Dave Alvin - Do look back
"Ashgrove", the title song from Dave Alvin's new solo album, is a salute to the Hollywood nightclub where Alvin, as a teenager, first saw Big Joe Turner, T-Bone Walker, Lightnin' Hopkins and Reverend Gary Davis. But this is not your typical tribute tune, full of reverence and sentiment. This, like all of Alvin's great songs, is a tangled knot of mixed feelings. It opens with one of those swaggering guitar riffs Alvin brought to the Blasters in the early 1980s, and the first verse nods to his adolescence, when he and his brother Phil were first inspired to play music by the likes of Turner and Hopkins. In the second verse, though, the song shoots forward 30 years to describe the singer by himself "out on this highway, traveling from town to town, trying to make a living, trying to pay the rent, trying to figure out where my life went." It becomes clear that this is not a nostalgic view of a golden past; this is a song about a difficult present, where the rent is not easily paid and meaning is not easily found. There's a curious mixture of weariness and resilience in Alvin's vocal, as if the years of low-pay gigs in small clubs have taken their toll even if he's inspired to carry on by the example of the Ashgrove acts, who created great art in the face of similar frustrations. Alvin has created his own share of great art, even if he's never received the recognition enjoyed by such peers as Bruce Springsteen or Elvis Costello, much as his heroes Percy Mayfield and Willie Dixon were never as celebrated by the masses as Buddy Holly or Burt Bacharach. Yet Alvin keeps going. His sandy, swept-back hair begins further up on his forehead these days, but his long, lanky frame still seems to disappear within his cracked black-leather jacket. He'll be back on the road this summer with his best album in a decade. What keeps him going is the model of Lee Allen and Big Joe Turner, who still poured their passion into the blues even after the rest of the world had stopped caring -- when they were playing for tiny crowds at the Ashgrove, crowds that included two wide-eyed brothers from Downey, California. On the final verse of "Ashgrove", Alvin sings: I'm thinking of friends and lovers and how they come and go Like look-alike houses on the side of the road, Full of everyday people trying to get ahead, Trying to find a reason just to get out of bed, Because we all need something just to get us through, Well, I'm going to play the blues tonight, man, Because that's what I do. With a drum fill and a splash of loud guitar, the song shifts into the chorus, and all of Alvin's weariness seems to evaporate as he shouts with renewed confidence: "I'm going back to the Ashgrove; that's where I come from!" "When people first hear the song," Alvin says, "they think it's just a song about the Ashgrove, but the second time they hear it, hopefully they realize it's about something else. It's a hard life on the road, but it's a hard life for everybody, whether they're a musician or not. I didn't want it to be a whiny song, because I've been very blessed; I love what I do, even though I've paid a price for it. "The Ashgrove is just a symbol of whatever gets you out of bed. Whether it's your kids, your religion or the basketball playoffs; you need something to get up in the morning. What's happening to a lot of us my age [Alvin is 48] is the death of our parents and even our friends. Life's no longer about losing your virginity; it's about other things, so you write a different kind of song. When all that stuff is going on, how do you live your life, and what things pull you through?" In the third verse of "Ashgrove", Alvin sings: Now my mother's gone, now my father's gone, And all the old bluesmen have all passed on. I'm out on this highway, traveling from town to town; I'm setting up my gear, then I'm tearing it down. Turning up my guitar, standing up on the stage, I'm just trying to raise the ghosts up out of their graves. "My favorite thing to do is to play live," he claims, "because when you play music, you can raise the dead. On a good night, time becomes elastic, and everything that's ever happened is right there -- your first girlfriend, your present girlfriend, Big Joe Turner, Eddie 'Cleanhead' Vinson, your parents, everyone is right there." T-Bone Walker died in 1975; Big Joe Turner in 1985; Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson in 1988; Lee Allen in 1994. Alvin's mother Nana died in 1984; his father Cass died in 2000. His father's death was especially difficult, because Dave, his brother Phil and their sister spent many hours over many years sitting in hospital rooms as their dad struggled with Parkinson's, a broken hip and finally the pneumonia that killed him. Out of that experience came "The Man In The Bed", which appears not only on Ashgrove (released June 15 on Yep Roc Records) but also on ParkinSong, Volume One: 38 Songs Of Hope, a two-disc benefit project that includes contributions from Bonnie Raitt, Alejandro Escovedo, Greg Brown, Kelly Willis, Tom Russell and others. The Ashgrove album has an obvious pattern. The blustery blues-rock of the title song, which opens the disc, is followed by the drum brushes and twangy guitar of "Rio Grande". The CD continues to alternate, blues-rock followed by country-folk. The eighth track opens with a pretty arpeggio picked out on an acoustic guitar as Alvin whispers in a weary baritone: The man in the bed isn't me No, I slipped out the door, and I'm running free Young and wild like I'll always be 'Cause the man in the bed isn't me. It's the voice of his father, his body lying withered beneath hospital sheets, even as his mind imagines grabbing the white-uniformed nurse and dragging her down to the nearest dance hall. "The Man In The Bed" is one of the best songs ever written about the contradiction that confronts us all, especially as we grow older: