There’s a song on Alejandro Escovedo’s new LP, Burn Something Beautiful, called “I Don’t Want to Play Guitar Anymore,” a scorching, doo-wop drip of a track that has the 65-year-old Texan’s fingers paralyzed by the ephemeral nature of life. It’s no wonder that Escovedo thinks about such things, though: he narrowly escaped a long battle with hepatitis-C and, more recently, barely survived a hurricane while on honeymoon in Mexico with his new wife Nancy that left him with debilitating post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s that yin-yang mixture of joy and fear – a new love, but the taste of death forever on his tongue – that inspired Burn Something Beautiful, his first album in four years. (Stream it exclusively below.)
“There is a period of time I felt that music was the reason why I had gotten sick,” Escovedo tells Rolling Stone Country about his disease, arguably exacerbated by the indulgences of the rock star lifestyle. “There is that whole ‘why me?” period. It’s a real roller coaster of emotions. Why was I the one chosen to bear this horrible disease? That idea, ‘I don’t want to play guitar anymore,’ came from Peter. Because music is what we love to do, and when we feel most complete.”
The Peter he speaks of is Peter Buck, of R.E.M., who was a key collaborator on Burn Something Beautiful, along with Scott McCaughey of the Minus 5. The three men co-produced and co-wrote the album together, decamping to Portland, Oregon, miles away from Austin, Texas – where Escovedo lived until recently and is so heavily associated with (he now resides in Dallas). Continuing the singer’s penchant for a shadowy mixture of punk, roots and rock, the record is low on gloss and high on assertive guitars and restless percussion, mature in subject matter but never composition. Escovedo may be in his sixties, but he doesn’t temper the distortion or feedback for aged ears.
“Some people have told me that we sound younger than actual young people making rock & roll,” Escovedo says – with the subtle wink being that rock & roll itself has become somewhat of a decaying pursuit, at least in its purest form. Burn Something Beautiful evokes that often-dissonant spirit of Lou Reed (“Johnny Volume”) melded with Escovedo’s knack for a fiery, infectious punk refrain (“Horizontal”): timeless rather than trendy. “We played a gig at a hotel in Dallas recently, and someone said we sounded ‘classic rock,'” he laughs. “Ten years ago I would have taken that as an insult. Not today. When my first solo albums came out they were never in the rock section. They were either in Mexican, Salsa, world beat [sections]. It took a long time for people to understand what I was doing.”
Though it doesn’t dictate the entirety of his sound, Escovedo’s Mexican heritage is still a vital part of his identity, and he dedicated Burn Something Beautiful to his parents, and to “immigrants who have made this country so great.” It’s choice language, of course, directly echoing the “Make America Great Again” campaign of Donald Trump, who’s boasted of a deportation task force and building a big ol’ wall. Escovedo, who stopped playing his song “Castanets” for two years when it wound up on George W. Bush’s playlist, doesn’t mince words when it comes to the Republican nominee. “To see so much divisiveness and racism, that’s never a good thing,” he says. “For those of us who would rather see unity than division, it’s a total blow. I don’t think he’s funny, I don’t think he’s clever. He’s an ugly person.”
Escovedo’s brushes with mortality have had him thinking a lot about the legacy we all leave behind – as people, as parents, as a country in this most volatile of election seasons. There were times when the music didn’t seem enough: as he sings in “I Don’t Want to Play Guitar Anymore,” “when there’s no stories left to sing, say goodbye to everything.” Now he’s come to understand that even when he can no longer sing or write, there is still something beautiful burned into history.
“Books, records, whatever it is we leave behind, those things will live on forever,” he says. “I have seven children, and this is what I am leaving for them. The stories.”