Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore at the Big Room
● By Phil Reser
By Phil Reser
DAVE ALVIN PLAYED a core part in the American roots rock scene of the early 1980s with the band The Blasters, and has since gone onto a career as a solo performer, songwriter and producer.
He grew up during the 1960s in the middle-class Los Angeles suburb of Downey with his older brother Phil, scrounging for old blues and rockabilly albums.
Phil (vocals, harmonica, guitar) and Dave (guitar) put together The Blasters in memory of pianist and singer Jimmy McCracklin’s Blues Blasters.
The Blasters’ music blew away the LA rock scene, performing a fast-driving, dynamic mix of rockabilly, blues and R&B. They were embraced by punk and New Wave crowds.
Realizing the need for original material to get an album deal, the band gave Dave the job of songwriting.
“A lot of my songs in those days came out of free-verse prose poems, which
I would shape into songs if I found a good image. It was the poetry study at college that gave me a vague idea of the elements of construction and choosing words for meaning. It was kind of like taking Songwriting 101. That background opened the door for me to start writing the songs for the Blasters. One of my poetry teachers enlightened me as to the beauty of the mundane. You drive through a neighborhood of tract homes and all the houses look the same, and you can just see there’s nothing going on there. But inside all of those houses is a poem, maybe a short story, maybe a novel, maybe a song.”
Slash Records released the first The Blasters album in 1981, and with Dave’s songwriting on “Marie, Marie” and “Border Radio,” the band scored one of the top albums of that year.
After several more albums, Dave left the Blasters and spent time with the punk rock group X, and then went solo with his first album, “Romeo’s Escape.”
In 1989, Country singer Dwight Yoakam scored a hit with Alvin’s song “Long White Cadillac,” and Dave used the royalties to produce his second solo recording, “Blue Boulevard,” which reestablished him as a significant artist in the roots rock scene.
After releasing “Museum of Heart” in 1993, Alvin began to turn his attention to acoustic music, and over the years he moved back and forth between hard-edged roots rock and more introspective acoustic material that honors his influences. His collection of traditional folk and blues classics earned him a Grammy award for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
“What I’ve always tried to do with my songwriting is to be a combination of my musical and my literary heroes. When I started writing songs for The Blasters, I felt the music I really love and listen to seemed to be slowly disappearing as a cultural force. A lot of bar bands and even some national acts were playing, we’ll call it traditional electric roots music, whether it was blues or rockabilly or R&B. But one thing I always felt was lacking in a lot of them was the Dylan influence. One of the things Dylan was great at, and still is, is basically taking Elmore James and making ‘Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat’ out of it. My feeling was to take, say, Little Junior Parker or Howlin’ Wolf or Jimmy Reed or Carl Perkins or Chuck Berry and write my own lyrics.”
In addition to his musical career, Alvin has published two books of poetry.
His latest album, “Downey To Lubbock,” was created with longtime friend, Texan country singer Jimmie Dale Gilmore, as a follow-up to a spontaneous 12-city music tour in 2017. Their performance sets would drift from Merle Haggard to Sam Cooke to the Youngbloods. They enjoyed themselves so much that they decided to do a record after the tour wrapped up.
Alvin wrote two originals for the record: the autobiographical title track and the make-believe “Billy The Kid and Geronimo.” The latter sees Alvin and Gilmore trade verses as their folk heroes have a debate on morality, oppression and injustice. •
Dave Alvin with Jimmie Dale Gilmore • July 29
Sierra Nevada Brewery Big Room in Chico