Lee Graham is an established part of the Starkville music community.
He has played with groups such as the Puerto Rican Rum Drunks, Flathead Ford, and The HollaGrahams.
We caught up with Lee for some coffee and conversation at the 929 Coffee Shop in downtown Starkville.
Allen McBroom: How did you end up playing music in Starkville?
Lee Graham: I’d been playing music in West Point, where I’m from, and the guy I’d been playing music with a lot, Robert Staggers, had started playing with Del Rendon and their bass player quit. I had never played with a Starkville band before, and that’s how I got into the Rum Drunks (Puerto Rican Rum Drunks), and I never looked back after that. I moved to Starkville and stayed here.
AM: How long were you with the Rum Drunks?
LG: It was a good eight or nine years, I played right up to the very end. They’d been playing only a little while when I got in, so pretty much the entire length of the band. I was with them from around 1996 until Del passed away, that would have been about nine years.
AM: It would be safe to say the Rum Drunks were one of the most notable Starkville bands of the last 30 years, I mean they were recording CDs when that wasn’t done in the bedroom.
LG: That’s right, yeah. The two we put out, we had a lot of fun doing it especially the first one, Chameleon. We recorded that one in Monticello, and it was a great experience. The studio down there was awesome. It was a neat little studio in in the middle of the woods, above the studio they have a bunkhouse so you go there, set up, and record all night long until everyone gets tired and passed out, then you crawl upstairs to get some sleep, and they wake you up at first light to get after it again.
I can’t remember the studio’s name, maybe Black Dog? They also had a sort of small record label, and they did all the recording and managing for Blue Mountain, the band from Oxford. The guy who recorded out first album, Jeffrey Reed, a super good guy, is an engineer in Oxford now
AM: Did y’all stay up all night to record it?
LG: We stayed up all night until we weren’t making any more sense. We did some dubs the next day, but we got everything tracked in two days. Yeah, it was quick, but we were doing it on our own dime, and we’d been playing those songs live, night after night after night, so it wasn’t too much to ask to go in there and knock it all out at one time.
AM: How did new PRRD songs comes about?
LG: Del was the writer for most of it, Mark (Goldbeck) wrote some, and we all contributed. Del would come in with lyrics and a chord progression and hammer it out on an acoustic and we’d throw all our ideas out there, it was completely fluid on input. We could change things, but as far as lyrics, Del could write lyrics off the top of his head, it was nutty, he could just throw lyrics out. He was playing all the time, acoustic gigs and such, all over the place, so every time I’d see him he’d be playing a new song.
AM: I know the music world here was in shock at Del’s untimely passing, how did you come back from the unexpected end of the Rum Drunks?
LG: I took a pause for a while, just took a reset. The Rum Drunks were my main band for that whole stretch, but I played a lot with other people, doing pickup gigs and session work, so it wasn’t like I had to go look for something else necessarily, but I did take some time to readjust and let all that settle in, and decide where I wanted to go next.
After that I got into playing with Jamie Davis and Soul Gravy for eight or nine years. We played a lot in the Tupelo area, north Mississippi, into Tennessee, Nashville, and a good bit in Tuscaloosa, and in Starkville we probably played more at Rick’s (Rick’s Café) more than anywhere else. That band got me into country music, I had no idea I liked country until I got to be a country bass player, and I liked it all of a sudden.
AM: You’ve been playing around here for over 30 years now?
LG: Yeah, I got my first guitar 32 years ago, and played guitar several years. I picked up the bass when I was the guitar player in my first band, and the bass player quit. The lead singer had a bass and an amp, so I got to be the bass player (big laugh), and I’ve never looked back. I still play guitar a lot. John Staggers was the drummer in my first band, he was 12 years old, and that dude was a phenom from the git-go. At 12 years old, he was by far the best member of our band (more laughing). It was me and John and Andrew Hooker from West Point, we called ourselves Grounded Pilots. It was a lot of fun, we played a bunch, and recorded three times in Memphis, Muscle Shoals, and Los Angeles. I was 21 when the band broke up, so all that happened when we were teenagers. We played Oxford a lot at the Old Houlka Theater. The deal with that place was they would show old rerun movies, and the band wouldn’t start until midnight.
AM: After all this time playing, do you still get anxious before playing?
LG: Sometimes I do, it depends. I do more so when I’m playing by myself, if I’m getting it all going, and then get that worm in my head of “Hey, I’m the only one doing anything (laughter breaks out) and what if I can’t get my hands and my mouth to do the same thing, and I don’t have a drummer to drive me, that’s usually the only time.
AM: Tell me about Flathead Ford.
LG: Flathead Ford, that Jerry Carnathan, John Staggers, and me. That’s been my main gig for quite some time now. Jerry’s so good, he’s just ridiculous, he’s an unstoppable force, and you don’t see it coming until he grabs a guitar, and then it’s like holy crap. I found myself so many times, I’ll mess up in a song because I’m just staring at him, after all these years he still pulls things out of nowhere, and it’s like man, there’s always another rabbit in his hat. He is so much fun to play with. I play other projects with him, and he has no problem taking a back seat and playing rhythm guitar, and he likes playing bass. He’s a great bass player. When I met him he was playing upright bass in a jazz band. He’s an all-around musician, and a sweetheart of a guy.
