Dave Alvin digs into his roots on new CD
February 09, 2005 - By ALAN SCULLEY
For the Call
On a rare day off from touring, Dave Al-vin was home in Los Angeles doing this interview while waiting for contractors to come and look at a mudslide situation on his property.
"I'd never seen rain like that out here," Alvin said. "I guess we had our normal yearly rain in a two-week period. It was absolutely unbelievable."
Fortunately for Alvin, a mudslide has not become a metaphor for his career. Since coming to prominence in the early 1980s as the songwriter for the terrific rockabilly and roots-rock band the Blasters, Alvin's career has stayed on solid footing while his music has matured and grown richer.
He left the Blasters in 1985, embarking on a solo career that has seen him continue to generate some of the best roots al-bums of his generation, ranging from the hard-rocking 1991 effort "Blue Blvd." up through more recent acoustic-based efforts like "King of California" of 1994 and 1998's "Blackjack David."
Alvin's career arc came up in discussion because his latest CD, "Ashgrove," frequently has him in a reflective mode, looking back over a life in music that now ex-tends 25 years.
The album's title song sets the tone. It's named after the legendary but long-gone Los Angeles club the Ashgrove, a venue played by some of music's most important blues and roots music artists, including Big Joe Turner, Lightnin' Hopkins and the Rev. Gary Davis. It was the club where Alvin first saw the blues and folk artists whose music continues to inform his song writing to this day.
The song inspires Alvin to look back on his youth, back on his life in music and the people who have come and gone, and it sets the tone for a CD frequently dealing with aging, mortality and the loss of loved ones, friends and places.
As a 49-year-old musician, Alvin figures it's only natural that he's grappling with these issues in his songwriting. Of course, he also saw the reality of death hit home in 2000, when his father, Cass, lost a long battle with Parkinson's disease. His mother, Nana, had died in 1984.
On the ballad "The Man in the Bed," Al-vin pays tribute to his father's spirit, assuming his father's voice as he remembers himself as the youthful, vigorous man his body no longer allows him to be.
Alvin said the death of his father, along with the recent passing of a few friends, definitely inspired the lyrical direction of "Ashgrove."
"In the old days, say 15 years ago, when I'd lose friends, it tended to be from exaggerated, whatever, people who lived on the edge," he said. "But then you get to a point where you're just losing people from normal wear and tear. So all that, yeah that played a part."
The reflections on life, loss and Alvin's early musical experiences at the Ashgrove naturally raise the question of how Alvin views his career as he nears the half-century mark. He widely is viewed as one of the masters of the roots-rock form, effortlessly bringing blues, rockabilly and folk to-gether into a gritty, tuneful and distinctive sound that's complemented with lyrics de-picting the struggles of common man that are frequently told through the eyes of vi-vidly drawn characters.
But Alvin has never been a star or had a hit record. He continues to carve out a living as a working musician who spends most of his year on the road playing clubs from coast to coast.
"You know I'd be a liar if I said I'm totally satisfied," Alvin admitted.
"But on the other hand, I have a house that I'm worried about having mud come down the hillside," he added. "I'm pretty lucky to have a house that has mud coming down the hillside. It's not a mansion, but it's really a nice place. And for 25 years now I've somehow managed to somehow eke out a living as a musician on the fringes of the music world. So on one hand I'm very lucky. And every gig that I play, even when they're Monday nights in a snowstorm, there's a part of me that realizes that I am so frigging lucky."
Anyone listening to "Ashgrove" would be hard pressed to overlook Alvin's song writing talents as he works his way through taut rockers like "Black Sky," "Ashgrove" and "Sinful Daughter" and sweet ballads such as "Somewhere in Time," "Nine Volt Heart" and "The Man in the Bed."
The fact that "Ashgrove" showcases both electric and acoustic music — Alvin always has stuck to primarily one or the other on past albums — is one reason he considers "Ashgrove" to be the most well-rounded and representative album of his career.
"It's sort of got all the elements of my style as a songwriter and as a guitar player and it's maybe got some of my best vocals," Alvin said of the album. "So yeah, if you were going to the store and your friend said: 'Pick me up a Dave Alvin record,' I'd pick up that one."
Dave Alvin and the Guilty Men will play at 8 p.m. today — Feb. 10 — at the Blueberry Hill Duck Room, 6504 Delmar Blvd. Tickets cost $15. Pieta Brown also will perform.