stephen grayce
at 44 the singer/songwriter finally quits planning his career and starts having it

by Dane Janz


      Stephen Grayce is coming to the phone. It's 3 pm as I reach him in his Orlando apartment, just waking up. He's definitely on his way - an "ouch" is heard, a cat yowls. It takes Grayce awhile to get moving sometimes, and it's a torturous process.

      "I am the king of inertia," he explains. "If I'm awake, I'm awake for far more hours than the average guy. Once I'm asleep, I'm sacked, still asleep for the first hour that I'm up, excepting the insomnia thing. Then I'm up playing guitar until I almost can't see the strings. I can't think of much better to remember as your last act of the day than finding a great chord or note or guitar/voice mix. That means I'm through, and I can finally sleep. Of course, none of these patterns are set in stone and can change at any moment."

      He has been a study in extremes from day one. Raised in a tiny West Virginia town in the sixties and seventies, he was grazed by the end of the hippie movement, the traditional country era and the dawn of hard rock all at the same time, zooming from pole to pole with glee. His earliest musical memory is of standing on his grandmother's kitchen table at age 4 or 5 singing Ricky Nelson's "Travelling Man" to the relatives. "I had a lot of sleepovers with a friend," Grayce notes, "and his parents always slept with the radio on the local country station. I could never sleep, I had to always hear one more song. Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Porter Wagonner and Dolly Parton, all that. Amazing stuff. I remember rollerskating with my friend Marilyn to "Harper Valley PTA" in her parents' garage over and over and over. Then the rock and hippie influence came in through my older brother, who turned me on to bands like Crow and Led Zeppelin, and when he brought home Alice Cooper's Love It To Death and the first Black Sabbath album there was a whole new avenue to head down at breakneck speed. Music of almost any kind has always been a heartbeat for me if it's done well and blazes a trail or two."

      Grayce tried being trendy for awhile, going as far as wearing a Nehru jacket in his sixth grade picture, the same year he started his first band with the are-we-cool-yet name of The Soul Assassins. They were an unexpected hit, playing for other classes and clubs and getting coverage in the local paper. "Oh my God, we were so bizarre to the other kids," he laughs, "which was fine with me. We were doing songs like 'Judy In Disguise' and 'Valleri' by the Monkees, with the lyrics all wrong of course. I played a small guitar tuned to a major chord, or piano. Imagine seeing three 11-year-olds at a Ruritan meeting doing a cover of "Light My Fire"! They didn't know whether to bow down or run for the hills.  It was so surreal in a wonderful way. And the drummer was kickass, which didn't hurt."

      While maintaining decent grades, Grayce immersed himself in rock and pop, delighting in discovering acts before his fellow students. "I knew who Men at Work were about a year before the rest of the world it seemed," he says. "Artists like Devo, Tanita Tikaram, Jules and the Polar Bears and even more obscure stuff, amazing stuff that just came out of nowhere and put whole new lanes on the highway, right beside my idols like Joni Mitchell, Joan Jett, Golden Earring, Gary Numan, Marc Bolan, the list goes on and on. And my best friend Ron Brunk turned me on to Lou Reed, John Prine, pretty much every great artist I'd missed. Then I discovered beer and pot, and the metamorphosis was complete, much to the horror of my parents." Brunk's family had a hand in a local beer distributorship, which granted easier-than-usual access and a jump on his peers in the party department.

   Music became an escape, and a dream as well. "I can't remember not wanting to sing, or at least write," he says. "I was a small kid in a small town with no interest in sports, other than playing the best trumpet lines at halftime. I'd buy album after album, unwrapping them on the way home and telling my mom that they'd been loaned to me. I'm sure she wondered why I never seemed to return any. But it was the only thing I really related to. Partying was fun but very secondary, it was just getting loose to let more music in. I did the stand-in-the-mirror thing singing into a hairbrush, all of it. I designed album covers, made up cool band-member names, and wrote tons of songs in high school and college. After being a misfit for a very long time, at least I thought I was on a path worth taking, even if no one else came along." He did have a serious validation, though, from a high school English teacher. "She pretty much told me that I could do whatever I want, and she damn well expected me to."

     While convincing others wasn't always a priority, it still stayed in the back of his mind. "Part of me of course wanted some applause, or at least some encouragement. This was not a dream anyone but me thought attainable, and they came down hard on me. Once in awhile I wonder how long it would've taken to get to this point if someone had said, 'yeah, go for it'. But to most folks I was the dreamer kid or worse, the wacko. I kinda hated it, kinda loved it," he laughs.

