Does Dave (or you) know that internationally acclaimed mystery novelist John Harvey (UK) is a big fan? Dave is mentioned in at least one of his novels and in the intro to his short story collection (published only in the UK) Harvey mentions listening to Dave. The main character in Harvey's best known and now mothballed series (The Resnick Mysteries, there's 10 of them I think) is a big jazz fan, but I think it was one of his girlfriends who was listening to Dave.
Dave Alvin interview 2001 – by Bob Doran
I had a chance to speak with Dave back in spring of 2001, not long after he won a Grammy for his Public Domain album. I wrote a short piece based on the interview, but had forgotten that I transcribed almost the whole thing -- and we must have talked for an hour. I came across it today while preparing to talk with Dave about an upcoming show in this area and about Ashgrove.
Our conversation ranged widely, we talked a lot about the P.D. album and about the nature of “folk music” but also about growing up in Downey, about the history of the Blasters and much more. If you’re reading it and it starts to drag skip to the end where he discusses life on the road and while he loves to play live…
You’re at home for a change…
I road manager myself so I’m sitting here looking over the books of the tour we just finished.
I was checking out your itinerary, it looks like you ran all over the South.
We were doing the Southeast.
It’s the home of a lot of the music you’re doing on your latest record.
It was funny at some of the gigs I would introduce a song off the Public Domain album. I’d say, ‘This is an old song from right around here and it’s called ‘Blah, Blah, Blah.’ I might as well have been saying, ‘This is a song from Vietnam.’
They didn’t know them…
A lot of people don’t.
That’s interesting, I recognized a lot of the songs, although sometimes I couldn’t remember where I’d heard them. I’ve been trying to figure out why I know the “Texas Rangers” song.
Some of these songs were my obscurities, I figured no one else knew them; they were never recorded. That was one of the prerequisites; I didn’t want to do anything that had been recorded too much with the exception of “Shenandoah” and “Walk Right In.” I wanted to do them because they had been done so much. Then when I was done people would come up and say, ‘Well so and so cut “Texas Rangers” in 1961.’
Do you remember who?
I think Jack Elliot did it.
That’s it. I think it was on one of his first records a long long time ago.
And Mary McCaslin did it…
I probably heard her do it, she lived around here a while back… So if you are looking for songs that haven’t been recorded, where do you find them?
My brother Phil and I started collecting old 78’s when we were young, I was 12. That’s really were I got my education in musical history. I was self-taught by finding old records in junk stores and thrift stores. That’s where a lot of the songs came from.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Downey California, about 25 miles southeast of L.A.
Was Downey the kind of place where you’d find Southern music?
The east side and the southeast side of L.A. was blue collar. We’re not talking about people who were going to the Academy Awards or writing screenplays.
People who moved out in the Dust Bowl era, maybe came to pick fruit or work in the oil fields…
A lot moved up here in the ‘50s in the post-war timber boom. They used to call the town I live in ‘Oklahoma by the Sea.’
The little town next to Downey was Bell Gardens, the derogatory term when I was growing up was ‘Billy Goat Acres.’ It was where Eddie Cochran grew up and Hank Cochran, the country songwriter. You had the Dust Bowl stuff but you also had the wartime and postwar migration of Southern blacks out to California. My brother and I started sneaking into bars at a young age because, once we started collecting the old records we realized that some of these guys were still alive and some were living not that far away and playing music nearby. That’s where we started seeing people like T-Bone Walker and Big Joe Turner. They basically lived there and Joe Turner and some of the other guys became close friends.
Of course the next logical step was to try to reproduce it yourselves.
Yeah, and fail miserably…
I wouldn’t say that…
It took like 8 million years to try to get close.
I’d say the stuff you did with the Blasters was great, a new twist on the roots, and from what you described the music came out of that. How did it start?
My brother and I had three cousins, now I’m talking about when I was like 4 or 5, they were in their late teens. I had a cousin Donna, she actually grew up in Billy Goat Acres, she was a total R&B chick. Later in life she would become a sort of George and Merl kinda gal, but when she was a teenager she was all Ray Charles, Joe Turner, doo wop groups, some rockabilly. She would give us her old records when she got tired of them. Then I had a cousin J.J. who grew up on a ranch out in the San Fernando Valley, he was totally into the West Coast country, Buck Owens, stuff like that. Then I had a cousin Mike who played guitar and he played banjo and harmonica. He was into Brownie McGee and Sony Terry, Ramblin’ Jack, Dave Van Ronk, early Dylan. In a lot of ways I’m just a culmination of my cousins’ taste in music.
Was the Blasters the first band you and your brother started?
