“Are you an idiot, or just an asshole?”
That’s certainly a brazen lyric to open a debut album. But Austen Grafa, singer and rhythm guitarist for local campfire-country band Grayson County Burn Ban, might be the only songwriter fun-loving and sincere enough to spin something so immediately antagonistic into a folky PSA about common courtesy during Denver’s population-growth avalanche.
The album Better Neighbor, says the thirty-year-old Grafa, is about two things: “the general camaraderie that already exists, but also how much Denver has changed in the five and a half years since I moved here.” The band will release the new record with a show at the hi-dive on January 12.
Grafa grew up in Sherman, Texas, before attending the University of Colorado Boulder, where he graduated with degrees in economics and humanities. The scruffy, smiley, long-haired Texan also plays bass in Denver’s Bud Bronson and the Good Timers, a brotherly punk-rock band equally influenced by Thin Lizzy and Titus Andronicus. Grayson County and Bud Bronson share not only Grafa and the lovable Brian Beer (who fronts Bud Bronson and plays lead guitar in Grayson County), but also a tangible and infectious sense of solidarity and I-don’t-wanna-grow-up liberty.
While Bud Bronson regales audiences with loud, fast odes to John Elway, rolling blunts and “living in a beer commercial,” Grayson County waxes a little deeper, juxtaposing affection for fire-pit keggers on hometown visits with the fear of getting “stuck being a young dreamer or an old drunk.”
The chorus “Let’s get fucked up and we’ll all be here now” not only defines Grayson County’s Better Neighbor, but also perfectly describes the worldview of a young man who left Boulder soon after graduating, as so many do, and apparently brought a little of its cosmopolitan Buddhism along with him to what the Good Timers label “Denver Rock City.”
For Grafa, who enjoys his role as a sideman in Bud Bronson, starting his own project took patience and self-searching.
“I still get nervous when I play, and I thrive on that,” says Grafa, whose day job is working with kids at the Joshua School in Englewood. “[Being a frontman] is almost like going through the Upside Down, or going through some sort of portal where it’s like the transition is really hard, but once I’m on there, it’s a roller coaster.
“One of the main personal, conscious boundaries was that a lot of the singer-songwriters I was into had this older wisdom and charm,” he continues, “and being this straight white dude who lived in Boulder at the age of 22, I was like, ‘What do I have to say about anything?’ And I still feel that way, but for me, that was a huge boundary of ‘I admire Robert Earl Keen and Guy Clark, the kind of guy who’s saying things that are so powerful in so few words’ — and I didn’t feel like I had the credibility to do that. I still don’t, but I just don’t care anymore. I realized I’m going to write songs and play ’em because that’s what I love to do.”
With so many cookie-cutter country, country-rock, alt-country, etc., bands in Colorado, it’s refreshing to hear Grayson County Burn Ban — with tasteful pedal-steel and frequent female harmonies — traverse all those subgenres and more on Better Neighbor, with a youthful fervor and a camaraderie that Grafa says he honed in Bud Bronson.
The genuineness and familial aspect of both bands is “so apparent,” Grafa says. “You hear it and say, ‘I want to be a part of this.’ I think we definitely strive to have that same energy with Grayson County songs. So it kind of formed as that — me wanting to play songs just to push my own boundaries, and then having that support system of my friends, who happen to be phenomenal musicians.”
According to Grafa, although some fans of Bud Bronson and the Good Timers might be surprised that he started an alt-country side project, the music of Terry Allen and Guy Clark was always “playing in the background” when he was a kid, and some of the first Bud Bronson songs — twangy tunes that didn’t fit that group — actually ended up on Better Neighbor.
“As I got older and I sat down and started playing guitar, I started realizing that’s what would come out, that sort of folky country stuff,” Grafa says. “I almost rediscovered it, because that’s what I grew up listening to, though not my choice — it was just in my environment. I rediscovered it by starting to write my own music.
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“With the Grayson County songs, it really is just me sitting down with a cup of coffee on a Saturday morning and messing around with a guitar.”
In concert, the coed collection of rambunctious young Denver musicians can unravel a poignant urban-country ballad into a foot-stomping cow-punk anthem in three minutes flat, pausing only for Grafa to ramble like a young Jack Elliott. And it seems rambling is the only goal.
“It’s not like I’m trying to take over the world and be a famous musician,” Grafa says. “I now have an opportunity to show people something we created as a band and can keep moving forward with. Right now I think I just want to try and do it all. And that’s where the [music] industry is going: You just write songs the best you can, play as many shows as you can, and try to get people to care.”
Grayson County Burn Ban album release, 8 p.m. Friday, January 12, hi-dive, 7 South Broadway, $10, 303-733-0230.