After an extended winter break, Walking the Floor is back. Today’s episode of the Americana podcast finds host Chris Shiflett conducting a 70-minute chat with Dave Alvin, a “California roots-music historian” whose music mixes country, punk, blues, R&B and rock & roll influences into the same melting pot.
From his short-lived stint as a member of X to his current tour and album with Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Alvin has built a career upon collaboration and diversity. That makes him the ideal conversation partner for Shiflett, another guitar-playing songwriter who, like Alvin, blurs the line between alt-country crunch and raw rock with his work. Together, the two spend an hour singing the praises of old blues icons, discussing the roots of California’s punk scene and drawing lines between genres that have historically remained separate. Listen to the episode below, following our quick list of podcast highlights.
Dave Alvin doesn’t really think he can sing.
“My voice. . .is an acquired taste,” admits Alvin, who handled most of the songwriting — but rarely the vocal duties — in his first band, the Blasters. Alvin ultimately left the band in the mid-Eighties.
It was Nick Lowe who encouraged Alvin to become a frontman.
Alvin had already quit the Blasters by early 1986, when the band began working with producer Nick Lowe. Even so, he agreed to write songs for the group’s upcoming album, hoping to ease the transition as they looked for a new bandleader. One of his new tunes was “4th of July,” which differed a bit from the bluesy material that his brother, Blasters vocalist Phil Alvin, specialized in performing.
While playing the song for Nick Lowe in a hotel room, Dave Alvin received some lifelong advice from the songwriting legend. “Nick Lowe changed my life right then and there,” he remembers. “He said, ‘Your brother can’t sing these things.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s a problem.’ And he said, ‘No, you should sing it.'” Unsure of his own vocal abilities, Alvin protested. “I said, ‘I can’t sing,'” he remembers, “and Nick Lowe says, ‘Well, neither can I, but I’ve managed to make a living doing it.’ And that changed my life.”
Another piece of career advice came from Queen, whose members tapped the Blasters as an unconventional opening act in 1980.
When the Blasters joined Queen’s West Coast tour on July 1, 1980, Alvin knew his band would be a hard sell. “We were a bar band, playing rhythm and blues, you know?” he says. “There was a lot of walking bass lines, and we played it fast. There was a lot of ride cymbal. The guys in Queen were wonderful guys — very supportive — and they had asked for us. So while their audience of 17,000 people were throwing cherry bombs at us and booing us, the guys in Queen were like, ‘God, you guys are great.'” Later that summer, Queen bassist John Deacon pulled Alvin aside and dispensed some tricks of the stadium-playing trade. “He said, ‘You know. . .when you play arenas, less is more,'” Alvin remembers.
As a young musician in Southern California, Alvin grew up amongst the pioneers of electric blues and American roots music. The authenticity of those artists — and the scene they populated — rubbed off on the young musician.
“When I got to see these guys, they were still sort of in their prime, and there was still a community around them,” says Alvin, who spent time with icons like Lightnin’ Hopkins, T-Bone Walker and Big Joe Turner. “Any kind of music you play now that is roots-based — or even jazz or pop standards — the communities that formed that music are dead. For the music to survive, it changes, [and] a different community adopts it. That’s true of bluegrass. That’s true of rhythm and blues, soul, rockabilly, honky tonk. Whatever you’re playing, you’re playing a variation of what was done through community.”
Alvin’s willingness to break convention and follow his own muse was partially inspired by a pair of experiences watching Jimi Hendrix perform.
“When I was 13, I saw Jimi Hendrix — twice!” he says. “The whole thing was inspiring. His physical presence was inspiring. The fact that, unlike a lot of pop music today or even guitar-dominated music today, you had no idea what the hell was gonna happen with Jimi Hendrix. I don’t think his bands had any idea was what going to happen. That filtered through the crowd. . .Jimi Hendrix was physically, musically, philosophically the end-all, be-all.”
Decades after those Hendrix performances, Alvin still embraces spur-of-the-moment decisions during his shows. In doing so, he’s developed a deeper appreciation for — and understanding of — his own songs.
“They’re works in progress,” he says of his songs. “I understanding [the mentality behind] playing songs the same way every time you play it. Some songs call for that. But some songs call for, ‘Let’s fuck this one up.’ Or, “Hey! Hey! Drum Solo! Right now! You’re not expecting it!’ The musicians who play with me in my bands are used to that. It keeps everything fresh, but also, your understanding of the song — especially the better ones — can morph. . .Maybe 10 years or 15 years down the line, I’ve had the experience of doing a song and going, ‘Oh man, now I know what this song is. I get it now! And I wrote it! I’m an idiot.’
Long after his college days as a poetry student, Alvin still loves the form. . .particularly iambic pentameter.
“We all feel iambic pentameter but we don’t know what it is,” he says, illustrating the poetic meter to Shiflett by reciting a snippet of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” “It’s the main [meter]. It’s sort of the blues of poetry.”
During a dark moment in the late-Eighties, Alvin moved to Nashville and landed a publishing deal, hoping to write hit songs for country artists.
“Worst period of my life,” he says of that time period. “It’s a long story. I was dead broke. I was living on 17th in an apartment, me and this other guy. We had two air mattresses. This was after I’d left the Blasters and after I left X. [It was] even after I’d been a solo artist, signed to Epic Nashville. I got dropped when they realized ‘He’s not a country artist.’ I was living out here trying to write songs that I could get Randy Travis or George Strait to cover.” Alvin spent his days collaborating with hit songwriters of the day, although nothing came of those attempts. “I’d go every day to my publishers’ office where we had a writing room,” he remembers, “and I’d co-write with great writers, and we’d just write crap.”