Dave Alvin: On Songwriting, Speculation and Maintaining His Own Muse

“I’m not really a professional songwriter,” Dave Alvin insists. “I tried it when I was living in Nashville in the late ‘80s. Tried the cowriting thing, but I just wasn’t good at it.Back then, the two biggest artists were Randy Travis and George Strait, and I was trying to come up with songs for those two guys, and, of course, failing magnificently because it’s just not what I’m good at. I write weird songs and if someone can relate to weird song I wrote, then great. I get touched both by amateurs and my heroes wanting to cover one of my songs. It means the world to me. I write these weird little songs and so I’m so tickled when people like them.”

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For those who have followed Alvin’s career over the course of the past 40 years, Alvin’s admission may seem somewhat strange. With a history that includes stints with such influential outfits as The Blasters, X, and of course, his own various backing bands, Alvin’s credentials are well established, as are the songs that he’s imbued into the popular lexicon — among them, such classics as “Marie, Marie,” 4th of July” and “Long White Cadillac” — often courtesy of covers by other artists.

Alvin’s new album, From An Old Guitar, continues that tradition, and while it’s billed as a collection of “rare and unreleased recordings,” it offers another example of Alvin’s ability to transcend genres, whether it’s an ominous take on Bob Dylan’s sinewy standard “Highway 61 Revisited,” a tattered ballad like “Amanda,” the rugged narrative “Perdido Street Blues,” an unrepentant rocker in the form of “Beautiful City ‘Cross the River,” or the assured shuffle that defines “Albuquerque.” All find a fine fit courtesy of Alvin’s ability to maintain his own ambitious overreach.

“Some of them were made for a tribute album that has long gone out of print and some of the songs were recorded for albums of mine that rightly or wrongly didn’t make the record,” Alvin explains when asked about the choices that went into this particular compilation. “The bulk of them were done just for giggles. It boiled down to the fact that I had just gotten off the road and I had a few bucks in my pocket, and instead of buying a new car or a guitar, I called over to my studio and asked if they had any free time. If they said yes, I’d call a few musicians, whether it was [guitarist] Greg Leisz,[drummer] Don Heffington, or whomever, and I’d ask, ‘Hey, are you free Tuesday? Wanna go in the studio and goof around?’ And happily they were. The bulk of the recordings were done in a non-pressurized, fun atmosphere, just for the sheer joy of making noise.”

Here again, Alvin is self-effacing when describing his MO, but he does admit that the variety of material he chose to string together did present some problem as far as transitioning from song to song. “If you slice me open, I’m basically just a blues guy,  but I like to take my primitive blues chops and put them in blues settings and non blues settings,” he suggests. “Some of the songs were released in digital format, strictly for the hardcore, but I always wanted to put them all together in one package, and finally it was the right time to do that. It was intriguing to do the sequencing. It was a little eclectic. But it’s all the same notes to me. So yeah, sequencing was a kind of challenge and so I had to figure out to connect some of the songs. And in many cases, it was the message rather than the music that made that connection.”

That said, Alvin makes little differentiation in terms of any music that matters to him the most. “It’s all the same notes,” he insists. “It depends on whether I’m playing electric or acoustic. I know there are people who prefer my acoustic stuff, and I know there are also a lot of people who prefer me bashing out a Stratocaster. To me it just boils down to the fact that they really are the same notes, but maybe at different decibel levels. So I’m coming at it from the same place, no matter which way I’m doing it. Over the course of my career, my music has been called a million different things, everything from retro revival to cow punk to western beat, outlaw whatever, Americana… the only time I really pay attention to labels is when I’m filing my records. I’ve been very fortunate that I have a core audience that will follow me into some of these dark alleys that I sometimes wander into”

He also admits that his eclectic approach hasn’t always found favor with those with whom he’s contracted, a dilemma that dates back to when he originally began making music.

