High school sweethearts John Wayne DeGraw and Lynne Krieger went to Woodstock together in 1969, just days before he was scheduled to get shipped off to Vietnam. Stationed in Germany instead, John Wayne married Lynne upon his return, and they both lived happily ever after, raising two sons and a daughter in the upstate New York town of South Fallsburg. He served as a corrections officer for a Sullivan County Prison; she worked as a nurse practitioner.
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The DeGraw’s love story flourished beyond the aforementioned moments and continued until Lynne passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2017. John Wayne followed three years later after a short illness. Working through the unresolved grief following the loss of his parents, Gavin DeGraw started writing their stories—as well as some of his own—on his seventh studio album, Face The River.
“I got to bear witness to the greatest love story of two people who would do anything for each other and their family,” says DeGraw. “They were very loyal and committed. They didn’t have money, but they gave me something way better than money. I saw the pinnacle of what love should be.”
Dedicated to the life-long love of his parents, Face The River is centered around their story, the title track setting the scene to a moving storyline around the gospel-driven “Freedom,” a story of John Wayne and a reality check—nobody leaving this planet alive, might as well enjoy your freedom—to the more soulful mirth of finding love in “Summertime” and the closing hymn of “Let Someone In.”
A song DeGraw wrote for his mother, “Hero In Our House” is a eulogy to her strength and addresses the anger and heartache from her loss—If she could see me now, the hero in our house / It really gets me down, it really bums me out / Now this heart is locked in a cage / Thrown into the river, I can’t help this rage / Sometimes I wonder what she’s doing up there now / Do they see her like we do?
“I wrote that right after she passed,” shares DeGraw. “You realize that impossible value that somebody has when they’re not there. We always saw her great value, but once someone is removed, it’s astronomically compounded. I can’t ask her any questions or get any advice. I can’t believe how protected I’ve been all this time. I can’t believe what I’m missing right now—someone who would assume you were right all the time, no matter what happened, because they were your mom.”
He continues, “Day in and day out selflessness, the sacrifices without complaining, without even letting you know what kind of sacrifices were being made, the amount of shelter from the storms that were around your life you didn’t know were there because they were they were shielding you from all of it—that’s your mom.”
Tweaking lyrics and verses to make them more specific to the time he was living in, some songs naturally fastened around what was happening socially and politically in the country. “I’m not faulting anyone for having their cause, because you get the calling, and it keeps you up at night and you need to do something, and I understand all that,” DeGraw says. “I approach it from more of a journalistic standpoint, but also from a moderate standpoint of, ‘Hey, man, we all understand.’ Everybody knows that change is in the air and that can be a wonderful thing as long as we try to treat each other like human beings while we’re doing it. It’s art. It has to change shape for the time.”
Mostly piano-driven, “Lighthouse” is a song DeGraw originally wrote when he first moved to New York City in 1998, before getting signed. “I was probably 19 years or 20 years old when I wrote that,” says DeGraw. “I wanted to include it because it was hitting me in an emotional space. It also gave me good vibes, because my folks used to come to those gigs when I played that song. Now, when I play it, I can visualize them out in the audience. It’s time travel for me.”
Pulling from some bits and pieces of songs he had written over the years, DeGraw found the meaning and the purpose in each for Face the River. “When it was time to record, I was assessing the lives around me, and my own feelings, and my dad and my mother, my brother and sister, and people around me,” he says. “You start shaping the lyrics based on what it means right now.”
“Destiny,” how DeGraw viewed his parents’ love from an emotional state, is a song that pays attention to the “beauty that was there,” he says. “I just wanted to somehow capture the emotion and celebrate it. It’s so emotional, but I think it’s very triumphant for the overall texture of the record because it makes me feel like you’re looking at these people’s lives—who they are, having these life battles and pushing through them. Even when somebody passes, the other person is still living for that other person. I wanted to celebrate that. I didn’t want them to disappear off the planet and be forgotten. I want them to live on in the music.”
Produced by Dave Cobb, whose credits cover John Prine, Chris Stapleton, and Brandi Carlile, Face The River follows DeGraw’s 2016 release Something Worth Saving, released the year before life began to shift around his mother’s untimely death. Working with Cobb gave DeGraw the challenge he needed to follow through on the album.
