Dave Alvin tries keeping it all straight
By Rick Bell, June 2002
It's keeping straight which band he's playing with and what songs are on the set list that night that might cause some problems. It's already been a busy year for Alvin, a fourth generation Californian who gained his initial fame in the roots rock band The Blasters.
Yet more and more, that roots rock tag has evolved into just plain roots music. There's his recurring role as the guitarist in the funky, folky, stone-cold country band The Knitters, the group he helped form in the mid-1980s while still in The Blasters with John Doe and Exene Cervenka of the L.A. punk band X.
In 1994, Alvin teamed with Tom Russell, Billy Joe Shaver, Iris Dement, Dwight Yoakam and several others for the critically acclaimed "Tulare Dust," a tribute to Merle Haggard. Alvin's interpretation of Haggard's "Kern River" has been a part of his live show for years.
And last year, Alvin took his first-ever Grammy Award not for his contributions to rock, but for the album "Public Domain: Songs from the Wild Land," a rich array of folk and blues songs from the American musical landscape. He applied his own arrangements, a wide variety of guitar stylings and his rich baritone voice to a collection of songs he discovered as a young music collector.
Alvin recently wrapped up a successful reunion tour with his brother, Phil, and The Blasters, and there's a distinct possibility more dates lie ahead. He'll also spend part of the late spring and early summer touring with the West Coast with The Knitters. There are several dates planned on the road with Christy McWilson, the singer-songwriter whose recently released second album "Bed of Roses" was produced by Alvin.
And of course, there's Alvin's solo career with his fiery rock-country band the Guilty Men. A summer's worth of tours are planned across the country to help push his recently released live album, "Out in California."
Yet Alvin seems to be keeping his schedule straight - so far.
"I'm trying to juggle everything," Alvin laughs in his rumbling, smoky voice during a lengthy phone interview from his home in Los Angeles. At the same time, he admitted it's been just a little busy.
"I've bitten off too much this year. I produced and toured with Christy to help get her going. We did The Blasters reunion, and as soon as The Knitters tour is done, I'll be going out with my band. And there are some other things coming up that I can't really talk about yet."
Yet, what he can address makes him proud. The recently concluded Blasters tour, Alvin said, meant a lot to a lot of people. Their music, but perhaps more so his relationship with brother Phil laid the groundwork for Dave's current musical bent.
"We were old record collectors," he says of his days growing up in the L.A. suburb of Downey. "When I was 13 or 14, we got a hold of these Dust Bowl ballads by singers like Woody Guthrie. As a kid, I was looking for my sense of place, and this was it."
Yet as much as the Alvin brothers became known for their straight-ahead rock, Dave said he never lost touch with those early influences.
"When The Blasters got together, bar owners told us, 'No one wants to hear that music,'" Alvin recalls of the band's earliest days. "But we knew we weren't that weird. We weren't completely out of it. The problem with roots music is there's a huge audience for it, but it's not easily marketed. It's not hip-hop, and it's not speed metal; what radio station will play roots music?
"Whatever it is, it's more difficult to sell and even more difficult to market."
Which makes the success of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" that much more of a phenomenon. Yet, Alvin may have summed up the soundtrack's unparalleled success in very simplistic, yet uncannily accurate terms.
"'O Brother' had a hit movie - a good movie," he says, lighting another cigarette. "It proved there's a market for traditional American music."
But long before "O Brother" sold its 5 million-plus copies and swept awards, Alvin and others spent endless nights on the road, toiling in the clubs unknowingly laying the groundwork.
No, they can't take credit for the current folk revival, but bands like The Knitters and artists like Mike Ness of Social Distortion deserve a certain amount of credit for presenting old time country and folk to kids who live in a world 10 decibels past pain. Ness released his "Under the Influences" album in late 1999, covering songs by several country artists as well as a very honky tonk version of Social D's "Ball and Chain."
"When they hear Mike do Hank Williams or Johnny Cash, they might check it out," Alvin said.
When X and Alvin decided to reinvent themselves acoustically as The Knitters in the early 1980s, it brought an entirely new sound to a new crowd.
"In the case of The Knitters, there weren't a lot of bands in the punk and rock genre doing folksy stuff," Alvin said. "There weren't bands like Whiskeytown or Wilco or the Old 97s that could do that kind of music. For X to do (Merle Haggard's) 'Silver Wings' turned a whole lot of people onto this kind of music."
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