It was the first band we actually played together in. There was a hierarchy in our neighborhood. Where we grew up there were a lot of great musicians, guys a couple of years older than me around my brother’s age or older. There was a predominance of great guitar players. It’s unfortunate none of them either kept up with the music or lived long enough to have a career. What it boiled down to, to make a long story short, when the three other guys who started the Blasters were putting a band together I was the last guitar player left. I had taught myself to play by watching these other guys. We always had guitars around and when they’d leave I’d pick one up and start figuring out what they were doing. I got in the Blasters when my brother deemed me worthy to stand on a stage with him.
Did you start out exploring this musical territory we were talking about?
My brother had bands since he was about13, his bands were always sort of blues/R&B bands. With the Blasters we did a lot of blues, but we also opened it up a bit more to include things like Jimmy Rodgers’ ‘Blue Yodeler’ and a Bob Wills song or two, playing them as we did, not trying to duplicate the originals.
You made them rock…
That was the idea, to take everything and expand it a little. It really hasn’t changed over the years.
I thought the Blasers were a fantastic band…
I thought so too. (laughs)
I know you haven’t been playing with Phil. Are the Blasters still in existence?
My brother still has a band called the Blasters. I call them the Coasters, it’s him and the bass player, they’re the only original guys and it kind of reminds me of one those old rock ’n’ roll groups…
It couldn’t be that bad, not like the Coasters where one guy maybe sang with some of the original members in the ‘70s or something…
It’s good-natured ribbing. I just wish he’d call it something else. He could call it the Phil Alvin Band if nothing else strikes him.
The Blasters is a catchy name.
It was a damn good name and in the music industry the name is as important as anything.
It’s a trademark…
Most people who have heard of the Blasters have never heard of Phil Alvin or Dave Alvin. People come up to me and say ‘Hey, you’re that guy from the Blasters.'
What are you doing on the tour now with the Guilty Men?
We have a full band: bass, drums, keyboards, two guitars and on this trip fuddle, Brantley (Kearns) who played on the album is joining us. The show is basically everything I’ve ever done.
So it’s not just the Public Domain folk songs, if you call them folk songs. — You won the Grammy for ‘Best Traditional Folk Album,’ before I heard it I thought, ‘Hmm, Dave Alvin isn’t really a folk musician,’ but it’s a folk record.
I consider the music we did with the Blasters as folk music. People were always trying to come up with a name for it, they called us rockabilly and whatever else. I used to say, ‘We’re a folk band.’ My definition of folk is pretty wide ranging. The common denominator is in order to be folk music it has to have its feet in the traditional American indigenous music. As long as you’ve got that, it’s folk music. A couple of the pure rockabilly singers, guys like Charlie Feathers and Sonny Burgess are as much or more folk singers than many songwriters who go around writing their own songs if you know what I mean. These guys actually grew up in the milieu of folk music and the first songs they learned to play are things we all agree are folk songs.
As certified by Alan Lomax or someone like that…
My feeling on the whole ‘What is folk music?’ thing is that certain people have co-opted the definition to say, ‘We decide what’s folk music.” You could say Alan Lomax is part of that. I’m a great admirer of the Lomaxes but you could say that the New York academics defined folk music on the ‘30s and ‘40s and kept defining it up until Bob Dylan plugged in at Newport. Then the way they had defined it was no longer valid because no one agreed on it.
And the folk purists screamed bloody murder…
In hindsight, even though this war is still being fought, in hindsight they were wrong. A lot of American folk music is based on the blues, and when I say the blues I don’t necessarily mean any particular artist, I mean the form itself. In all of America’s indigenous music you will find the blues form, whether it’s jazz, you find it in Louis Armstrong and John Coltrane, the actual blues form, like a poetic literary form.
You’re talking about song structure and scales…
Right, the scale and the structure, not the styles of the blues whether it’s Texas or Chicago, urban or country. The structure of the blues is in every type of music, every type of country music, almost all black music — that would make blues a folk music. The folk purists will say, ‘Sure Leadbelly was a folk singer,’ …
But Muddy Waters is a different story…
Then it starts getting hazy. Before Leadbelly was embraced by the East Coast intelligencia and was playing recitals in chamber music halls, where was he playing? He performed in bars and juke joints where people got drunk, fell in love, stabbed each other, fell out of love. To me folk music is a variety of things, it’s not just singer-songwriters with acoustic guitars writing their own material, there is a tradition. And I am a singer-songwriter who write his own songs, so I’m part of that too, and so are many of my friends. But it’s also this other thing that kept evolving whether the Lomaxes said it could or not. Spirituals evolved into gospel, country blues evolved into urban blues, hillbilly music evolved into honky-tonk music. Mountain music evolved into bluegrass and they met several times to become rockabilly or rock ‘n’ roll or R&B. They all progressed on their own. Anyway, what the Blasters do and what I’m doing is all folk music. What it boils down to simplistically, whether I’m playing an acoustic guitar or electric, I’m playing the same notes, it’s just some of them are louder. I think that was the lesson of Dylan at Newport. The songs he did had a folk structure — for example, “Maggie’s Farm” was a blues song with a blues song structure and it was loud, it was played aggressively and it wasn’t played reflectively. It wasn’t like, (whispering) ‘Shhh, we’re playing folk music now, be very very quiet.’