“I like to be challenged,” DeGraw says. “I like direct conversation in a creative space, and he would dare me to stretch and challenged me to stretch. He’d say, ‘What do you have that you would never play for anybody? What’s different?’ It allowed me to put lyrical content in there that was a reflection of the moment that we were all living in at the time. Rather than just walking in with a batch of completed songs from the course of the years, I was sitting there writing songs that were a reflection of moments that I was living in and witnessing, which added to the level of continuity throughout the album.”
For DeGraw, Face The River was also the beginning of healing. “It absolutely was therapy,” he says. “There could have been a couple of different approaches. It could have been a shrink and some pills, or it could have been a couple of fingers on the piano. For me, it was a couple of beers and a piano, because that’s a way for me to relax, tap into it, and get it out. I need to sit and play and get things that I feel are toxic or that I feel like I want to share out of my body.”
Face The River is not about a social media-conscious world of polish and mansions and the billionaire lifestyle, says DeGraw, but an homage to the blue-collar heroes who sacrifice themselves for their families, like his father.
“I don’t really want to see your fucking house,” DeGraw says. “I want to hear your songs and see if they mean something to me and if I can relate to them. I want to hear somebody talk about real life. I wanted to celebrate the blue-collar heroes in our lives, the hard-working people in our lives who sacrifice shit for us and work doubles.”
Having a father who mowed lawns and picked up odd jobs to get the family by, DeGraw values growing up with little money now. “I appreciate when someone’s out there working their ass off trying to make it or trying to make a living or trying to provide for their family, trying to take care of their husband, their wife, their significant other, their kids, and making sacrifices,” he says. “It was time to pay homage to the blue-collar heroes in our world, and the people who are struggling, trying even if they’re not succeeding, and even if they’re not succeeding, they’re gonna die trying because they care about the people that they love. And that’s it. I wanted to pay homage to that, because to me, that’s what matters.”
Reflective of the overall “sensation” of the album, the title of the album also speaks to the challenges everyone is facing. “I was picturing my father looking across the river at my mother,” says DeGraw. “Now, that element of life has changed, and I’m looking at them across the river. As a music fan, I want to try to write my own version of ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ [Sam Cooke, 1964] and do my best attempt at paying homage to that type of songwriting.”
Playing a recent show at City Winery in New York City, DeGraw apologizes for his tardiness. “I was finishing up a new song, but it was important I get the words right,” he said before performing “Chariot,” the title track from his 2003 debut.
Now more than 20 years since DeGraw first moved to the city—first to Hell’s Kitchen in 1998 before settling near his older brother Joey, also a musician, in the East Village on East 2nd Street and 1st Avenue, upstairs from an S&M bar and around the corner from a drag cabaret and a funeral parlor—DeGraw has settled in Las Vegas after living in Nashville for several years.
“Even when I’m not in New York, the lifestyle of it stays in your blood,” DeGraw admits. “That 24-hour lifestyle, that accessibility to whatever you’re thinking about at the time, and that anything-goes element of the city. There was a certain danger element back then that was exciting. It’s just the nature of that town, which is probably why I’m enjoying Las Vegas at the moment since it’s got that 24-hour thing going for it.”
Now, DeGraw is better equipped to face his losses with Face The River out of his system. “I’m fully aware that what went on in my world, it’s life,” DeGraw says. “My father said to me something really interesting, and it was great advice after my mom passed. He put his hand on my shoulder and he said, ‘We were made for this. We were all made to be able to withstand this design,’ and I keep that in mind, as hard as it may be.”
This is how life is designed, adds DeGraw, and how we are designed. We are designed to adapt and keep going. “I believe we learn new appreciations, even after they’re gone to continue to relive for them,” he says. “You owe it to them to have a great life here. You owe it to them to keep going and experiencing and experimenting, trying new stuff, or maybe starting your life over somewhere or whatever it is. You owe it to them to go and enjoy your life. That’s really our job. That’s what they want. They want you to go have a great life, whatever that means for you.”
Rushing to finish the album before his father died, DeGraw was able to let his dad hear the entire album, including the title track, which made the elder DeGraw tear up, wishing Lynne could hear it.
“For me, this record is not a funeral march,” says DeGraw. “This is an homage, a celebration. This is a story of triumph for [my parents] because they did a fucking awesome job.”
Photo by Jason Goodrich