Many musicians work crappy jobs while they wait for the day where they can make a living off their music. Turns out a lot of them work the same crappy jobs as Jon Dee Graham and Freedy Johnston found out. Years ago they had both spent time washing dishes, as Jon Dee puts it in the song “Dishwasher,” “in a restaurant where I could not afford to eat.” From this common bond came a songwriting partnership, and a name, the Hobart Brothers, named for the most common type of commercial dishwasher. After Susan Cowsill (yeah, like those Cowsills) joined Jon Dee on stage during SXSW in 2010, they found another member of their family. At Least We Have Each Other, a twelve track CD with seven bonus tracks of demos and alternate versions of the songs, was released earlier this year. Even though they take turns singing, the writing process was truly collaborative.
So what do you do when you go on tour with only twelve songs to your name? You tell a lot of stories and you play a few covers. The Hobarts were particularly good at the former. Most of the stories had to do with growing up famous courtesy of Cowsill. She met a slew of celebrities as a child and had all kinds of stories about it, for example she went to the premier of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with Kenny Rogers. Jon Dee was referring to one of these adventures when he said they should “play the first kiss song.” Unsurprisingly, Freedy heard it as “the first Kiss song” and wanted to know which one that was. “Beth,” Jon Dee laughed, “we’re going to play Beth.” In fact, what he meant they were going to play was “Daydream Believer” since Cowsill’s first kiss (“the first voluntary kiss” she corrected) had been from the Monkees’ Davy Jones. He had only kissed her on the cheek but it was covered by Sixteen magazine and she cried all the way to and from the meeting.
At times the story telling threatened to overtake the show, and one of the trio would have to say “that’s it, we’re playing a song now.” Jon Dee and Freedy played guitar, Susan played tambourine and they all sang. Cowsill sounded best singing lead, especially on “The Ballad of Lil’ Sis” when she wails “Baby, didn’t I love you, just as hard as I could?” and on the sweet “Sodapoptree.” She also added backing vocals to many of the songs, sounding surprisingly good even though her voice is lower than Freedy’s curiously high one. Freedy’s best song of the night, if you don’t count his always terrific cover of “Wichita Lineman,” was “Sweet Senorita” a song about a truck driver in love with a Mexican prostitute, which of course doesn’t end happily ever after.
Of course my favorite songs of the night were Jon Dee’s. “Why I Don’t Hunt” finds him with a change of heart as a kid after killing a blackbird, for which he would get fifty cents, while “Dishwasher” detailed an anonymous love note he found in the street many years ago on the way home from that dishwashing job. Perhaps the most personal was “All Things Being Equal” about the collapse of the cotton industry with the advent of synthetic material. All his family needed to decide where their next move would be was a bottle of whiskey and a map of Texas.
It was a terrifically entertaining show, even if it wasn’t musically the best I’ve ever seen. Sometimes the storytelling and the secret telling threatened to take over the real reason they were there. Still, I couldn’t stop smiling the whole night. This is a family I would like to be part of.