     The biggest blow to Grayce's musical world, as to many at the time, was John Lennon's death. "I cried for weeks on and off, and still can't go to Strawberry Fields in Central Park without blubbering like an idiot. And it's not just for his death, it's for his life. There is no way for kids now to understand what it was like to be around when Lennon was on the move. He and Yoko took rock in so many directions, musical, political, psychological. He did it his way and did it so well that it couldn't be denied. People like that have always blown me away - Lennon, John Lydon, even Bette Davis. Strong people who knew exactly what they wanted and got the hell on with it, and could not be ignored. I had big dreams, but was so afraid of not making it that it took me forever to put my toe in the pool."

    Getting to that point meant a lot. It meant not finishing college out of a combination of light drug use and heavy boredom; it meant seeing his dream with Brunk of going to Texas and becoming stars (Brunk's dad lived there) fall to that old warhorse of love when Brunk fell for a co-worker and opted out. "That was very hard," Grayce remembers. "Ron at the time was the only person on the face of the earth that thought I wasn't totally nuts. So to lose that kind of trust was like having my lifeline cut off. I drifted in space for a long time." He played in cover bands near home for a few years, then decided to make the escape a physical one by moving to Florida in 1984. A friend traded him an acoustic guitar for his extra microwave oven a few years later, and he started playing and writing again in earnest.

    Then, just when the ball started to bounce again, it was dropped hard when Grayce's best friend in Orlando died of AIDS in 1990. Tony Holden was 30. "I got so old so quickly, holding a dying friend's hand, I was the last person he ever saw. The whole scenario threw me into shock, emotionally, socially. I couldn't write music for almost a decade. i thought, 'what's the friggin' point to anything? Not only did I not know why we were here, I wasn't sure I wanted to."

    So imagine Grayce's surprise the next year when Ron Brunk got back in touch. "Without knowing it, Ron really pushed me to get it together and let some grief and anger out, to cut the regret scene and get a life. And once I decided to do that I knew music would have to be the center of it. It was the most fun, the most touching, the most comforting thing about life. And I decided I wasn't letting it go. It had always been there, but with Tony dying came the new element of 'you're not gonna have forever to get this show on the road, you know'.

   After a slow return to collaboration (Steve sang backups on Brunk's 1998 album Deep and played and wrote for Brunk's latest, Eclectricity, as well as doing the design and photography for both), an epiphany hit at Brunk's new Tennessee hub early this year. "I went to record a novelty kind of country song called 'Used To You', about a guy who can't function when his wife/girlfriend leaves him, can't even find his socks. I wrote it with Brooks and Dunn in mind, and decided to officially start my career by selling out," he says, rolling his eyes.

   Brooks and Dunn didn't option the track, but the day before recording it Grayce and Brunk sat down to try to see what else they could come up with. What they hit was a new mine for Grayce in particular; part healing therapy, part quiet acknowledgement of grief and recementing kinship and picking up the banner again. In five hours they wrote and recorded two songs acoustically on an 8-track MiniDisc recorder. "One Last Kiss" is a somewhat vague, surreal, and fragile story of the end of an affair; the even more intense "Nonetheless" addresses self-doubt, loss and the amazingly lasting pain that both can cost. It was hard to finish for him. "I kept having to redo the vocal because I couldn't hold it together. This circle of grief (which began when Marilyn Damron, the roller-skating buddy of his youth, died at 19 from diabetes complications, and continued in the new millennium with the loss of both his grandmother and father) closed itself and then exploded. And it was mixed with such a joy that I could finally deal with it, and talk about it, and sing about it. It tied everything I loved together, and opened the floodgates of inspiration again." A third song, "West of Cassiopeia", came a few weeks later back in Florida, even more overtly dealing with the ghosts, but in a comforting way. "The song basically is about seeing someone you lost in the sky and knowing that they're still there, and it's going to be all right. And it's so nice to finally feel that there's a chance of that happening."

    So twenty-six years after he planned to start his songwriting career, Stephen Grayce is finally emerging with a six-song EP called, of course, Day One. Even more encouraging it the widening of scope; in addition to the four above-mentioned songs, two newer compositions up the ante for the future: "Red Blue and White", which spells out graphically Grayce's opinion of President Dubya's latest warmongering efforts as a satirical lyric from the Prez's own lips, with loops and samples from his and other speeches about 9/11 and beyond; and "Miles To Go", which in its sprawling Texas-cinema fashion says that this Grayce guy's not done yet. A wildcat of a guitar solo is preceded by the sound of Grayce plugging in; you feel the solo's attitude before it even begins.

    And what is he doing next? As usual, it's simple in a complex way. "I'm working on the title track for my first full CD, called 'Quiet Please'.  It's a French-style folk song about September 11th and the way the world is pretty much changed forever now, and how we all need a chance to step back for a second to grieve and adjust our expectations and hopes. I picture Melanie or Marianne Faithfull covering it. Get me their numbers!"

    Even if he never gets those numbers, it seems apparent that Stephen Grayce, after a very long search, has at least found his own.