Listen to Austin 360 Radio

In the key of Dad

On Father's Day, three musician dads reflect on their creative realtionship with their children

Joe Gross
jgross@statesman.com
Jeff Lofton says his daughter Shana has changed ordinary things, like what time of day he writes his music, and also made profound alterations in his viewpoint that seep into his music.

It's a tough gig being a working musician with children. The weird hours, the travel, the time it takes to hone your craft and the time you want to spend honing your craft - it's hard to balance it all. And then there's the obligation to, oh, refrain from indulgences that go with the troubadour life. Some do. Some don't. (We often read about the latter in the paper, or in the songs of their kids.)

But as any father knows, your children can inspire you - to work harder, to take care of yourself and the life you've made, to love with depth and compassion and most of all patience.

That said, it's hard to write about your kids without descending into mawkish sentimentality. As my mother was always fond of saying, "Nobody cares about your kids as much as you do."

New York rock band the National confronted this difficulty on its new album "High Violet." "Once you do have a child, you want to talk about every detail of it," songwriter Matt Berninger said in an interview with the Onion. "And it is really boring to all your friends, and it should be."

The resulting song, "Afraid of Everyone," is striking: "With my kid on my shoulders I try/ Not to hurt anybody I like/ But I don't have the drugs to sort it out."

It's a tough gig, but here are three musicians, dads all, who have it sorted out.

jgross@statesman.com; 912-5926

Kevin Russell

The Gourds frontman, who also goes by the nom du solo act Shinyribs, has three kids: 12-year-old Guthrie, 10-year-old Lilly and 4-year-old Harlan. He's even been known to write music with his kids. "I wrote one of my songs with my oldest son when he was a little guy," Russell says. We're talking, of course, about the epic "(Somebody Bring Me a Flower) I'm a Robot" off Russell's 2002 solo album "Buttermilk and Rifles."

"One day when he was about 2 or 3 years old, we were playing with Legos; he'd built robots with the Legos," Russell says. "Some of the Legos had flowers on them and he suddenly said, `Somebody bring me a flower, I'm a robot.'" Russell quite rightly thought that was a heck of a song title, so he asked his kid to finish the lyrics. "I asked him what he wanted to say line by line, and it's a pretty hilarious song. He's 12 now and will occasionally ask me for royalties."

Russell also mentions that his kids make a terrific focus group. "They're like my first audience for all my songs, and they're often the best test market," Russell says. "If they don't like it, they don't react to it at all. If they really like it, I'll hear them around the house humming and singing."

Of course, there are songs in the Gourds' oeuvre Russell's tried to keep on the down-low. "My oldest has recently heard (the Gourds' famous cover of Snoop Dogg's) `Gin and Juice.' I tried to keep that one quiet for a long time, but all of his friends heard it already and he didn't know what they were talking about," Russell says with a laugh.

That isn't to say they all want to hang out with their cool dad. After all, he's still Dad. "I tried to talk them into flying out to the West Coast in July at the end of the Gourds tour and we could take a long drive back and make it vacation. They were not too into that idea. I'm like, `Fine, I will see the Grand Canyon all by myself.' I think they just want me to text them about it."

Jon Dee Graham

Jon Dee Graham has been writing about his sons (Roy, 17 and Willie, 11) for almost as long as they have been around. His first solo album, "Escape From Monster Island," is dedicated to Roy and a lot of songs over his past two albums, "It's Not As Bad As It Looks" and "Full," are - as Graham puts it - "either overtly or covertly" about Willie, who has the bone-destroying disease Legg-Perthes.

"I write about my kids all the time," Graham says. "The only way that I can write is autobiographically. I wish I could be like (James) McMurtry, make up all these characters and stories, but I'm just not that clever. I told him that once, and he said, `Well, I wish I could do what you do, but I wouldn't enjoy bleeding to death every time I had to write a record.'"

Graham says his friend (and local bassist) Andrew Duplantis is a new dad. "I tried to prepare him for it, but you just can't," Graham says. "Having kids takes away the yardstick you've been measured by and gives you a new one."

Willie has been a focus of Jon Dee's life for some time. A 2005 benefit concert for the Graham family to help pay for Willie's treatment became the CD/DVD "Big Sweet Life: The Songs of Jon Dee Graham."

"Willie is doing fantastic," Graham says, adding that the natural growth spurt that comes with adolescence has replaced a lot of the bone that the disease killed. "That's a miracle, but he will always have residual rheumatism and arthritis and is in constant pain and takes a whole lot of Advil every day. After my car accident (in 2008), he and I would go for walks, and it just hurt like hell, and instead of being sympathetic, Willie was like, `Uh huh, now you see what it's like,"' Graham says with a laugh.

But it's Roy who has been on his mind of late. "He's graduating from Maybeck High School in Berkeley this week and I'm going out there for it. `$100 Bill,' the first song on `Monster Island,' is us moving to Austin when he was 4, and now he's 17 and I'm 51 and I'm almost crying thinking about it. I just want to see it myself and have lunch with him and say goodbye before he goes out and parties with his friends. This is a big deal for me."

Jeff Lofton

During the school year, Austin jazzman Jeff Lofton used to drive from South Carolina to Texas to visit his daughter, Shana, now 9, about once a month. She would live with him over the summer and listen to him play his trumpet.

Lofton's lived in Austin since 2007, and Shana is a full-time presence in his life now.

The song he wrote for her, "Shana's Song," was chosen for Austin Music Vol. 9, the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau's annual compilation. It's also on his 2009 album, "Jazz to the People."

"I came up with the melody line before she was born," Lofton says. "But I never really set it to music." As he developed the piece with various musicians, the song came alive. "It's got a very New Orleans feel and it reminds me of her. It fit her."

Lofton readily acknowledges the impact parenthood has on your life and work. "Of course it changes everything you do. It's like looking at a little you, and that's a pretty significant perspective."

These changes begin to seep into the music in unexpected ways. "More than anything, it changes when you write," Lofton says. "I do a lot of late-night writing now because that's when I have free time. You get a different atmosphere."

Lofton practically grins over the phone when talking about Shana's musical ability. "She's a singer. Even as a little kid, I would play something and she would sing it back. She can make up lyrics at the drop of a hat." Lofton says Shana's really into songwriter Kimya Dawson right now: "Kimya has these elaborate lyrics that just go on and on."

Lofton's proudest moment? "I was playing her `Bye Bye Blackbird' (from Miles Davis' `Round Midnight') and she was singing along and then Miles' solo came up and she sang along with that, not really knowing it. Then Coltrane's solo came up and she sang along with that. I was like, `Oh my goodness!' "

Father's Day

The Jeff Lofton Quartet plays a Sunday Jazz Brunch from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. today at Waterloo Ice House, 38th Street at Medical Parkway (one block west of Lamar Boulevard).

Father's Day Concert: The Austin Symphonic Band will play marches, patriotic melodies and Broadway hits in honor of Dad. Free ($3 car charge for parking; picnic food encouraged). 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. today, Zilker Hillside Theater, 2206 William Barton Drive in Zilker Park. 345-7420; www.austinsymphonicband.org .

Dad Rocks. Benefit for the Austin Music Foundation's educational programs. Featuring English Teeth and DJ Car Stereo (Wars), as well as a silent auction. With an Annie Ray photo booth, food from Frank, Tiff's Treats, Waialua Soda Works Hawaiian and GoodPop Popsicles. $20 (children younger than 12 get in free). 5 to 8 p.m. today. Mohawk, 912 Red River St. austinmusicfoundation.org .