Half a Paycheck

Dave Alvin is an inveterate troubadour and staunch advocate for Houston's blues history.

Dave Alvin is talking via cell from Maryland, and he actually sounds glad to be doing the interview, genuinely wondering what we are going to talk about and where this might end up.

The discussion has turned to the instability, both physical and psychological, of the troubadour life. From seminal L.A. bands The Blasters and X to his solo career of more than 20 years, Alvin has become one of the standards for the purest edge of the California artistic ethos alongside Charles Bukowski, Los Lobos, Tom Waits, Peter Case and Chuck E. Weiss.

"They say most people are just two paychecks from homeless," says the former Blaster, just like he was talking to Woody Guthrie on his deathbed, "but most musicians are like half a paycheck from homeless. Doing what we do is the epitome of instability. But, ironically, it's the gigs that keep me sane."

So how do you overcome that unstable feeling while zipping up and down the interstates in a white van that barely accommodates five egos and enough equipment to black out Pecos, Texas?

The solution, Alvin believes, is to make touring "as interesting as you can." 

"I've been lucky enough to tour with people who understood that, if we have time, a detour to Muddy Waters's grave is better than just shooting down the interstate to the gig," he says.

An avid historian nominated for a Grammy for his liner notes to Rhino's Ray Charles box set some years ago, Alvin did just that last year, on a wandering vacation drive to visit Delta blues players' burial sites across Mississippi.

"Yeah, I took a week and just drove to all the graves and joints and ­monuments I could locate," he says. "Left guitar picks on the graves, guys like Charley ­Patton, Son House, anyone I could locate.

"Mississippi John Hurt's was the most interesting," Alvin teases.

"It was way back up in this pine forest where all these survivalist types were living or hiding out, whatever it is they do," explains Alvin in his Bogart-with-a cigarette voice. "I finally located the grave, but I left running in front of a pack of sentry dogs. It was crazy. Believe me, the survivalists are guarding Mississippi John's grave pretty well."

Touring to promote his new album, Eleven Eleven (Yep Roc), Alvin is out with a new ensemble he calls "the Austin band": Lisa Pankratz on drums, her husband Brad Fordham on bass and Chris Miller on lead guitar.

"We did the Guilty Women thing for a couple of years, but this album calls for a more straight-ahead attack, so I've retooled a bit," he explains.

The album is a return to cranked-up electric guitar, which is Alvin's primary stock in trade.

"I go through phases, whether I'm playing with my acoustic or the ­electric," says Alvin. "Most of these songs needed a nasty, wicked guitar on them."

In the suite of mostly story-songs, Houston gets a shout-out in the somber "Johnny Ace Is Dead," which tells the story of the young star's Russian-roulette suicide during a Christmas show in 1954. It name-checks Don Robey, Big Mama Thornton and a mysterious sax player who needs to "leave before the cops show up."

"That whole saga is so strange, it just cried out for a song about it," Alvin explains. "Just another interesting historical tidbit."

Although he has been a lifelong rocker, ten years ago Alvin took a turn into folk and country. He produced a critically praised tribute to Merle Haggard and an all-star album called Monsters of Folk, which presented the opportunity to tour with one of his musical heroes, Ramblin' Jack Elliott. He remains a close friend.

"Jack had some medical problems not long ago, and his daughter called me and said, 'Dave, can you come hang out with Jack? He's driving me crazy.' So I picked him up and we drove down to this little Mexican cantina and I got to sit out in the sun and sip tequila and listen to his amazing tales all afternoon," Alvin beams like a true fan. "They won't be making another one like Jack."

Alvin notes he's had a long love affair with Houston, going back to the early '80s when the Blasters were touring hard and playing places like Fitzgerald's and Rockefeller's regularly. Dwight Yoakam covered Alvin's classic about the death of Hank Williams, "Long White Cadillac," and they brought Yoakam to Houston for the first time in 1986 as an opener.

"I saw Dwight and Pete [Anderson] at the Palomino, and there were about 40 people there," Alvin recalls. "But he was doing songs like "Honky Tonk Man" and all those early songs of his, and I thought here's a guy who's going to sell some records. We played on a lot of bills together around Los Angeles."

"We were on Warner Bros. then, and the Warner people came out to see Dwight at the New York gig and they got very excited and signed him. The rest is history."

On the subject of Houston, ­Alvin mentions legendary former Houston Post music critic Bob Claypool.

"Bob was such a supporter of our ­music. He got it as well as anyone ever has," he opines. "I used to love to sit downstairs at Fitzgerald's with him and just drink beer and ­listen to him talk about music.

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7 comments
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Guest
Guest

On Dave's website he says there are two types of folk music, soft folk music and loud folk music and he plays both. Well at Friday night's show he played the loud version and it was fantastic. The house was packed, the band was tight and Dave was in fine form with several songs from his latest album that fit right in with his earlier songs. The guitars' tone and sound were just unbelievable. I have seen Dave over ten times and I think this show was the best yet. I can't wait until he comes back to Houston.

Guest
Guest

Bland didn't live here either, though he did record for Duke and toured with Houston recording artists Junior Parker and Johnny Ace. He recruited Houston guitarists Roy Gaines and Texas Johnny Brown to play in his band. TJB wrote songs for Bland, including the hit "Two Steps From the Blues". It's great to see in print Alvin's credit to so many Houston Blues artists who moved to LA to record and influenced that scene. Historically speaking, there were so many ties to the Bayou City, as Houston was a key Blues hub. Bluesmen from T-Bone Walker to B.B. King, who didn't live here, cherished their visits and shows here which allowed them to jam in the back rooms of the clubs with local Bluesmen and work out songs in band members' living rooms. A second Blues home to many.

Guest
Guest

Nice tip-o-the-hat to Houston's Blues history! T-Bone Walker, however, was from Linden, TX. He had Houston connections, to be sure, but did not live here.

bilcoreal
bilcoreal

'the blasters covered Dwight Yoakum's classic' - really? Dave Alvin wrote the song, it was recently featured on the Blasters live 1986 disc, and Dwight didn't release his single til '89.

Methinks Yoakum covered the Blaster classic, no?

And the "Monsters of Folk" album? Never heard of it - there was a tour in 1998, and another band by the same name that recorded an eponymous disc in 2009. If there's a Dave Alvin Monsters of Folk disc, I'd love to hear about it.

Festus
Festus

Thanks for one heck of an interview. I was at the 1986 Blasters show w/ Dwight Yoakam. I also remember a smokin' Easter Sunday appearance of the Blasters & Joe Ely at Fitzgeralds. And who could ever forget the Bob Claypool columns? They don't make 'em like Claypool any more...

Maggie_May
Maggie_May

It would be easier to remember Bob's columns if most of them were not locked away in the nonexistent Houston Post electronic archives. (He moved to the Chronicle toward the end of his life so he lives on in those archives. Oddly, Marty Racine's stuff seems to have disappeared.)

OK, if I win the Lotto I'll underwrite an anthology: more volumes in The Annals of Texas Music.

And I first saw The Blasters at The Island on Main Street. I had no idea who they were but was thrilled to hear a Jimmie Rodgers tune in that dark & tulgy place....

Gregcarr2
Gregcarr2

That Blasters and Joe Sly show at Fitzgerald was amazing.Have seen Dave play over the years . Looking forward to hearing these great new songs

 

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