AM: Starkville has a lot of different music community circles, such as church music folks, heavy metal guys, country musicians, and the usual suspect crowd who can pick four guys at random and play a gig without rehearsing. Where do you think you fit into those circles, or do you?
LG: The older I get the more I’m veering toward the Jeffrey Rupp/Jim Beaty club of usual suspects, I think, and I like that a lot. I like being able to be called on by anyone to play anything, whether its rock, funk, jazz, country, gospel, or anything else, just give me a shout, I’m going to give you 100%. It’s great being comfortable with a group of the local players, we can just pick up different instruments, decide we’re going to call ourselves some name for the night, and play alt-country. Those are just fun projects, it’s a lot of the same guys. We all have sort of the same tastes, I’m talking about guys like Jerry, John, Chuck Schimpf, and Jimmy Redd.
AM: When it’s all said and done for the night, what makes you look back and say “Man, that was a great gig!”?
LG: If I hit all my marks, there’s energy from the other guys in the band, and it doe not hurt for the crowd to be engaged. (Laughs) If they’re pumped up, that’s a whole ‘nother gear. You know when you walk off the stage if you rocked the house or not.
AM: Ever have a gig where you feel invisible?
LG: Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s usually when it’s an acoustic gig, and it’s during dinner hour, and everybody’s talking, and I’m just background. It bugged me when it first started doing that, you know, like nobody’s paying attention, there’s no applause, but then you realize “That’s not my role here”, I’m supposed to be background music. If nobody’s booing or throwing food at me, then I’m okay with that. That’s my opportunity to explore uncharted territory, I’ll do an extended guitar solo, or start singing songs I don’t know well, or sing repeats of stuff I did earlier in the night.
AM: How do you stay sharp?
LG: (Thoughtful pause) Learning new songs when I can, and what helps me a lot is playing with my wife. She is new, and has that kind of fired up energy that a new musician has, when they first figure out “I can play some chords, I can sing a song”, and it’s so exciting having her in the house and constantly learning new songs, that keeps me after it. Every other night it’s like “We’re working on this, we’re working on this”, and I’ve got a guitar in my hands, and that’s helped a lot.
AM: You’re playing gigs as The Hollagrahams, and the other half of the duo is your wife. What’s the dynamic there?
LG: I’ll tell you, it’s got its own new challenges. Sometimes we have some intense rehearsals, we both have ideas of how things should happen and they aren’t always the same. If there are stresses, just like anything else in marriage, we work through it. We get up there and play our songs and have a good time. It is very rewarding. We’ve been talking about doing this ever since we met and it was just a couple of years ago she decided to do it, and it’s been super, super rewarding.
AM: Do you get songs stuck in your head?
LG: Every day, man, and its usually the worst songs. Whip It by Devo isn’t a bad song, but I had it stuck in my head for three days. They played it on the overhead at work, and they don’t change the playlist much, so I’m now programmed to know that at 11:30 Come On Eileen is going to come on.
AM: If you wanted to improve my life by introducing me to some new music, what would it be?
LG: Listen to Morpine, a three piece band where the bass player , who is also the lead singer, plays a two-string bass with a slide, and there’s a sax player and a drummer. They played haunting, kind of jazzy rock, and I could listen to their albums all day long. If you weren’t familiar with John Prine, I’d have you listen to him. I’m also a big Beasty Boys fan. I’m not a big rap fan, but they all play their own instruments, and there is a lot of depth to that. They put out an instrumental album, and I listen to that when nobody else is in the house.
AM: Is it a challenge sometimes to be in the background as a bass player?
LG: I have plenty of opportunities to step out front, and Flathead Ford is my favorite band I’ve ever played with, I absolutely love it, and playing with the two best guys on the other instruments, and my best friends. We go full bore, and I don’t have to worry about stepping out, we’re all always out. In a three piece, we’re always on. Maturity plays a big part in knowing one’s role. When I was young, I wanted to be out there, and show out, but as I matured, I began to realize that was not role, I needed to take it back a notch. Then we learn that I’m in a supporting role, just as important as everyone else, because I’m making things solid for the back end. But then, when I do pull out a cool lick, I shine a thousand times brighter because you haven’t been hearing from me all night long.
AM: When you want to listen to a bad boy bass player, and get your fix, who do you listen to?
LG: For me, it’s usually some Motown. James Jamerson does it for me. Love some Earth, Wind, and Fire. War. The Meters, George Porter. That’s where it’s at. And Steely Dan, they always had great bass players. Berry Oakley, that my man. The Allman Brothers is probably my favorite band ever, and Alan Woody, who followed Berry, good grief. A pick player, but like a steam engine. Gov’t Mule did a monster show.
AM: Current personal challenge?
LG: On bass, to not be complacent, to not think “Okay, I’m good enough to go play this gig”, to pick up the instrument and be more on top of the notes, to know more, and not rely just on my ear.
AM: What’s your go-to rig when you want everything to be just right?
LG: Right now, it’s a Peavey 1,000 watt head, a 410 cabinet, and a Sting Ray bass. It does everything I want it to do.
AM: If you could put together a dream team project, who would be in it?LG: That’s easy. Jerry Carnathan and John Staggers. No argument, I couldn’t ask for anyone better