So you can take a song written a hundred years ago by some guy strumming a guitar on his back porch, play it on an electric guitar with bass and drums behind you and it’s still folk music, but it’s something a modern audience will relate to in a different way.
The way to chart it is to take a felt pen and draw a line. In the 1920’s you have Son House, the Delta blues singer, was he a folk singer? Everyone would tend to agree that he was. So you draw a direct line from Son House to Muddy Waters because Muddy learned from Son House, he sat right next to him and learned from him. Then Muddy Waters moved to Chicago and plugged in his guitar. Basically the playing wasn’t different, his guitar playing didn’t change, so what’s the diff?
What’s different is it was easier to hear his amplified guitar in the noisy bars in Chicago…
That’s why I took “Don’t Let Your deal Go Down” which is known as a bluegrass tune and turned it into a Chicago blues number. Chicago blues is as much folk music as bluegrass is. And when you hear a folk music show on the radio, you’ll hear bluegrass-tinged music, but you won’t hear J.B. Hutto and his Hawks playing Chicago blues. Both styles came in at exactly the same time after WWII. There was mountain music, but Bill Monroe changed it. Chicago blues, as we know it, really started with Muddy Waters and Little Walter and a few other guys transforming country blues in the same way.
You are primarily a performer, but do you also see yourself as a musicologist?
Studying American music is like studying religion, it’s all guess work. Was there a guy named Christ? Did he stand on a mountain and give a sermon? What day was that, a Thursday or a Friday? It’s the same with American music: When was the blues form developed?
When did that guy stand on the crossroads?
Exactly, and who was it? It wasn’t Robert Johnson, he got the story from Tommy Johnson who made records ten years before Robert. When you go back you started entering a myth zone. I like that. Some of these songs are myths, the characters in them are mythic characters, the stories they tell are mythic stories.
Who knows if the story in “Texas Rangers” really happened or if it’s a combination…
It doesn’t matter. The interesting thing about that song is that it’s so old, I would say it’s a transitional song. The melody is Celtic but the lyrics are American. Not being a musicologist I can’t tell you what the original melody was, but it’s obviously a ballad from somewhere in Great Britain. The lyrics were changed over here to be about a more American experience. Then also, unlike a lot of songs it dealt with cowardice. The guy is saying, ‘My time had come to die,’ and his courage is gone. That’s very human, very personalized, not filled with braggadocio like some songs.
Our conversation drifted through a few other topics before returning to the fact that he’d won a Grammy for Public Domain … I have to tell you, I interviewed Natalie MacMaster (who was up for the Grammy Dave won) right after the Grammys. She admitted she was a little disappointed, and there was the usual ‘it’s an honor just to be nominated,’ but she said she was glad you won because she really likes your album.
Oh God, really? You just made my day. I thought she had it in the bag. I figured Norman Blake already had one, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, they just didn’t know where to put them. I don’t think that many people know Jo-el Sonnet. The irony there is he was one of the first people to cut one of my songs. I figured she had it in the bag because she great, she’s good looking, she’s 20 and she’s a great musician and now she’s in the Chieftains and that’s about as traditional folk as you can get…
So what did you do with the Grammy?
I have room in the house where I have a collection of things I picked up on the road: everything from an autographed photo of Louis Armstrong and a Lefty Frizzel autographed photo and a Big Bill Bronzy and Spade Cooley and Howlin’ Wolf, old R&B posters and a gigantic portrait of Big Joe Turner from the ‘50s. It’s right there with all my music stuff.
Where are you going next musically?
Well, some time later this year I’d like to get back in the studio and do an album of Dave Alvin songs. It’s hard when you’re on an independent label, basically what it boils down to is I have to tour all the time. That’s the most effective way to get your name out there. The problem is that leaves very little free time.
So when do you get to sit down and write a song?
We’re not traveling in a tour bus with a road manager. It’s difficult.
You want to be settled. I hear you moved recently.
Yeah, I just bought my first house. I lucked into an amazing place. It’s on a hillside with pine trees. I’ve never lived on a hillside in my life.
Where is it?
It’s in the Silver Lake area of L.A., the old bohemian neighborhood. Lord Buckley lived here, Anias Ninn, Sam Cooke lived up here and Art Pepper, it’s that kind of neighborhood. And it’s an amazing feeling owning something.
So you took the proceeds from your Grammy-winning album and bought a place…
(He laughs.) Right. The drawback is now that I have a home I’ll have to be on the road the rest of my life to pay it off. But it’s a good thing.
