Half a Paycheck

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.

"His strength was in putting a sociologi­cal context around music, getting down to what it means to both the musicians and the people who listen. And it didn't matter what kind of music. Bob was a true giant."

Informed that a historical marker for Lightnin' Hopkins had been erected recently, Alvin grew expansive about his love for the Bayou City.

"The amazing thing about Houston is that geographically it's located at the southernmost end of the blues belt, the westernmost part of the Cajun music culture and northernmost part of Norteño musical culture," the Downey, California, native explains.

"And that all gets jumbled in along with the local country players and ­writers to produce something very vigorous and real musically. That's just such a special ­cultural stew for brewing good music.

"Another thing for me in particular, being from the Los Angeles area, is how many of the Houston blues greats came out to the coast to gig and record, and that really influenced the blues sound in L.A.," he adds.

"I can still remember when Phil [brother and original Blaster Phil Alvin] and I snuck into this crazy black joint to see Lightnin' one time when we were underage," Alvin chuckles. "Talk about life-altering. But he was only one of a dozen or so great Houston players that we got hip to."

Asked for whom he would erect histor­ical markers in the city, Alvin name-checks Albert Collins, Bobby Bland and T-Bone Walker before stopping himself.

"Man, they should just erect one huge one for all those guys and put one on every major highway entering the city. Houston's blues heritage is that deep and wide."

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William Michael Smith