“When I started out with The Blasters and then went on to X, we had major label deals,” he recalls. “My first solo album was on Epic Records out of Nashville. So I had a lot of pressure in those days, first with The Blasters, then with X and then in my solo career. Major label pressure. I realized that whether for good or bad, I don’t function well in that situation, and I also knew I wanted to have a career, it was going to present a c challenge. A lot of friends and acquaintances were signed to major labels, and if their album didn’t do well, they were gone. They were history. So I knew that for me to grow and develop as an artist, I had to be in places that would let me do that. If Columbia signed a singer/writer now, they’re not going to have the patience to let that singer/songwriter develop like a Bob Dylan or a Leonard Cohen. They’re just not going to allow it. It’s just not in their business interest. I understand it, but for me, when I signed with Hightone Records and then with my current label, Yep Roc, I instead that they just let me do what I want to and we’ll get along fine. Earlier this year, I put out a record with some friends that was totally improvisational, freely psychedelic, called The Third Mind. Yep Roc was fine with that. ‘Yeah, it’s different, but sure!’ I don’t like to be pigeonholed as a songwriter or as a performer.”

Or it seems, as a writer for hire. Alvin says he owes his impetus almost entirely to inspiration. “I’ll get moved by something you see on TV or something that happens in my life,” he explains. “There’s always part of my brain — a large part of my brain — that works that way because of my schooling in poetry or my previous experiences with songwriting. You and I may be talking right now, but there’s a part of my brain that’s thinking, ‘What rhymes with orange?’ I can be walking down the street or be in a diner and hear what people are talking about, and then leave with a song. So there’s always that part of my brain that’s working. But if you put a gun to my head and say, ‘Write me a song in an hour and I’ll give you five grand,’ I can’t do that because I’m not a mainstream kind of artist — not even a mainstream kind of roots artist — I just write what I want to write. At this point in time, it’s all about inspiration whether I feel like writing a blues song today or I feel like writing a polka. Whatever I feel like. Songwriting, especially as you get older, gets more difficult. It’s easier when you’re young. As you get older, you’re carrying all those songs around. They’re all on your shoulder. Everyone of them. The successful ones and the not so successful ones. But they’re all there on your shoulder. I feel like when I’m working on a new song, they’re all there looking at it going, ‘Ah, no… that’s not one of us.’”

Consequently, it’s no surprise to find that Alvin takes an impromptu approach to his craft. He readily concedes that his muse frequently takes him by surprise, with results that are often wholly unexpected.

“My methods are just different,” he maintains. “I’ll be practicing guitar and playing a one-four-five, and suddenly some odd sixth chord will pop in, and it will, be like wait a second. ‘What’s this song about?’ One of the reasons I left the Blasters was that I was writing songs for my brother to sing, and when you write songs for other people to sing, you have to write things that you feel, and that you and that person share. An outlook on this, that and the other. With any band, you eventually start bringing in songs that the band won’t or can’t play it. If I wrote a song for The Blasters and brought it in for rehearsal and they said, ‘no, that’s not for us,’ I’d just throw the song away and never think of it again. But then I got to a point where I thought that if I’m going to develop as a songwriter, I can’t live by those rules anymore. I love my brother and I love all the guys in The Blasters — we grew up together — but if I’m going to be writing, I’ve got to be free to do it only terms. I avoid pressurized situations. It’s one of the things that keep me young.” (Laughs)

Alvin also admits his methods could be construed as somewhat odd, but even so, that doesn’t dissuade him from wanting to pursue his passion. “I’m a weird songwriter, what you might call a reluctant songwriter,” he continues, returning to a now persistent premise. “I have songwriter friends who get up every morning and write a song every day. I’m not that guy. I also have friends and acquaintances who, when they were nine years old, decided they were going to grow up and morph into Joni Mitchell. I was never like that. I was writing songs when I was five years old sitting in my mother’s car, making up songs on the spot, but the idea of making a living at it? That being a profession? No way. My last real job was in 1979 when I was a fry cook. I had studied poetry in college and I  had some amazing poetry teachers in college who made us write sonnets, write haikus. That was my lesson in songwriter, aside from following around Big Joe Turner and T-Bone Walker, the old blues guys when I was a kid. That was my education in songwriting. When the Blasters started out, we were doing Little Junior Parker and Howlin’ Wolf and Carl Perkins songs, and we found out we couldn’t get a record deal unless we had original songs. So my brother made an announcement: ‘Okay, next week at rehearsal, everybody bring in three songs!’ So I brought in three songs, and nobody else did. So there was the magic wand. ‘Bang, you’re a songwriter now!’”

Despite his denials, Alvin’s body of work has certainly raised his own bar, at least as far as his fans’ expectations are concerned. Is he aware, then, that he has set a certain standard?

