Shakey Graves Takes His Unlikely Radio Hit 'Dearly Departed' to the Americana Masses

Josh Verduzco
Shakey Graves

The Austin-based musician is nominated in three categories at the Sept. 16 Americana Honors & Awards in Nashville, including Song of the Year for "Dearly Departed."

Shakey Graves is tied with Lucinda Williams and Sturgill Simpson for the most nominations (three) at tonight’s 14th annual Americana Honors & Awards in Nashville. That’s about nine, in Grammy terms, since the Americana Awards only have six categories in total. Does that mean cuttthroat competition among artists who work in more acoustic- or roots-based genres?

“Completely,” says Graves. “I’m having my people sabotage their people. There are a lot of water balloons filled with pee -- that kind of stuff. Yeah, those Americana people are brutal… super-cutthroat.”

All kidding aside, the Austin native has already won just by jumping into the nominations lead as a sophomore artist. While Lucinda Williams has been recording since the late 1970s, Graves’ breakout album, 2014's independently release And the Wars Came, is only his second, which makes him fresh enough to be nominated for Emerging Artist of the Year, the category in which he’s clearly the frontrunner. Graves is also up for Album of the Year and Song of the Year, the latter nod coming for “Dearly Departed,” a low-key stomper that became ubiquitous this year on a good deal of Americana-favoring radio stations, like Los Angeles’ KCSN.

“Picking singles is very interesting,” says Graves (real name: Alejandro Rose-Garcia). “And I’m seeing the age demographic getting younger because of that song. I definitely know there’s a lot more ‘How old are you girls showing up at the show? Are you 20? Are you 15? How old are you?’ When we put out that video on the Internet through Pandora, if there’s such a thing as product testing of music, all the product tests came back very positive, in the 13-to-50 range. It’s a fairly simple song, and definitely one of the catchier, hookier ones that I’ve ever put out. It gets stuck in my head, so I kind of figure we’ve releasing a mummy’s curse on the world -- like ‘Please, please, no more!’”

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If it’s at all a surprise that actual teenaged girls might be flocking to Graves’ shows, it’s not because he’s a bad-looking guy, but because the blues-based, elemental nature of his songs naturally tends to skew older, when he’s not accidentally unleashing major earworms. And if you’re looking for production value, either visually or sonically, you’ve come to the wrong place, although he says he “never wanted to specifically do low-fi for low-fi’s sake.” The fact that he spent years as a solo artist -- as in, a true one-man band, using his feet to play percussion instruments to accompany his guitar playing -- might have intuitively seemed limiting as far as a larger audience goes, but his skill at creating a full sound on stage without any assistance added to the intrigue.

Now he tours with two additional musicians, which he knows could ironically be off-putting to fans who show up expecting to see the guy who sits by himself on the legendary kick-drum suitcase and alone.

“When I play live, it’s half and half,” he says. “I still do a big segment of alone stuff. I want it to be pretty clear that I’m not trying to reinvent myself at all. But I feel inherently inclined to challenge that concept of somebody else knowing me better than me. And it’s funny because I’ll do that with other musicians without even thinking; I’ll be like ‘No, that’s not you. You don’t do that!... For the larger audience that gets kind of captured by songs on the radio for the first time, those people are introduced on a different floor of the building, and I want them to just inherently expect more, as opposed to less. Because you know, you can always get stripped down. The easiest thing to do is to scale it back, and the hardest thing to do is build it larger. Playing with bigger instrumentation, we’re starting to get more experimental, and I’m kind of tearing off into new areas on the guitar that I didn’t really touch before, because I always had to try to play the bass parts and high parts (simultaneously).”

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Mind you, he’s not phasing out the one-man-band thing as any kind of stepping stone toward pop orthodoxy. “What’s been really important for me to work on is the concept of not having a band be auxiliary, and not just bringing on people to accomplish a song, but actually playing with other musicians because it sounds better and it feels better for everybody. So I’ve been trying to do my due diligence to just not waste anyone’s time. Instead of trying to limp through and orchestrate this song that doesn’t really sound right unless I do it alone, I’ll just play it alone, and then me and the band will play a song that you’ve never heard because we play it a lot better than I can do on my own. And hopefully I let logic sort it all out. That’s what I’m hoping for” as he alternates between band and solo arrangements, he says -- “like ‘Wow, that sounded good. Wow, I like that more. Wow, I didn’t like that one. Wow.’ Sort of the Owen Wilson approach to life, you know?”

Today, two additional musicians; tomorrow, the philharmonic? “I’ve always had high hopes of that kind of stuff happening. Like, a ranchero album, and then we have Shakey Graves and, like, a flute orchestra.” Woodwinds aside, he’s not kidding when he says, “I’d love to cover as many bases as possible.”

For now, he’s dragging that kick-drum suitcase -- and presumably a full one or two, as well -- around the country to cities where the hunger for his level of musical accomplishment and old-soul authenticity fills some surprisingly large venues. Take his upcoming L.A. gig at downtown’s cavernous Theatre at Ace Hotel (formerly the United Artists) on Oct. 26, hot on the heels of his June gig a few blocks over at the Belasco. “I’m doing a downtown L.A. historic movie palace tour,” he jokes.