California rocker makes his way to Sierra Nevada country, finally
Dave Alvin & the Guilty Men make their Crown Room debut on Friday, October 5.
Dave Alvin has always lived in California. His songwriting has always been shaped by his fellow California songwriters. So his new album, “West of West: Songs from California Songwriters Volume 1,” is, in some ways, as autobiographical as any of his albums, even though he only wrote half of one of the 13 songs.
Alvin’s music is a braid of different American musics blues, country, rock ‘n’ roll, pop, folk and R&B and in each strand, he favors the California accent. His favorite blues, for example, is the West Coast scene that coalesced around Big Joe Turner and T-Bone Walker after World War II.
Alvin’s favorite country music is the Bakersfield Sound of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. His favorite R&B is the South Central L.A. scene of Jesse Belvin, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Richard Berry and the Calvanes.
His favorite folk songwriters are the California heirs of Woody Guthrie’s years there Kate Wolf, Jim Ringer, Mary McCaslin, Rosalie Sorrels and Tom Russell.
His favorite pop-rock songwriters are the chroniclers of California’s collision of sun-tanned hopes and film-noir disappointments Randy Newman, Tom Waits, Brian Wilson and Stan Ridgway.
“I interviewed Buck Owens for Mix Magazine a few years ago,” Alvin says, “and one of my questions was, ‘What was it about California that gave the Bakersfield sound that edge?’ And Buck said, ‘The biggest difference was that back East you had to keep a foot between the dancers, whereas in California it was all about rubbing up against one another and polishing each other’s belt buckles.’ “I think that’s true; California has that frontier, anything-goes openness and wildness that makes it different. It’s also a place with a lot of cultures, and that openness allows musicians from different cultures to trade ideas when they meet. You can hear the connection between doo-wop harmonies and surf harmonies, between T-Bone Walker’s guitar and David Hidalgo’s guitar. To me it’s just amazing that the scope of California music accommodates everything from Brian Wilson to Merle Haggard. They’re both natives and one is no more valid than the other. Haggard was as shaped by the California experience as Brian Wilson was; he just expressing in a different way.”
Alvin was born in Los Angeles on November 11, 1955, and he grew up in the blue-collar inner suburb of Downey. Like many Californians, his father Cass came from somewhere else; he rode the rails from Indiana and became a union organizer in California mining camps.
But Alvin’s mother Nana was a third-generation Californian, and she imbued her son with a pride in his home turf. As Alvin recounts in the liner notes, it was Nana who lit up when they heard John Stewart singing about the High Sierra she could see from her childhood window. Alvin’s brother Phil, older by two years, was a blues fanatic who allowed his kid brother to tag along to the Ashgrove nightclub to hear such blues greats as Big Joe Turner, Lee Allen and T-Bone Walker. They all came from somewhere else, too, but they were Californians by the time the Alvin boys befriended them.
Dave, Phil, drummer Bill Bateman and bassist John Bazz formed the Blasters in 1979. Before long, the group expanded to include pianist Gene Taylor and saxophonists Steve Berlin and Lee Allen. The Blasters released four of the best rock ‘n’ roll albums of the ’80s with Phil Alvin singing the lead vocals and Dave Alvin writing the songs and playing the lead guitar. They were the “Kings of California” until tensions between the two brothers drove them apart.
Dave Alvin, by now living in Los Angeles, left the band in 1986 and briefly joined X and The Knitters, two bands led by his L.A. pal John Doe. Alvin launched his solo career with the 1987 album, Romeo’s Escape, and except for such side projects as The Knitters, a Blasters reunion and The Pleasure Barons, a supergroup of crooners which included Country Dick Montana and Mojo Nixon. Alvin has been a solo artist ever since.
His solo albums have ranged from the twangy roots-rock of Blue Blvd. to the storytelling country-folk of King of California to the muscular blues of Ashgrove. He won the Best Traditional Folk Grammy Award for his 2000 album, Public Domain: Songs from the Wild Land. During the 1990s, he produced albums for artists as different as rockabilly legend Sonny Burgess, Western swing revivalist Big Sandy & the Fly-Rite Boys, singer-songwriter Tom Russell, ex-burlesque queen Candye Kane, alt-country heroes The Derailers and pop-rock siren Christy McWilson.
Alvin’s songs have been recorded by artists as varied as Dwight Yoakam, Los Lobos, Buckwheat Zydeco, X, Joe Ely, Little Milton, James McMurtry, Johnny Rodriguez, Jo-El Sonnier, Robert Earl Keen, Barrence Whitfield and Robbie Fulks. Not all those artists are Californians and neither are all of Alvin’s influences, but his ability to draw from so many sources and to work in so many contexts reflects his home state’s jumble of cultures. Whether they were Sonora Mexicans, Texas blacks or Indiana Poles, they came from somewhere else, attracted by a vision of golden beaches and green valleys in a promised land. And even when those promises didn’t come true, the hopes remained big enough to fuel music crackling with expectations.
To make sense of it all, it seemed time to record an album of tunes by California songwriters.
“I’m a fourth generation Californian,” Alvin said. “I grew up here and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else, but it’s not blemish free. It took me a while to understand that Brian Wilson’s songs were about sun and fun with a hint of melancholy, and that hint is what makes that Beach Boys stuff so amazing. Woody Guthrie wrote about looking for the promised land but he also wrote about the migrant camps. When people outside the state think of California, they don’t think of migrant camps and hard times, but that’s what Haggard is singing about in many of his California songs. The best California songs come from the intersection where hopes and reality collide.
“We started with a list of 25 songs, from Steve Gillette to Captain Beefheart and everything in between. I was even thinking of doing ‘Going Back to Cali’ as a blues thing. In the end, though, it wasn’t about choosing my favorite songs so much as choosing songs that I could sing well enough and arrange differently enough to make them interesting. When I did the traditional songs on the ‘Public Domain’ album, I asked myself, ‘How do I take these songs and make them sound like I wrote them?’ Now I’m asking, ‘What can I bring to ‘California Bloodlines’ and ‘Redneck Friend’ to justify doing them again?”