One of the great troubadours of our time, Dave Alvin released his umpteenth solo album last summer, is part of a great new collaborative album and is about to embark on his zillionth tour.
His last solo album “Eleven Eleven” broke all his prior rules. He wrote it on the road, using musicians with whom he has not recorded since his storied days in The Blasters, and recorded a duet with his brother Phil.
Photo by Beth Hertzhaft
Dave and I spoke a couple times, once late last summer and again early this summer. In both instances, he was about to pack up his guitar for yet another series of gigs on the road. “Actually, writing on the road was a new thing for me. I could never do it before. But with such a big band, I found it easier,” observed Dave, his appealing and raspy voice thick with experience. He went on to describe that things have become more relaxed, perhaps mellowing with age. He finds less pressure than the days of yore, when he had only a slotted amount of time to get the songs recorded and the album released.
We talked about the evolving nature of the music / record business. Like many of his era, Dave still thinks in terms of the album, which flies in the face of today’s emphasis on the single. Like fellow traveler Nick Lowe, Dave loves his label. Dave and I concurred that being on a label still stands for something important, and an album on Yep Roc is no exception. Dave mentioned that of all his musician friends who decided to go it alone, now all but one regret not having a label to call home.
“The best albums are cinematic,” asserts Dave. His latest solo album continues in that tradition, moving easily through a rootsy blend of folk and blues with spicy flavorings of country and rockabilly. The newer release is solidly in that cinematic tradition. “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County” is a collaboration between John Mellencamp and Stephen King that features an all-star cast of singers. King wrote the book and Mellencamp wrote the songs. They brought in producer T Bone Burnett as the musical director, harnessing tunes sung by the likes of Elvis Costello, Rosanne Cash, Sheryl Crow, Kris Kristofferson, Taj Mahal, Neko Case and brothers Dave and Phil Alvin. The album is about two sets of brothers and a murder.
Dave admits he thought it was a joke when he got the call asking to participate. Mellencamp had produced a Blasters track, Dave knew him a little. King is/was a Blasters fan. The thought was to reunite the Alvin brothers. Working with Burnett was intriguing, said Dave. “The album was recorded in an interesting way. Due to schedules, not everyone was in same room at the same time. I came in after Sheryl Crow, then Phil came in a day or two later. There were some ringer singers, demo singers doing other people’s parts. A couple months later I came back in and finally heard the two brothers’ voices together. T-Bone was very patient. I told him that I can’t sing harmony, and he said ‘OK good, don’t’.”
“Ghostlands” holds together very well. The vocals are often ghostly and haunting, befitting the creators’ storyline. Cash’s vocals are tender, and Mahal’s throat shredding evokes Tom Waits. Elder statesman Kristofferson is remarkable on “How Many Days.” I urged Dave to check out a similar production that Randy Newman mounted called “Faust,” also with an all-star cast of singers. Both productions have the devil as ringmaster, one played by Newman and the other by Costello. Talk about typecasting.
Dave and I then rambled on about his songwriting. “I can’t believe I wrote these songs. ‘Fourth of July,’ ‘Marie Marie’…I am shocked I wrote those songs.” He sounds truly humbled by the admission.
He professes he has a broad definition of folk music. It is not all quiet, some of his folk music is indeed loud. His work with his brother in the Blasters back in the 80s is testament to the loud, buzzsaw brand of folk-a-billy as some folks called it.
He has done a series of quieter albums, and he could have gone exclusively in that direction. But where do the songs come from? I asked him about my favorite. “King of California popped out one day. That was my nickname, from all the traveling we did, I know all the backroads. The title was there for years. I was piddling around on the guitar, doing the clawhammer style of picking. An hour later I got the first line. When I finally finished it, I was convinced no one else on earth will like this song and I don’t care. Yet these are the songs that stick in people’s brains. I just plow ahead and see if a trusted friend concurs.”
Alvin loves those transcendent moments on stage, when the surprising guitar lick or the magic mix of performer and audience has you “out of time for a few moments, living only in the present.” He will soon do a stretch of band gigs with the Guilty Men, and then return to Southern California for a few acoustic shows. He will have one other guitarist, Cindy Wilson, when he appears June 21st at Acoustic San Diego.
Dave admits he is in a very lucky place; he is able to eke out a living on the road. Many of his musician friends can’t afford to do so.
Dave admits when he was younger, incessant touring was far easier. “Today,” he says, “If I could get two days off per week, I could play five nights a week until I die.”
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