first thing ever released under my name, other than the Backsliders, 611, Prof. Elixir, all that stuff. It's taken a while. It's a way to say, 'Hey, it's never too late to create. We can always blossom, we can always flourish.'"