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Long before the word "Americana" defined a radio format, guitarist Dave Alvin was leading a musical cattle drive whose path is still being followed by performers caught up in the current alt-country groundswell. The Blasters, which Alvin formed in 1980 with his brother, vocalist Phil Alvin, delivered rousing romps that whipped rock-and-roll, rhythm-and-blues and country-and-Western sounds into a seamless, soul-stirring whole. The result was a slice of sonic heaven for members of the pompadours-and-mohawks crowd, as well as for music lovers in general who craved something with teeth, a sense of history and a rollicking spirit.
Eleven years after the original Blasters called it quits, Dave Alvin has become a standard-bearer for a genre that didn't even exist when his group was at its peak. But if there's irony in this situation, Alvin, whose four post-Blasters discs could serve as a primer for up-and-coming twangsters, doesn't see it. "I play folk music, man," he claims. His oak-timbred voice splits into a laugh as he adds, "I say that lightly, but I actually think it's true. That's what I play. It's just that I have a broad definition of folk music. To me, American folk music encapsulates everything from blues and mountain songs to electric blues and rockabilly. Chuck Berry, he comes out of the same tradition, and so do Jerry Lee Lewis, Muddy Waters and, in some respects, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard."
On his latest disc, a house-rocking live compilation titled Interstate City that he cut with his road band, the Guilty Men (guitarist/lap-steel ace Greg Leisz, pianist Rick Solem, bassist Gregory Boaz and drummer Bobby Lloyd Hicks), Alvin cranks out fourteen songs that fully capture the spirit of such precursors. Perhaps the best illustration of this phenomenon is a nine-minute medley that threads together Berry's "Promised Land," Woody Guthrie's "Do Re Mi" and Alvin's own "Jubilee Train" to produce a proletarian testimonial to the musical ties that bind. "I don't want to sound egotistical or hyper-important," he allows, "but the idea of that was to show that I consider myself a part of that tradition. And to show that Woody and Chuck weren't that far apart."
Like Guthrie and Berry, Alvin has created a staunchly populist catalogue that celebrates the forgotten man without beating around the bush or ducking a punch. Better still, Alvin's songs rock far harder than the ditties most of us associate with folkies.
"Just because you play acoustic guitar and sing songs you wrote doesn't automatically make you a folk singer," Alvin clarifies. "For example, I produced a record a few years ago for a guy named Sonny Burgess, who made records on Sun. I consider him to be a folk singer, though not many folk purists would. But he grew up in Arkansas singing 'Frog Went A-Courtin'' on his back porch, and the music that he plays comes out of that--from hearing blues and hillbilly music in its natural environment. To me, that makes his music more pure folk than someone out of, say, Greenwich Village."
To Alvin, whose production credits include discs by Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys and the Derailers, a firsthand education is what separates entertainers with a genuine folk sensibility from some of the mere mimics presently on the scene. When pressed, however, Alvin admits that using such a yardstick is not a foolproof way to gauge authenticity. "It's fair and it's unfair. Iris DeMent, who I think is great and is an example of what I'm talking about, may have been born in Arkansas, but she grew up in Fullerton, California. And Merle Haggard was born in California, too, so screw anybody who says anything about that. It is an unfair chop in that regard. But on the other hand, it's fair in that most of these newer artists have not personalized their songs or found their own voice. With most of these newer artists, there's not a personalized part to it--of looking at your world in your own time."
The same cannot be said of Alvin. He was born in Downey, California, a community southeast of Los Angeles where he enjoyed a boyhood baptism in American music. "It was an area with a lot of different cultures," he remembers. "And the Oklahoma and Dust Bowl culture was still there, so there was a lot of country music and rhythm and blues. When we were growing up, my brother Phil and I were collecting old records and finding old blues guys and sneaking into bars to hear music. When I was a kid, oftentimes I'd go in a music store and there'd be some old guy playing 'Wildwood Flower' on a banjo or a guitar. These were all things that you had to go beneath the surface to find, but you didn't have to go far."
Displacement, alienation and the sometimes futile quest for a scrap of the American dream--the recurring themes of his music--were also in plentiful supply in Alvin's hometown. "Downey is in southeast L.A. County," he says, "and when I was real young, about a third of it was agricultural, with orange groves and avocado groves, and the little towns around it were a mixture of dairy farms and tract houses. But almost overnight, it became a blue-collar, middle-class suburb.