When he received his first guitar as a Christmas present at age 9, Max Graham found it too hard to play and let it sit in the corner of his room untouched for a year and a half, his family recalls. But then one day when he was bored, he picked it up again, and everything clicked.
"And he never put it down again," his sister Andrea Graham said.
The lead singer and mandolinist in Minnesota's jammy bluegrass band Kind Country and an earnest, multi-faceted performer with many other projects, Max Graham died last week after a long battle with borderline personality disorder, according to family.
Like so many other musicians during the pandemic, the 30-year-old father of three especially struggled with mental illness over the past year after being forced off stage and left out of work by COVID-19.
"The isolation created by the pandemic along with the loss of daily music collaboration, touring, performing and social contact exacerbated his condition," Andrea Graham said.
Reaction to Max's death was swift and widespread over the weekend within the Twin Cities and beyond. A widely shared GoFundMe campaign for his young family has raised $80,000 since Friday. The handlers of the Grateful Dead's social media channels even paid tribute by posting a video of Kind Country covering "Till the Morning Comes" via Twitter and Facebook.
Formed in 2012, Kind Country gigged often and with irrepressible energy to come out from under the shadow of Minnesota's other bluegrassy groups Trampled by Turtles and Pert Near Sandstone. The sextet earned its own reputation for hyper-picked, feel-good acoustic music with 2019's album "Hard Times," which led to a packed headlining show at First Avenue and festival gigs and tour dates around the country.
Kind Country was just the marquee name among Graham's myriad musical projects, though. He also had a cover band called the Burbellies that "bluegrassed up" hits from the '80s and '90s. He hosted a live jam session dubbed Max Graham & the Fam at the Cabooze and other venues. He was an early member and booster of the rising string band Barbaro. He served as a fill-in member for national touring groups the Kitchen Dwellers and Julian Davis.
Graham sometimes performed in jazz ensembles and even worked as a hip-hop producer with various Twin Cities rappers such as Obery Woods and Brandon Pulphus.
"Anytime Kind Country wasn't on tour, Max played pretty much every night of the week around town," said his Kind Country bandmate Chris Forsberg, who created the GoFundMe page in his honor — "reflecting Max's bright light back on those that he loved most," he wrote.
As hundreds jumped to support the fundraiser, many musicians also lined up to shared stories about Graham and their admiration of him. Not only was he respected his songwriting and musicality, he was also celebrated for the way he became a cog of sorts for different people and corners of the Minnesota music scene.
"So many people list Max as one of the people that welcomed them into the scene here," said Pert Near Sandstone banjoist/singer Kevin Kniebel.
"He was so easy to connect with, and you were fast friends and felt like you'd been family forever. Kind Country was a phenomenal group, but Max had so much going on musically."
Trampled by Turtles violinst Ryan Young, who produced Kind Country's 2015 album "Hwy 7," said, "From the first time I met him, I knew he was capable of becoming anything he wanted. His complete mastery and 'big picture' of how his music should be performed made it super fun to work with him."
Kind Country was one of the first local groups forced to convert a live gig into a livestreamed performance at the Hook & Ladder Theatre near the start of the pandemic last March, but with six band members and their families' safety to worry about, it was hard for the group to perform together as the lockdown wore on and on.
Graham's wife, Hannah Graham (née Folkens), said in the Facebook post announcing Max's death Wednesday that he "fought so hard and sought out all the help he could, but in the end he just couldn't stay with us."
"Through our heartbreak we are finding solace in knowing that Max's talents, energy, and heart will live on through his music and his three beautiful children," Hannah wrote.
Their three children, Arlo, Willa and Nash, are ages 6, 3 and 2. A 2009 graduate of St. Michael-Albertville High School, Graham is also survived by parents Sue and Mike and brothers Zach and Sam. Andrea Graham said they are planning to host a musical celebration for Max on the family farm near Zimmerman when COVID-19 rates are down enough for it to be safe.
"[Max's] disease contributed to both his brilliance and his struggles," said his sister, who explained he had "used different mental health services over the years, including outpatient, partial hospitalization, and hospitalization."
"It's so important to us that we talk about how getting help is so much more than just reaching out, and our medical system makes it almost impossible to get the help you need."
In a recent study finding how "the pandemic is triggering a lot of doubt and insecurities" in musicians, Berklee College of Music posted tips to try to offset the stress, such as disconnecting from social media and staying physical active. Musicians struggling with mental health issues can find help from such organizations as Backline.care, the Grammys' MusiCares and the Twin Cities organization Dissonance.
Anyone in a mental health crisis can call the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255.
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658