In Dave Alvin’s world, you’re either burning up the highway miles en route to the next city’s show or back home in California, trying to figure out which band to take on tour this time next year. The celebrated roots-rocker, whose career has spanned his Rockabilly days with The Blasters back in the ’80s to his still-flourishing 20-year solo career, likes to mix it up on the road.
Between his longtime band, the Guilty Men, his part-time membership in The Knitters with John Doe and his occasional reunion gigs with his brother Phil and the other ex-Blasters, Alvin spreads his vintage blend of Blues/Folk/Country around as much as he can.
He is playing a solo acoustic show here in Cincinnati this time out, but he’s prepping for a long summer/fall tour with the Guilty Women. For a fresh gender twist, his brand new record features a combination of female accompanists such as Christy McWilson on vocals, Cindy Cashdollar on pedal steel and Laurie Lewis, Sarah Brown, Lisa Pankrantz, Amy Farris and Nina Gerber taking up any slack. This all-star lineup of accomplished music vets first stood together on stage at last year’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco.
I spoke with Alvin from his home in Los Angeles about the recent changes in his support players. He explains, “Just got back home from tour and I’ve got a couple weeks off to lick my wounds. But this new band happened because I just wanted to switch things up a bit — I needed that. My best friend, Chris Gaffney, died last year. He was in my band off and on for years, and he was the kind of guy who got my jokes and I got his. After that, it just seemed like the right time to do this.”
Gaffney, an Arizona songwriter/accordionist of some renown himself, also inspired Alvin to produce a tribute record to his legacy. But this is nothing new for Alvin and his artistic range — he gets tapped almost annually to contribute to tribute records for Merle Haggard, Bruce Springsteen and Doug Sahm, among others.
“From about 1992 to ’06, we (the Guilty Men) probably averaged about seven months a year on the road,” Alvin says. “With the Guilty Women, we’ll be out touring from mid-June to October. It’s sort of a floating crap game; on some of the legs of the tour there will be nine players and on others only six. There’s a reason why the big bands broke up. But we’re trying to make it work.”
That’s the luxury of freelancing your own solo career. The one constant in Alvin’s Grammy awardwinning career is the rich reservoir of songwriting he banks on. He’s always been one of America’s consummate songwriters, whose run of classics range from the Blasters’ “Long White Cadillac” and “Fourth of July” to the more recent “King of California” and “Abilene,” and myriad other nuggets along the way.
It’s clear how much he values the role of songwriter. His last project, West of the West, covered the songs of quintessential Californian writers such as Brian Wilson, Jackson Browne, Tom Waits and Merle Haggard. Alvin’s body of songs canstand with anyone’s, but he still appreciates the masters at work.
“I’ve gotten to be an acceptably OK guitar player and I can sing a song,” he says. “That doesn’t make me Pavarotti or BB King. But when I’m gone, if I’m remembered for anything, it will be for a few songs. I’m a reluctant songwriter, but I’ll stack my best songs against just about anybody’s. I’ve got a bit of an ego about that.”
Dave’s best songs combine populist grit with a plainspoken poetry — that you can dance to, oddly enough. He’s even published his prose-poem verse in a book, Any Rough Days Are Now Behind You. His musical arrangements rarely stray too far from his rugged Blues-based and Folk-inflected vision. His rumble baritone demands our attention with its lived-in, hard-won authenticity. In the time-honored troubadour tradition of Guthrie, Dylan, Cash and Springsteen, Alvin contributes narrative-rich songs to the Roots genre that resonate with an earthy grace.
Call his music whatever you like — Roots Rock, AltCountry or Americana — but Alvin refuses to cater to any of these labels. “To me, I play music and make a living at it,” he says. “If I feel like playing Big Bill’s songs one week and Robert Johnson songs another, then that’s what I’m going to do. I don’t want to have to feel constricted at all. I mean, ask any of my ex-girlfriends. I don’t like to be labeled or pigeonholed.”
One of his new record’s best songs is “Boss of the Blues,” a recollection of the Alvin brothers meeting Big Joe Turner when they were teenagers in their hometown of Downey, Calif. Alvin recalls, “My brother and I collected old records and we figured out that some of those old musicians were still alive and playing the bars near where we grew up. It was the novelty of having a couple little white kids asking you about some record you made back in 1938. The song is about Joe reminiscing about the glory days. The world changes and becomes something that maybe you’re not as big a part of anymore.”
Maybe this helps explain why Dave Alvin always keeps moving, whether to a new town or with a new band. Tradition-minded but open to change, he’s a lifer journeyman-rocker in the best sense.
DAVE ALVIN performs Friday at the Southgate House. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.