Going Public

All too often, the inspiration for making an album comes from the marketplace or out of the music itself. It's far rarer, yet usually better, for inspiration to arise out of personal, private convictions. Dave Alvin's Public Domain, a collection of songs from the broad American folk tradition, was sparked by circumstances as personal as they can be.

In February, Alvin's father took ill and went into the hospital. "I was going there every day," Alvin explains. "There were two points where my dad was on life support. So you'd just sit there for two or three hours, listening to the machines. So while you're sitting there in silence, your mind starts to go to various places. And you start thinking about life, death, mistakes and regrets, this, that and the other thing. And the most mundane of all these thoughts was, You may only live once, and it may be short, so you can't put certain things off to the future. And this is one of the things I didn't want to put off to the future."

Alvin had wanted to record a bare-bones set of folk songs for some time. The circumstances surrounding his father's four-month decline and eventual death essentially forced Alvin to make this album. "One of the therapies while this was happening was that I started hiking every other day," says Alvin, who lives in Los Angeles. "And I would go someplace looking for something that was timeless. I want to go to someplace where nothing has changed in 50 years, or 300 years, and someplace that won't change in 50 years. Someplace that's out of time, and part of time, and eternal." That desire is echoed in the brief liner notes on Public Domain, in which Alvin writes: "Like ancient redwoods and giant sequoias, our folk songs endure beyond (and despite of) the whims of current popular taste and the quick gratifications of our disposable culture."

The singer, guitarist and songwriter, who first emerged on the scene leading the Blasters with his older brother Phil, calls the process of making Public Domain "therapy" a number of times during the conversation. "Not exactly grief therapy," he explains, fumbling for the truest explanation. "I wanted to do something that had nothing to do with anything as far as what is current, what's going on."

Like all those Smithsonian boxed sets that have helped unearth the deeply buried American folk tradition, Public Domain exists beyond the moment we are living in. Beginning with "Shenandoah," one of our nation's most enduring compositional artifacts, the collection rolls out and recombines into interlocking strands of DNA, all of which have determined the character of American music. Subtitled Songs from the Wild Land, the set is not a folk album in the "Unplugged" sense, since it features electric instruments and full band arrangements. Yet there's a purity of execution that matches the authenticity of the material.

Originally Alvin wanted to record a set of folk songs with his pal Greg Leisz, a frequent producer and a multi-instrumentalist, and slide guitarist Kelly Joe Phelps. "Just the three of us, sitting in a room," Alvin says. "We had some serious talks about it. But we could never get schedules aligned." So when his soul told him it was time to make Public Domain, Alvin just hit the studio with his band the Guilty Men and recorded it. "All the tracks were cut in like seven or eight days. And then what little overdubs were done were done in like two days, and then we mixed it; a real change from Blackjack David, which was like a month and a half of work. So it was just therapy. It was a way of feeling, like, life goes on, and everything that has come before is still alive."

Although some of Blackjack David presaged Public Domain -- especially the former album's title song, an English folk standard -- the notion of a folk album from Alvin, known best for mining the early rock and roll and rockabilly legacies, may still seem a bit surprising. Until, that is, you learn about his background in blue-collar Downey, California.

The first song that struck Alvin's young sensibilities was "El Paso," by Marty Robbins. "When I was a kid, I liked music like that, or "Memphis, Tennessee,' or "Battle of New Orleans,' " Alvin says. "Anything that told a story, anything that painted a picture in my little head, those were the ones I liked."

Alvin also had some "hip cousins" whose tastes helped form his aesthetic. One older female cousin was a fan of R&B icons Ray Charles and Big Joe Turner. A male cousin played guitar and banjo and was an early Bob Dylan fan. Yet another guitar-playing cousin lived on a ranch in the San Fernando Valley and loved country music. By the time Alvin was 12 years old, he and his brother Phil were collecting 78s and old blues records. "So in some ways," he says, "whatever I do musically is just a culmination of our cousins' tastes."

Although the notion of being a professional musician didn't strike until later, Alvin and his brother soon began sneaking into clubs to hear people play. "We started going to rock concerts, but we also discovered in addition to going to rock and roll shows, you could go to these clubs and hear Lightnin' Hopkins or Big Joe Turner or T-Bone Walker. So the first real blues show I saw, I was 13."

Phil Alvin soon started singing and playing with local blues bands, and eventually he roped Dave Alvin and some other Downey musicians into forming the Blasters. Although the group was seen primarily as a rockabilly band -- a catalyst for the modern rockabilly revival, in fact -- Alvin and his pals were "an R&B band in the old sense of the word," he says. "We did a lot of rockabilly songs because we liked them, and Phil could sing them really well."

The Blasters became one of the top American-music groups of the early 1980s. But Alvin eventually quit the band when he "ran out of the ability to write songs my brother could sing," he says. "You can only write for somebody for so long. It's kind of like being a speechwriter or something. You eventually get to the point where, if you want to develop as a songwriter, you can't be thinking particularly of writing for other people, or one other person. And it just stopped being fun. We fought all the time. In the early days we fought, and it was fun. Then later we just fought, and it wasn't fun."

After a stint playing guitar for the band X, Alvin launched his own career, one that has seen him emerge as an icon of American roots music. Yet he modestly avoids assuming any throne, viewing his musical journey more as a process of discovery. In fact, the fortysomething Alvin still views his mission in much the same way a postpubescent kid views collecting records and hearing blues artists. To him, it all continues to be an education. "In a lot of ways, I look at the Blasters, and even the whole L.A. rock scene we were part of, as if that, to me, was my high school," he says. "Then joining X was like going to college. And everything else has been postgraduate work."

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Rob Patterson