The debut album from powerhouse guitarist Nathan Graham is already generating buzz. He crafted it entirely in Chicago, his hometown.
By Mark Guarino
Oct 17, 2023, 6:00am CT
As a teenager in the 1990s, Nathan Graham listened to all the music his friends did, from 50 Cent to the Backstreet Boys. But while other teenagers heard the hooks, Graham was listening to, and identifying, samples taken from records made decades before the budding guitarist had been born.
Freddie King? James Brown? Terry Reid? All familiar names to Graham who learned about classic soul, country, and blues from a series of mentors, starting with his parents and later in jazz and blues clubs around the world. The feeling, sometimes, made him feel “isolated.”
“I had this secret thing that was mine,” Graham said. “Sometimes I’d find myself hanging out with a group of kids and they’d play this record that came out six months ago, I’d think, ‘I can’t go and play [British guitarist] Terry Reid for them. They’re not going to get [Reid’s 1969 song] ‘Silver White Light’.”
At 34, the Chicago singer-songwriter and powerhouse guitar player is releasing his debut, which came into shape after more than 20 years of picking up the guitar as a 13-year-old. That journey, longer than most musicians travel before releasing their initial set of music, gives Saint of Second Chances (Pravda), out Friday, its confidence. Even though the collection is his first, the Americana songs have a lived-in quality of an old soul using music as a vehicle for self-reflection and redemption.
“This is a true melting pot of what I had been listening to my whole life,” he said.
Graham’s first influences were his parents. An only child, he grew up in Chicago and then south suburban Matteson. His parents were serious music heads, but in different directions: His mother, a paralegal, frequently played the sounds of Stax, Motown, and Philly Soul, while his father, a FedEx worker, was deep into singer-songwriters such as Dobie Gray and Tracy Chapman and classic suburban rock like REO Speedwagon and Styx. They played music constantly and radio ruled the home and car.
Classic blues, country soul and R&B represented freedom from heavily produced pop music he was hearing all around him. “I can hear everything that is going on and I thought that was the coolest thing ever. There was nothing to hide behind. However Freddie King or Howlin’ Wolf sang it is how it came out,” he said. “I fell in love with the sound, and I needed to chase that feeling as much as possible.”
Graham’s high school days — first at Jones College Prep in the South Loop and later at Rich Township High School in Olympia Fields — were consumed with thinking about, listening to, and eventually playing the guitar. He obsessively watched concert videos from standout guitarists such as Slash, Eric Clapton, Lenny Kravitz and Henry Garza of Los Lonely Boys to figure out their technique. “All I could think about was guitars,” he said.
School largely bored him until he started learning about the Harlem Renaissance and key Black jazz and literary masters. “That’s when I got really interested.”
Finally, one July afternoon when he was 13, his mother announced she was taking him to buy his first guitar, a midnight blue Fender Stratocaster. “I didn’t know how to play it, but I knew I wanted to make that sound. That was my whole goal,” he said.
Graham relied on YouTube instructional videos and private lessons to learn the basics, but it wasn’t until he enrolled in the Contemporary, Urban and Popular Music program at Columbia College that his real education began. The curriculum covered performance, recording, and music business marketing, and the program sent him to Germany where he spent a summer getting experience writing and recording a record.
Real world experience was right around the corner. Recognizing his guitar abilities, bluesman Fernando Jones hired him, and Graham was soon gigging in blues and jazz clubs around Chicago; that led to more opportunities as a sideman for elder blues figures like Carl Weathersby and the late Byther Smith. Graham even shared the stage with Buddy Guy for a special outdoor performance downtown.
Nearly a decade of making a living in the bowels of blues and jazz clubs taught him how to read nonverbal cues and think on his feet. “When Carl Weathersby hits a certain song or makes a certain face, you have to know what note to hit to make the show look cool,” Graham said. “That’s the way I learned. And if I didn’t learn fast enough, I’d get fired.”
Eventually, Graham fronted his own blues band. He started writing songs. Those songs evolved from just exercises in rhyme schemes to ones that were deeply personal. He started to “think about what in the last six months of my life had been like and the mistakes I made.” Many of them, like “Why,” “Fake Friends,” and “Worrying My Life” were like “holding up the mirror” to where his life was at after spending this first decade or so in clubs, staying out late, and “not knowing when to go home.”
Choosing Saint of Second Chances as the title was not arbitrary, either. Now living in Oak Park, Graham is in a stable relationship and leads a band of mostly married players who need to get home after the gigs. Life, in other words, is now strictly about the music. That confidence is reflected by the large scope of some of the songs: With its thumping beat, choir vocals, and rising organ, the epic album opener “Pride” would feel comfortable in a stadium by the E Street Band or U2. (“Open, big, full,” was the direction Graham pursued.)
Other songs, like the slow burning “Good Honest Man” and organ drenched “Already Won” match their emotional heft with tasteful guitar work, vocal choirs, and warmth of the band arrangements that make every note essential.
After all those teachers in his life, the person Graham now listens to is himself.
Signed to Chicago’s Pravda Records, Graham says he is uninterested in fleeing Chicago to build a career but instead wants to contribute to the thriving Americana scene here. “Everyone goes to Nashville or Austin and it makes me mad,” he said. The studios, the musicians, the labels, the record plants, and most importantly — the audiences — in Chicago make this city primed for independent Americana musicians. He says that he is especially proud that everything listed in his album’s credits — where the songs were recorded, mixed, mastered and even pressed — are within familiar zip codes in the city.
“I hope I can show people that you can make these kinds of records in Chicago,” he said. “This type of stuff is happening in Chicago. We’re here.”
If you go: Nathan Graham performs Thursday, Oct. 19, at Fitzgerald’s (6615 Roosevelt Rd., Berwyn) and on Nov. 18 at Sleeping Village (3734 W. Belmont Ave.).