Alejandro Escovedo is the picture of cool as he walks into Grimey’s record shop in Nashville one bright and sunny weekday afternoon in September. Dressed in a black suit and black cowboy boots with a cravat tucked into his shirt collar, he casts a wary glance around the room where he and his band are about to play an in-store performance. In one hand is his guitar case, and at his other arm is his wife Nancy, who sports a matching pair of dark sunglasses.
“My father, he was very strong, a very hard worker, but he didn’t make a big noise about who he was,” says Escovedo, sitting down a few minutes later in an office above the store. He takes off his sunglasses to reveal a pair of large, dark eyes that are soft, sad and searching. “He always told me — and I think my brothers also showed me as musicians — that you play your music, you look good, you always dress sharp, but you don’t have to go out and beat people’s heads about it.”
Now 67, it’s no coincidence that Escovedo’s thoughts should turn to his family. His new LP, The Crossing, which came out in September on Yep Roc Records, is a sprawling concept album about two immigrants. One, named Salvo, is from Italy, and the other, Diego, is from Mexico. They meet in Escovedo’s home state of Texas, waiting tables at a restaurant in the Gulf Coast town of Galveston, and bond over a shared love for punk rock. It may not be intended as autobiography, but — with guest appearances by the MC5’s Wayne Kramer, the Stooges’ James Williamson, the Only Ones, and Joe Ely — it is, in many ways, the story of his own life.
The album’s first single, a blistering rocker called “Sonica USA” that features Kramer, one of Escovedo’s heroes, situates the story firmly in the realm of his own musical awakening as a Hispanic teenager. It even name-checks the Zeros, an early Chicano punk band that two of his brothers started in California. “When Diego says, ‘I saw the Zeros and they looked like me,’ for me, that was like seeing the Sir Douglas Quintet, seeing Sam the Sham, seeing Question Mark and the Mysterians,” says Escovedo. “It’s funny, but that sound is a large part of what I was going for on our record. I wanted it to feel like Texas.”
Escovedo has lived in San Francisco — his first band, the Nuns, opened for the Sex Pistols’ last-ever show at Winterland Ballroom in 1978 — New York City, and Austin, Texas, his home for 35 years. But a crucial part of who he is was forged in the crucible of south Texas during the Fifties, where his family lived in San Antonio until he was seven. Those few formative years, even more than his storied time in the “Live Music Capital of the World,” are what inform his sense of the Lone Star State.
“My parents used to park outside these dance halls out in the country where Mexican bands were playing. They’d keep us [kids] in the car and I’d watch over my brothers and sisters while they’d go inside and dance all night,” Escovedo recalls. His eyes light up as he transports himself back in time, and he begins to laugh. “At the end of the night there would always be someone making out against the car, waking up the kids, or there’d be a fight or whatever. That’s how I grew up.”
In recent years, a series of upheavals in Escovedo’s life led him to reconnect with those memories. He and Nancy, his third wife, were married in 2014, but during their honeymoon in Baja California, they were caught in a hurricane that leveled parts of the resort at which they were staying. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Escovedo left Austin for a new home in Dallas, where he’s lived since in a suite at the Belmont Hotel, an old art deco motor inn from the Thirties that has refashioned itself as an artist haven.
With the help of friends like the Minus 5 and Peter Buck of R.E.M., Escovedo began piecing his life back together with 2016’s criminally overlooked Burn Something Beautiful. “I got no support from the record company on that whatsoever. It was a big disappointment for me,” he says. “By then I knew it was going to be my last record with Concord… It’s a shame because I really think that was one of my best records.”
That summer, Escovedo, already planning his move to Yep Roc, was connected by new management with a group called Don Antonio. Hailing from a mountainous region near the Italian Alps called Emilio-Romagna, they were intended to serve as a one-time backing band for a European tour, but Escovedo found kindred spirits in their shared Latin experiences. “I found this thread between their culture and my culture. Southern Italy is warmer, the food is spicier, the dialect is different, the people are a little bit different, and the cities kind of look like parts of Mexico,” he says. “The desert meets the ocean, and that’s also where a lot of Africans come to when they migrate from Africa.”
“This one kid told me about carrying his sister on his shoulders across the river to get across [the border], and that his aunt did not make it. That’s pretty heavy, you know?”
Antonio Gramentieri, the singer and guitarist for Don Antonio, already had a deep admiration for Escovedo, who’s 20 years his senior. “For my upbringing, people like Los Lobos, which I got into a little before I got into Alejandro, were crucial. They were more important than the Beatles because they spoke about me,” says Gramentieri, who speaks with a charming, boyish enthusiasm as he points out that rock & roll was built around the harsher phrasing of the English language. “They spoke about somebody whose first language was Spanish or Italian, who tries to approach American music from their own perspective.”