I assume being on the road playing music is what you want to do…
You know I’ve really had it with the traveling. For the past eight years it seems like I’ve done nothing but travel. You get up at 9; you drive six hours; you go to the club; do the sound check; go check into the hotel; hopefully grab a bit to eat; then you turn around and drive back to the gig; play the gig; get out of the gig at 2; get back to the hotel and fall asleep around 3:30 if you’re lucky, then you get up at 9 and do the same thing all over and over again. But — and it’s only been the past year or so that the travel has actually gotten to me — but the thing I love is that we tend to play about 2, 2 and a half hours non-stop once we get going, and that’s the greatest thing in the world. This is gonna get a little psychobabblie, but the thing is, time become irrelevant once you get into the zone. Musicians tend to communicate non-verbally on stage, so mentally you go somewhere else, and that high is addicting, it’s better than anything you can imagine. You reach a point where old songs are new songs, new songs are old songs, people that are dead are alive, you are living in a place where the past, present and future meet. People are always asking, ‘Why is Bob Dylan still on the road?’ Because when you’re on stage everything is totally perfect. You’re totally in touch with your art. That’s why I do it. I friend of mine had a great line, ‘I don’t play music for a living, I drive for a living, I play music for fun.’ That’s really it. I couldn’t imagine not playing live. That’s the thing. You write songs and make records so you can go out and play live.
hi, i was watching the movie"Honeymoon in Vegas" and i think i saw Dave Alvin playing guitar on stage with Elvis impersonators while James Caan and Sara Jessica Parker are talking at a dinner table.I watched the credits but there is no mention of Dave.This is a 1992 movie so i bet he was in Vegas doing the Pleasure Barons thing at this time.Tell Dave hi,i went to Pius X high school with him. Later Charles
Hello, Was just doing some surfing and came across your Little Milton page regarding Mr. Alvin. Dave came to visit us in Muscle Shoals, Alabama to be a part of Welcome To Little Milton. I asked Dave to be a part of the album because of his respect and admiraton for Milton. Dave and I first met in Austin a few years ago. Dave played and sang on "Never Trust A woman" which he co-wrote with Rick Estrin of Little Charlie and The Nightcats. A great song. Dave was also gracious enough to lend his wonderful guitar style to a tune of Milton's called "Lump On Your Stump". Anyway, it's always great to see Dave when our paths cross. Sincerely, Greg Preston
Not a question, just an anecdote. I attended a benefit for Mary Smith, wife of Jack Smith of Jack Smith and the Rockabilly Planet, in Escoheag, RI on 11/10. Bill Kirchen headlined the event which was great fun. Anyway, Rory MacLeod, the organizer of the event and one of Jack's bandmates, read a letter from Dave that was just beautiful, moving and heartfelt. I wasn't aware of their friendship. I'm looking forward to seeing the Blasters on the 16th in Boston.
Been a truck driver for too many years. It was 3am and I was tired and headed for home. I had "Interstate City" cranked on the stereo. I got on the CB to announce the location of a state trooper who was running radar. Guess someone heard the music and asked about it. So I explained who it was, name of the album. So when "30 Dollar room" came on I keyed the mic and played the entire song over the CB. Ususally when a driver does this he catches hell the minute he lets go of the mic. But when the song was over all I got was more questions, and compliments on the music. So your music got me home safe and sound and a few more drivers have something to add to thier collection of road music.
I'd also like to be added to the list of no talent hack guitar players who'd love to get thier hands on lyrics and chords from your music.
"Dark Eyes" off of Public Domain appeared in episode 28 of Six Feet Under. About 10 seconds were heard fading out after the prologue sequence during which that episode's character dies. (If you watch the show you know what I mean...)
Link to 6FU's credits --http://www.hbo.com/sixfeetunder/episode/music/episode28.shtml
My wife and I were watching a TV show called "Before They Were Stars" or some such thing. It was a compilation of old clips, commercials, etc. featuring today's stars in early roles.
Anyway, they had Kevin Costner as the Town Drunk is a black and white western called Bad Day.
Anyway, there was a guy in the scene with a guitar and a cowboy had that looked like Dave Alvin.
Anyone know if that was him?
Maybe I just have Dave on the brain after seeing the New York and Philadelphia shows on the reunion tour.
hi - is dave alvin replacing charlie sexton, for the rest of dylan's tour?
tom wilt (and many others)
Scot:No, the latest rumors are that this isn't happening. I don't know
Dave sat in with Bob Dylan and his band last saturday night. Playing a blond
telecaster and sounding good he played on the rocker 'To Be Alone With You" and the ballad "Lay Lady Lay". Is he going to join Dylan's band for the fall tour replacing Charlie Sexton? That is the rumor, don't know if it is true or not.
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