A Blast From the Past
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.
"It was frustrating," he goes on, "in that when they'd tear down an orange grove, you lost a place to play. Or they'd pave the banks of a river or just pave the whole thing. It was sad, but it wasn't until I got older and saw it happening in places where you thought it would never happen that it really bothered me."
So, too, did the preconceptions about Downey that dogged the Blasters when the act first ventured into the L.A. club scene. "In any large city, especially an urban mass like Los Angeles, there are social strata," Alvin notes. "Which is why it took us a while at first to get gigs in Hollywood. Nobody there thought that there was even life in places like Downey, or Bellflower, or East L.A. But in the meantime, we sharpened our teeth playing in biker and country bars out in what people in Hollywood considered the sticks. So instead of a band still figuring out what we sounded like, we already had our sound when we hit there. We were sort of a discovery. I won't say we became millionaires, but a lot of bands got into us, and so did their followings."
Success, however, came at a price. Alvin's playing and songwriting improved steadily from the appearance of The Blasters, a 1981 album that featured neo-classics like "Border Radio" and "Marie, Marie," to the release of latter-day offerings such as 1983's Non Fiction and 1985's Hard Line. But life on the road eventually lost its appeal. "The band started out with two missions," he discloses. "One was to see if we could make a living playing the music we wanted to play, and the other was to have fun. Well, we were earning a living, but it stopped being fun."
Today, Phil Alvin and bassist John Bazz continue to tour under the Blasters name, but Dave is happier on his own. He's just as pleased to be cited as an inspiration for the y'all-ternative movement, even though he can't quantify "how much of a direct influence the Blasters or myself had on Son Volt or Wilco. I'd say little to none, except maybe in the same way that a lot of people, myself included, rode a trail blazed by somebody before us who we never even heard of. I like a bunch of these bands, and I'm not putting any of them down, but many of them are more influenced by Neil Young and Gram Parsons than, say, Hank Williams or the Blasters."
There are several reasons for this state of affairs, Alvin believes. "First off, there's no country music anymore. In the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, there was always this other universe called country music that existed outside of pop music, and it remained relatively pure. It was a well you could draw inspiration from, the same as blues and R&B. Now there's no such thing. Country music's all pop today." As a result, "the kind of people who buy Garth Brooks records have kids who are buying records by Metallica--so those kids don't experience Hank Williams or anything like that. When they grow out of Metallica and they hear Hank or George Jones, for some of them, it's an eye-opening experience: 'Here's some soul music.' In some ways, it's like a lot of music today, whether it's country or folk. It's gone back to being underground music that's not part of the mainstream, yet it's part of our culture, and it's always going to be there. But each generation has to go and find it for themselves--and an aspect of it that works for them.
"There's always been an audience for this music," he contends, "and I think one of the things that's helping it now is the Internet. There are alternative ways of getting the message out other than MTV. The people who like this stuff are finding more ways of contacting each other in ways that weren't there when the Blasters, Jason and the Scorchers and Los Lobos first came out. You know, the roots-rock scene is pretty closed, but on the other hand, it's an incredibly healthy scene that in the past few years has become healthier than I've seen it in a long time."
Given this sunny forecast, Alvin thinks that the time might be right to try to alter a few perceptions about his brand of folk music. "When Bob Dylan went electric back in Newport in the Sixties and people got all upset, he was trying to make a similar point," he says. "Maybe that point needs to be made again."
AT&T LoDo Music Festival, with Little Feat, Tower of Power, the Samples, Anders Osbourne, Dave Alvin and the Guilty Men, Chubby Carrier and the Swamp Boogie Band, and the Holmes Brothers. Saturday, July 19, stages on Wazee between 18th and 20th streets, $10, 888-LODO or 1-800-444-
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