Music: Public Record

With his latest release, Dave Alvin proves he's a master of public domain

Oct 5, 2000 at 2:06 pm
Dave Alvin

With static crackling over the phone connection, Dave Alvin's voice echoes over the barren flats of West Texas. Calling while on tour for his new release, Public Domain, Alvin laughs over the phone line at the empty miles ahead.

"If you could see where we are now," he says. "There's nothing ahead or behind us for a hundred miles."

This distance suits Alvin, for his Roots-drenched music stems from the stories told between the miles. He's been doing this kind of touring in a van for a long time, going back to his days in the L.A.-based Blasters in the early '80s. And the road still beckons him.

"I love touring," says Alvin. "Crossing the country and playing are some of the best parts of my job."

Dave Alvin's new disc is subtitled Songs from the Wild Land, and this fits the far-ranging traditional songs, covers of tunes he and his brother, Phil, used to seek out in the lost treasure bins of used record stores — 33s, 45s, even 78s.

It didn't matter, because this was the music that appealed to them.

"We were just looking for something that excited us more than the bulk of what was on the radio," Alvin says.

Musical trends, from Psychedelic Rock to Grunge to teen boy bands, have come and gone since those early days, but traditional music still affects Alvin and still matters now, maybe more than ever. This collection contains no songwriting credits, because no one has ever really bothered to trace their origins all the way back.

"What's the point? They belong to all of us," he says with a raspy chuckle. And, with Public Domain, he sets out to prove it.

The CD opens with the much covered "Shenandoah," but it's cast in a distinctly different style: a slow, gentle R&B rhythm glides along as Dave's rumbling baritone massages the lyrics. This is just the first of his revisionist versions with more re-imagined ones to come.

Many of these songs from Alvin's canon are very obscure, like "Short Life of Trouble" and "Maggie Campbell," so it sounds like he's been hoarding them for this kind of project for years. He says, "I felt like I should do an album like this one, maybe everyone should sometime — like Dylan did. I've wanted to do these songs since the beginning."

This isn't his first foray into the traditional genre. After all, the title cut from his fine, last release was the epic "Blackjack David." Of course, there are no new Dave Alvin songs on Public Domain. When asked why he waited so long to record this dream project, he candidly says, "I wasn't comfortable with my vocals until recently. I thought my voice worked for my own songs but not for others'."

His modesty aside, it's still surprising to hear Alvin doubt the rich well of his voice. Just listen to his mournful version of Merle Haggard's "Kern River" or his revved-up take on Springsteen's "Seeds," both available on tribute records, and you can hear his blue timbre shade the lyrics with lasting resonance.

Like Dylan or Tom Waits, he's got a voice that often masks vulnerability, but can also ambush you with an emotional truth that many can't begin to deliver. In "Sign of Judgment," one of the disc's standout spirituals, it's in the way he prophesies atonement for all. And in "The Murder of the Lawson Family," another strong cut, it's in the way he understates the tragic story, which somehow makes it that much more powerful.

Remember, much of this is heartbreak material: Alvin's been drawn to it since he was a boy, and it has been reflected in his own writing for years. "Sometimes when people ask me why so many of the songs I write are sad," he says, "I can only say that hearing things like this at an early age might be one good reason."

Regardless, though, this music comes out of the populist tradition, following on the heels of Billy Bragg and Wilco's Woody Guthrie Mermaid Avenue projects, and even Dylan's solo acoustic traditional releases of the '90s like World Gone Wrong.

Even though Alvin's been on this path for 20-plus years, it has to be a great feeling to finally see Americana/Roots music on the rise again.

"There's an interconnectedness in this music between all the strains of Blues, Folk and Country," he says. "It's not easily marketable, but it's starting to come into its own. These are songs of survival, of just getting through the day."

In conversations about this music, certain names stand out like beacons again and again: The Carter Family, Son House, Cisco Houston, Mississippi John Hurt and Blind Willie McTell. These ancient names still resound like myths in honkytonks and juke joints where all good stories are told, leaving their legends gin-soaked but intact.

Tracing the lineage of songs such as "Delia" is like discovering an extended family tree. Dylan, Rock & Roll's modern Shakespeare, covered "Delia" earlier with a gut-bucket, broken-voiced version. But Dave takes some of the sting out of this McTell ballad, preferring instead to turn it into an acoustic jaunt.

And, of course, Alvin's familiar with Dylan's own bootleg classic, "Blind Willie McTell," whose refrain defiantly claims, "Nobody can sing the Blues like Blind Willie McTell." This could be a kind of mantra for our times, one that rejects our disposable culture. There's a certain integrity in throwing such music up in today's prevailing winds of plastic pop trends and the cultural vacuum.

In his liner notes, Alvin writes, "Our Folk songs live in the wild land of our heart. They aren't relics from an idealized, sentimental past." You can hear these songs breathe in the textures and the tracks they groove in your mind. There's ballast here and you can feel it in the recorded versions, but especially in the live setting.

Alvin's touring America yet again with The Guilty Men, his long-time band, featuring Rick Shea, Bobby Hicks, Joe Terry and Greg Boaz. During October, however, he's cutting back to a smaller acoustic-based backing group for a number of dates, including the local show at the Southgate House. This mixes it up a bit and allows him more free rein for the tour.

With either band, though, Alvin takes command in any kind of club with a rollicking set of evocative originals and covers. As he says, "We've trimmed the fat off it," and its lean power graces the neon nights throughout the country.

This is American music in the best sense.

DAVE ALVIN plays on a bill with Chris Smithers at the Southgate House on Saturday.