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Concert preview: Gavin DeGraw keeps blurring lines between pop and country, preferring the term ‘American’

Singer-songwriter Gavin DeGraw is going for a rootsier vibe on his current tour, performing as part of an acoustic trio. The tour stops by the Knit in Spokane on Friday. (Leann Mueller)
Singer-songwriter Gavin DeGraw is going for a rootsier vibe on his current tour, performing as part of an acoustic trio. The tour stops by the Knit in Spokane on Friday. (Leann Mueller)

An August 2016 article in Billboard magazine previewing his latest album, “Something Worth Saving,” referred to Gavin DeGraw as a “country ace.”

That caught DeGraw a bit off guard.

“You say it was ‘country ace?’ Wow, that’s interesting,” the singer-songwriter/keyboardist responded during a recent phone interview. “I’m flattered. It’s really fascinating.”

The country reference got DeGraw thinking out loud about his music and the connections he’s had to country music going back to childhood. Exactly how he landed in the magazine’s country section isn’t clear, but perhaps it had to do with DeGraw’s 2014 collaboration with country star Martina McBride on the Sam Cooke tune, “Bring It on Home to Me,” his stint opening for Shania Twain on her last tour (which stopped by Spokane Arena in 2015), or a New Year’s Eve 2015 broadcast he did with Lady Antebellum. Still, if he has dipped his toes into the country world recently, DeGraw has always been considered a pop artist (with elements of soul and folk mixed into his music).

But as he started talking, DeGraw explained that he was never simply a pop – or for that matter – country artist.

“I just call it American at this point because I grew up with so many different styles of music,” DeGraw, 40, said. “I mean, the first musical memory is being at my grandparents’ house and hearing Hank Williams’ ‘Hey, Good Lookin.’ I grew up on that record, period. I grew up on Roger Miller, you know (singing the “King of the Road” line), ‘Trailers for sale or rent.’ At the same time, one of my other earliest memories is the ‘Grease’ soundtrack. I mean, what was better than that? So there was different music happening around me, Marty Robbins’ ‘El Paso,’ this is the kind of stuff. My earliest musical memories were country music. But then in my adolescence it was all classic rock, strictly classic rock, strictly. Then in my late teens…I was introduced to older R&B and soul music, a lot of Sam Cooke and Ray Charles. I was learning that stuff. So it all kind of blended together – and a lot of Billy Joel stuff since I was about four or five years old – all that stuff.

“There was a lot of music in my household being played,” said McGraw, who hails from the Catskills region of New York. “My dad was a musician. My mom was a musician. My grandfather played instruments. His brothers played instruments. They’d have hootenannies at my uncle Earl’s dairy farm. I grew up in all that stuff, but I had never thought I was a country artist. I just played a lot of old-school pop records and old-school rock records and old-school R&B records.”

Whatever styles have found their way into his music since DeGraw came on the scene in 2004 with his million-selling debut album, “Chariot,” he has no problem identifying where“Something Worth Saving,” his sixth studio album, fits in the music world.

“I think that this is clearly a pop record,” he said. “(The single) ‘She Sets the City on Fire’ is absolutely a pop record.”

The current album picks up where DeGraw left off on 2013’s “Make a Move.” Like that album, “Something Worth Saving” finds him walking the line between creating songs that can fit into today’s commercial pop world, while still maintaining some of the more acoustic-oriented, rootsier pop that defined early albums like “Chariot” (which produced hit singles with the title track and “I Don’t Want to Be,” the latter of which became the theme song for the TV series “One Tree Hill”) and his 2008 self-titled second album.

“She Sets the City on Fire” fits squarely in the top 40 pop world, with its bouncy R&B-ish beat and buoyant melody. So does “Kite Like Girl” (whose fusion of pop and soul would fit on a Pharrell album) and the perky “New Love.” But “Something Worth Saving” also has a few songs that connect back to his earlier sound, such as “Say I Am” and the title song, a pair of dramatic piano-centered ballads.

“It’s important that I, as an artist, continue to evolve and at the same time, to not forget what makes me tick musically to begin with,” DeGraw said. “Pretty much every record, I make it a point to put something on that album that’s essentially a real dedication to my original audience, so they know I haven’t at all abandoned the ‘Chariot’ version of Gavin DeGraw.”

Like “Make a Move,” the new album also finds DeGraw continuing to co-write with several A-list songwriters, including Gregg Wattenburg (“She Sets the City on Fire”), Dave Bassett (“Kite Like Girl” and “Annalee”), Johan Carlsson (“New Love” and “Harder to Believe”) and John Shanks (“Say I Am” and “How Lucky Can a Man Get”).

Often, artists collaborate with these sort of songwriters because they can help craft songs that can be radio hits. DeGraw said he’s aware of which songs he writes have commercial potential, but feels co-writing first and foremost is helping to take his music to places he could not have reached writing on his own and broadening his own abilities as a songwriter.

“I’ll tell you what, I never could have written ‘She Sets The City On Fire’ alone, not in a million years. It’s just coming from a different place harmonically than I typically would draw from,” he said. “I want to embrace that. There are great writers out there and there are great ideas out there, things that I can’t do. I want to learn from that. And by allowing myself to be around that, it just opens up my mind completely as a songwriter.”

For all the talk of moving forward artistically and broadening his creative horizons, DeGraw this fall is doing a show that should better suited to older, rootsy songs like “Chariot” and “I Don’t Want To Be.” It’s an all-acoustic trio tour, stripping back his songs to a more basic form.

But if DeGraw is going organic on this tour, he also likes how the more modern sound of “Something Worth Saving” has enhanced his usual plugged-in live show.

He pointed to Billy Joel (DeGraw opened shows for the “Piano Man” over a two-and-a-half-year period) and Paul McCartney as artists whose diverse catalogs of great songs allow them to deliver dynamic concerts.

“Look at Paul McCartney, what a variety of songs and styles and approaches and sounds,” DeGraw said. “To go from anything of the Beatles, to go from ‘Help’ to ‘Sgt. Pepper,’ to go from ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ to ‘I Dig A Pony,’ it’s crazy.

“That great variety of songs he wrote, that’s what makes his live shows so cool and so interesting, on top of the fact that obviously at this point, those are standards,” he said. “They’re just great songs. They take you on a great sonic journey. And I’m just looking at that and going ‘Man, that’s the template. That is the thing to aspire toward. So that is, I’m attempting to be that guy. Will I ever get there? Who knows, man. Time will tell.”