“It’s not so much living up to a standard, but maybe having all your old songs on your shoulder is a standard,” he concedes. “The third or fourth song I wrote with The Blasters was a song called ‘Marie, Marie’ and it was a gigantic international success, thanks to a recording by a young Welsh singer named Shakin’ Stevens. It was  huge everywhere in the world except in the U.S. Why, I don’t know, but everywhere on God’s green earth, it was gigantic. And I went from being a fry cook to being a songwriter. And a songwriter getting serious checks. Wow! And then Shakin’ Stevens called me up and wanted to make me his official songwriter, but I had to tell him, ‘I don’t know about that!’ (Laughs) ‘I don’t know where these come from, Mr. Stevens, so I don’t know if I can become an official songwriter for you.’ That was pressure. When I sit down and write songs, I just have to say, those are flukes, because in a way they are.”

Nevertheless, he says he’s delighted when someone else does like one of his songs so much that they want to cover them themselves.“Some of my favorite versions of my songs are by other people,” he allows.”So when I see them on YouTube and maybe they’re not by professional players, but I still love that because it means that your song is now a folk song. Like with ‘Marie, Marie’ —  there are people don’t believe I wrote that. After all, we’ve been trained to believe that the person who sings a song is the person who wrote the song. Of course, Bing Crosby or Sinatra didn’t have that issue. But when Buckwheat Zydeco recorded ‘Marie, Marie,’ he rearranged it and gave it a kind of Motown/zydeco groove, and it was great! I loved his version. It became a hit in the zydeco world. So I was like, ‘Hey, I wrote that song.’ It was the same when Robert Earl Keen covered ‘4th of July’ or Dwight Yoakam covered ‘Long White Cadillac.’ ’People would say, ‘No you didn’t.’ Well, Yes, I did!’ ‘No, you didn’t!’ Yes, I did. I’m not a cover band! Nowadays when I play ‘4th of July,’ people still come up to me and say, ‘I love that Robert Earl Keen song!’

Inevitably then, Alvin still continues to think of himself as a man who avoids the mainstream, whether he prefers to be on the outside of it or not. And yet, at the same time, it doesn’t detract from the thing. He loves to do most, which is performing for the faithful.

“When you’re playing roots music or rock or rockabilly or honky tonk, or whatever you’re playing, you’re an oddball,” he relates. “You’re not part of the pop culture really, but there’s a remarkably large part of the population that likes this stuff. This is not what you see on TV or hear on the radio. So because of that, there’s this roots music community and it can be everybody from lawyers to truck drivers. And I like that. I like the back and forth communication between me and the audience and the musicians. In a way, that’s my church. That’s my religious service. I’m an itinerant preacher. I go from town to town spreading some sort of gospel and raising people’s spirits. I go to some shows and I leave thinking, I have a reason to get up tomorrow. That’s what I love. I don’t like motel rooms. I don’t like airports. I don’t like any of that jazz. The luster of all that kind of crap wore off decades ago. But if I get two or two and a half hours on stage, then okay. To me, there’s an element of community feeling. There’s a weirdly transcendental cosmic connection that tells me, when I’m on stage, I’m actually not there in a way. I mean, I’m there, but all my old friends are there with as well. My parents are alive again. All my influences — Big Joe Turner. Lightnin’ Hopkins. Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson — they’re all alive again, They’re on that stage with me. I love that. There’s no past. There’s no present. There’s really no future. It’s just the now. It’s addicting. It’s like a runner’s high. You raise yourself up to another plane. It’s like meditation. You can shut out everything around you. All the noise. When it’s really good, you can play all the wrong notes you want to and it just doesn’t matter.” (chuckles)

Check out our review of Alvin’s latest effort.

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  1. I never saw The Blasters live (in the day) but I was always a fan. I saw Dave performing with X and then a number of years later he played a live music venue I opened in 1997. We were open until 2001. I don’t remember what year it was but ‘The King Of California’ was still a hit on the local community radio station WMNF. The show was a benefit for the station and Dave and I were down in our Gallery which served as a green room for performers. He was watching the Lakers on the small television we had in the corner and Linda Reisinger from the radio station came down to tell him he was expected on stage in five. He looked at the play clock and told her it looked more like fifteen minutes. He was not going to miss the end of the game. I’ve given up a lot of bad habits in my 62 years but I’m still a sports fan. I was happy to witness that Dave Alvin was (is) too. Of course the show was great and I’m happy to say I’ve seen him since, with brother Phil and then a reincarnation of The Blasters (without Phil unfortunately). Rock on Dave Alvin!

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