Escovedo invited Gramentieri back to Texas, and together they holed up in the Belmont to begin writing the songs for The Crossing. The pair traveled from Dallas to Austin, taking the back roads through small towns like Glen Rose and Lampasas. They also visited DACA Dreamers in Oak Cliff, a Hispanic neighborhood in Dallas where Lee Harvey Oswald was apprehended by police on the day of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. “This one kid told me about carrying his sister on his shoulders across the river to get across [the border], and that his aunt did not make it,” says Escovedo. “They lost her along the way. That’s pretty heavy, you know?”
That story makes its way into The Crossing on “Texas Is My Mother,” one of several songs on the album that deals directly with the present-day controversy over American immigration. Its companion piece, “Footsteps in the Shadows,” starts the album with Escovedo shouting, “Hey, hey. Come on. We’re running for our lives,” his full-throated bravado tinged with a ring of self-doubt. Most pointed is the spoken-word “Rio Navidad,” in which Diego is confronted at a wedding by a belligerent Texas Ranger who calls him a “wetback.”
Yet, however tempting it is to make the connection, politics are a peripheral concern for a tale that resonates just as deeply with Gramentieri — the death of his mother was the inspiration for “Cherry Blossom Rain.” “To me, Texas is the place where all the music of America comes together,” he says. “It’s the land where you could find Ornette Coleman, and Lightnin’ Hopkins, and everything in between.”
Returning to Italy to record the album, and to write most of its lyrics, Escovedo — who had never recorded outside the United States before — had the reverse experience. Through Salvo and Diego, he found himself reliving parts of his own youth. “When I was in California, I had this sense of loss because I was no longer in Texas. I mean, there were familiar things around me — relatives, my brothers were there, Mexican food and Mexican culture — but it was very different than what I’d grown up with,” he says. “Whereas, in San Antonio, my uncle had this bakery that made tortillas and pan dulce every day, and that smell just permeated my memory.”
As the songs came together, Escovedo and Gramentieri had a “wish list” of guest performers they hoped to bring in for the sessions — fittingly, given that a song like “Outlaw for You” name- checks influences from Emiliano Zapata to the Beatniks to the Stooges. “When I lived in Hollywood in the early Seventies, I used to go stand outside where [the Stooges] practiced. They lived in an apartment building across from a girl’s house that I knew, and I’d go across the street everyday and listen to them rehearsing,” he says, a memory that makes James Williamson’s inclusion particularly poignant for him.
Escovedo’s encounters with his heroes during that time fueled his own musical career, which didn’t even start until he picked up a guitar when he was 24. Today, he’s a bona fide survivor, a fact he doesn’t take for granted: He’s lost a brother, a wife, and nearly died himself from Hepatitis C, believed to have been contracted from using heroin. “One question I hate that I get from people is, ‘Why aren’t you more successful?'” he says, sharply. “Because success is relative. It’s insulting. And it’s bullshit. I think I’m very successful. You’d be hard-pressed to find very many people still doing it who were doing it when I started, or are still alive, having gone through all the things we went through. I feel very fortunate.”
As Escovedo makes his way up and down the stairs at Grimey’s, limping noticeably, his body seems frail, battered from the lifetime of struggles that may only now be coming out for the world to hear. The shop is packed with people, and once Escovedo slings his guitar over his shoulder it’s like those decades have washed away. He barks out commands — or, more precisely, words of encouragement — as he spins around from member to member of Don Antonio, who join him once more for this leg of his North American tour.
“I grew up in an era where we were constantly being told we couldn’t do things. ‘You’re Mexican-American? Go to the workshop.’ Know what I mean? ‘You’re going to be a laborer. Why do you think you can be an artist? Why do you think you can be a doctor or a lawyer?’ So you fight against these things,” Escovedo says, his soft voice taking on a steady, simmering resolve. “Sometimes I think the nature of my culture is that you internalize them, because you’re taught to be respectful, taught to be quiet, taught to be strong and that you just endure.”
Once more, Escovedo’s thoughts return to his family — not to those who are no longer here, like his parents, but to his own children. He says they were the true inspiration for The Crossing, which he likens to a series of letters written to his family.
“As much as my kids, now that they’re older, understand what it is I’ve done all these years, that I wasn’t abandoning them, I think this record really gave me a chance to say a lot of things about myself that I don’t even think I’ve told them,” Escovedo says. His tone, ever thoughtful and considered, rises with a hint of optimism. “I don’t know how many more records I’ll make. I don’t know how many more songs I’ll write. But I want all of them to be something I can leave behind.”