On casual reflection, the average roots music fan would not think of Dave Alvin as an intellectual. Dave began his career with brother Phil as co-founders of blues-rocking band The Blasters in 1979. “There’s still people who define me as being the snot-nosed loud mouth goofball that was the guitar player in the Blasters,” he says today.
Dave is currently on tour with Jimmie Dale Gilmore of Flatlanders fame. They will release their second album together in October, but currently have a single out called “Borderland.”
“We’re still making the album,” says Dave. “The album is almost done. We’re going back in October to finish it. But (the label) wanted to put something out, and that was the song they considered the most commercial, the Americana feel.”
Commercial is not a label Dave or I would immediately use to describe his music. Organic is his descriptor. We got into that when I asked him what kind of rules he has about not having rules?
“It may sound corny,” he shot back.
Go ahead, I said. You have my permission.
“Let me use a terrible word, but it’s applicable; the best word I can come up with is it’s organic.”
He’s right, I told him. That’s a groaner.
“It’s a groaner, but it’s organic.”
I asked him to define organic.
“That it comes from our roots. That it’s not diluted. I’ll define it this way. I never made a disco record.”
Thank you, Jesus!
“Yeah. I’ve done a lot of things in my career that have made people cock their heads like puppies. ‘What’s he doing?’ But what it really boils down to is all I’m doing on guitar is playing Lightnin’ Hopkins. It’s just different situations, and that’s been a constant. So, my attitude has always been to take what limited skills I have and see where I can go with it because I’m not Django Reinhardt. I’m not Lonnie Johnson as a guitar player. I’m me, and look, how far can we take this, and how many different situations can we put this into?”
Dave has recorded with such diverse artists as Bobby Rush, Tom Waits, John Mellencamp, Little Milton, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and The Knitters. His songs have been recorded by Los Lobos, Dwight Yoakam, James McMurtry, Buckwheat Zydeco, Joe Ely, Robert Earl Keen and Marshall Crenshaw.
Does he think his greatest talent is as a lyricist?
“Yeah, there’s a zillion guitar players in the world. Songwriters are a little rarer. Not as rare as they used to be, but they are a little rarer. Guitar players? yeah. I’m a good guitar player. I’m ok. That’s all you need to be.”
I’m going to see him and Jimmie.
“Well, bring earplugs.” (Laugh)
Are they that loud?
“It isn’t quite that loud, but I get my point across.”
Well, I’ve already lost my hearing, I tell him, but it doesn’t matter. He laughs. At 79, I have tinnitus. I jokingly tell him I can’t tell the difference between what they’re playing and what I’m hearing inside my head.
But I digress. About Dave’s being an intellectual.
In 2000, Dave won a Grammy for Public Domain: Songs From the Wild Land, a collection of traditional folk and blues classics. He’s written several books of poetry, and The Los Angeles Times wrote him up for a reunion he had with Gerald Locklin, his Cal State Long Beach professor.
“Gerald Locklin was the first teacher kind of person who thought I might have some sort of brain. Not a lot, but some sort of brain. At one point he was the most published poet in the United States because he was the king of the small presses. That’s when there used to be a ton of small press magazines. He was an amazing teacher, a great poet and a good friend, and he sort of opened my eyes to what poetry is capable of doing, non-traditional poetry. Let’s put it that way.”
John Pennerstaff in the article said that Dave Alvin learned to write poetic songs not from listening to blues heroes like Robert Johnson, Chuck Berry, and Marty Robbins but from Locklin, and specifically “Dry River.”
I fell in love with a woman, but she did not love me
Well, I fell in love with you baby, but you did not love me
Now I’m as dry as that old river, and I’m as dead as those old trees
Someday it’s gonna rain, someday it’s gonna pour
Someday this old heart of mine’s gonna fall in love once more
Someday it’s gonna rain, someday it’s gonna pour
Someday this old dry river, it won’t be dry anymore
“It’s funny. Locklin besides being a poetry teacher also taught history of English literature. We got drunk one night ’cause there was a bar on campus. We had become close friends, and he had me teach the class because he was too drunk to teach it. (Chuckle)
“So, you can imagine what kind of guy he was. I taught the class on the English pamphleteers Addison and Steele from the early 18th century. He looked at me and said, ‘I don’t think I can do this tonight,’ and he hands me his book, and it was all this information right there. ‘Ok, tonight we’re doing Addison and Steel.’ I was pretty sauced myself.
“Jerry was a great guy, a great teacher. Taking the imagery of offbeat poetry that I was attracted to whether it was by Tchaikovsky or Gerald Locklin, or even prose writers like Ramond Chandler and people like that, and if I can put that in song, that’s great. So, that’s what I’ve tried to do my whole career. That’s why I’m stubborn.
“They probably have courses now in schools for songwriting, but you really learn on your own, and everybody does it different, blah, blah, blah. But yeah, what I learned growing up listening to old blues records was the same lesson that my brother Phil and I learned hanging around Big Joe Turner and T-Bone Walker as kids which is you gotta write your own blues.
“The thing as a songwriter I learned from him – there was a thing my brother Phil could imitate Big Joe Turner early on and he still can, or he could until his recent health issues, but he sang first like Big Joe, and when my brother was 15 or 16 years old, Big Joe took him aside and told him ‘Look, do me a favor quit embarrassing yourself, quit embarrassing me and find your own way to sing,’ and that lesson sunk in to both my brother and me.
“(A song) could be a poem disguised as a song, complete with a drum solo, but not. I learned songwriting because all songwriters are self-taught whether you’re Robert Johnson or Hank Williams or Lennon and McCartney. It doesn’t matter if you’re self-taught.
“They probably have courses now in schools for songwriting, but you really learn on your own, and everybody does it differently, blah, blah, blah. But yeah, what I learned growing up listening to old blues records was the same lesson that my brother Phil and I learned hanging around Big Joe Turner and T-Bone Walker as kids, which is you gotta write your own blues.”
Dave has chemistry with Jimmie Dale Gilmore like he does with Locklin. “Jimmy’s had an interesting life, and he’s done a lot of things besides music, you know, that are odd and interesting and intriguing, but then, later in life in his 40s, he got some major label push where they just put a lot of promotion, this, that and the other into him and his music and his career.”
The Flatlanders came out in the ’70s, and it was 20 years before anybody figured out how good it was.
“Yeah, but he got a major label push in the ’90s to make him into a star, make him not the Flatlanders, him through Elektra Records, and that kind of stuff can mess with your brain. And I’ve had a lot of friends that have gone down that route that no longer play music, because it messed with their brain.
“There are demands placed on you that you feel, both financial and ‘gee, is this record gonna make up for the fact that they spent half a million dollars to promote it?’ So, Jimmy kinda went through that. He got through it, and in his brain he retired from music.
“He didn’t officially retire, but he wasn’t gonna be some gigantic star. He wasn’t gonna be a big country star or whatever star. And yeah, his attitude now is, I don’t give a fuck. I’ll do whatever I want, you know? And that always has been my attitude. So, our first album we did together has everything from a Youngbloods song ‘Let’s Get Together’ to a Lightnin’ Hopkins number to a Memphis Jug Band number. It just doesn’t matter. It’s like whatever we feel like doing, we’re gonna do it.”
Dale Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore are currently on tour: