Austen Grafa plays bass in the Denver pop-punk band Bud Bronson & the Good Timers and has performed with Porlolo. He has also been making a name for himself in the Colorado alt-country realm the last few years as the frontman and singer-songwriter for Grayson County Burn Ban, which has built local love for its self-proclaimed “campfire country” sound. Now, the Texas-bred, Denver-based singer-songwriter is playing under his own name, too.
This Friday, Grafa will celebrate the release of his first solo record, do it while you can, which continues the simultaneously funny and thought-provoking Grayson County vibe in a more stripped-down fashion. Acoustic guitar and the supportive twang of electric lend flavor to do it while you can tracks like “Guilt Trip Blues,” which makes light of a notoriously touchy subject in a music scene: balancing the promotion of one’s own shows with making sure to support your friends.
“In these times, everyone is so sensitive. It’s so hard to call people out on things,” Grafa says. “No one wants to be criticized. Specifically, straight white men don’t want to be criticized. I see it as my responsibility to call attention to some of these things, and I think the best way to go about that is with a little bit of humor. If I just wrote a song that was like, ‘Hey, I’m sick and tired of people asking me to come to their shows, because I need people to come to my shows,’ no one wants to hear that. But if you say, ‘Hey, isn’t this kinda funny? We’re all sort of cogs in this bigger machine helping each other out,’ that message is a little more digestible and allows people to reflect on it.”
Grafa says he appreciated stand-up comics long before he saw folk-singer John Prine’s onstage humor as “a work of art." Having grown up on Guy Clark and Robert Earl Keen, Grafa naturally started steering toward a “singer-songwriter, very storytelling-heavy sound” long before friends turned him on to modern country outriders like Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell. While Better Neighbor, Grayson County Burn Ban’s 2018 debut, was an alt-country offshoot of Bud Bronson & the Good Timers that embraced Grafa’s Texas roots, do it while you can is inspired by a sort of dare from his wife, Leah, to “go long.”
“She gave me some recording hours as a gift,” Grafa explains. “Her and I talk a lot, and she just knows I have all these songs that get backlogged and start stacking up on top of each other collecting dust. I could’ve put the Grayson County moniker on it, but I think looking at where I am in my musical career and where I wanna be and what I’ve gone through, this is sort of my first step in putting myself out there and being vulnerable. Through that vulnerability, I can be more honest and write even better songs.”
Being a sideman in Bud Bronson, and even fronting Grayson County, has let Grafa hide from some serious growth, maybe even some fears, he says.
“I still love both bands, and I’ll play in both bands as long as I can, but there is something really beautiful and personal and intimate about playing solo shows that I really fell in love with,” Grafa explains. “In a way it feels like everything I’ve done musically has led up to this moment of me coming to terms with the fact that I love playing music, and I love writing songs, and I’ve kinda owned that in myself. Just putting my name on it is a way of me sorta crossing that line so I can’t go back on it.”
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The EP's title is weighty, too.
“Naming the album do it while you can is really a message to myself in saying, ‘You have this opportunity where you have a community that supports you; you have a partner who supports you; everything’s been building up to this moment. What’s stopping you? Do what you love.’”
True to Grafa’s genuine spirit, the four songs on do it while you can also take major steps toward doing the three things important artists in any medium excel at: making you laugh, think and cry. “If you’re gonna be honest, you’re gonna get all of those emotions," Grafa says.
Grayson County Burn Ban (Austen Grafa record-release party), with Bellhoss and New Mexican, 9 p.m. Friday, May 3, Tandem Bar, 1300 East 17th Avenue, free.