The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. "One of the first times I did that song live, a guy came up to me after the show and said, 'That's an amazing song about denial.' I said, 'It's not a song about denial; it's a song about survival.' There's a spirit inside the body, even if the body is not living up to its responsibilities. The decrepit body is not the guy; the guy is whatever that thing is that makes us not be rocks, not be cement, and I don't mean that in a religious sense. The narrator knows he's in the bed. You don't have to say that; it's implied in the lyrics and in the music." In a sense, though, it is a song about denial, about denial as a means of survival. Alvin's father never did get out of that bed and go running wild again, and only by ignoring that reality and living in his imagination was he able to make the most of his last days. What's astonishing about the song is the son's ability to crawl into his father's imagination and go running beside him. It's not the only time on the album that Alvin enters another person's head. On "Everett Ruess", Alvin becomes a mountain man who drops off the social grid to live off the land in the Sierras. On "Out Of Control", he becomes a dope dealer waiting while his girlfriend turns a trick. Like Steve Earle or Paul Kelly, Alvin has been doing this a long time, assuming the persona of someone other than himself and telling a story that may or may not be true. Over the years he has become an arsonist, a hold-up man, an unhappy husband, a Gold Rush miner, a Civil War prisoner and Hank Williams. "In a lot of my songs, the characters see things from their point of view," Alvin says. "If their point of view's unreliable or just framed by their experience, that's who they are. Richard Thompson has written some great jerk songs, and Richard's hardly a jerk. With that approach, you can dig around in those parts of yourself where that person lives, as if you were an actor, a playwright or a novelist. You want to deal with the demons inside as well as the angels. "A failing of some songwriters, especially beginning songwriters, is they go into the me, me, me songs too much. If you hear a songwriter who writes like that, it can get a bit whiny. That's something you could never accuse Richard Thompson or Randy Newman of -- or Chuck Berry or Leiber & Stoller or Woody Guthrie." The assumed-persona approach to songwriting has a political aspect as well. The act of putting yourself in another person's shoes requires the admission that you're not the center of the universe, the recognition that every other person has an equal claim on the world. It requires an act of empathy that makes racial, gender or class prejudice difficult to sustain. The Alvin brothers grew up in a household where such political considerations were part of the nightly dinner table conversation. "From an early age, we knew there were two sides to every story," Alvin recalls. "'Don't believe everything you read in the news,' our dad told us; 'Don't believe everything you hear on the radio.' There would be big family arguments, because my mother's family was very conservative. My mother had been ostracized, because they thought she had married a communist -- and not only a communist, but a Catholic." Cass Alvin was a first-generation Polish kid from South Bend, Indiana; his last name was originally Czyzewski. He rode the rails out to California during the Depression, worked in the steel mills, served as a photographer for the signal corps in the war, and then became an organizer for the Steelworkers Union. When Dave and Phil were little kids, their dad would throw them in the car and they'd go off on organizing trips to mining towns in the Rockies. "I vividly remember this one night," Dave recalls. "There was this late-night union rally, an illegal rally, in Red Cliff, Colorado, so far off the highway that you had to go down a one-lane dirt road with no lights into this canyon. We're talking Walker Evans photos here: row after row of company houses, poorly lit streets and poorly dressed children standing on the porches. The rally started with a guy with an acoustic guitar, and then my dad stood up and gave an organizing speech. That kind of experience stays with you." The Alvin family lived in Downey, an inner suburb just east of Los Angeles. Today, the L.A. area is still divided between the fashionable west side -- the silver-screen land of Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Burbank, Santa Monica, Culver City and Los Angeles itself -- and the largely forgotten east side -- the blue-collar world of El Monte, Compton, Long Beach, Norwalk, Pomona and Downey. But the divide was even sharper in the '60s when the Alvin brothers were young. Phil Alvin still doesn't trust anyone who lives west of the Harbor Freeway; he has never quite forgiven Dave for making the move as an adult. So it was a bold expedition to cross the Harbor Freeway in 1969, when Dave was 13 and Phil was 16, and venture to the Ashgrove in Hollywood. But the Alvin boys had no choice. They had become so entranced by folk and blues records that they had to see their heroes in action. For as influential as their father was, their older cousins also left a mark. One cousin, Mike Keller, had turned them on to Dave Van Ronk and Rev. Gary Davis; another cousin, Donna Dixon, had given them her old Ray Charles and Big Joe Turner 45s. "Our first trip to the Ashgrove was pretty exciting," Alvin remembers. "It was only 20 miles from our house, but for me it was another world. The Ashgrove was down on Melrose before Melrose got gentrified; it was all boarded-up storefronts, not the groovy, trendy neighborhood it is now. It was a folk club off the radar in a forgotten neighborhood. You'd walk inside, and the entrance chamber was usually decorated with political art, Chinese propaganda posters and such. Before you even heard any music, you were being educated, not so much into Maoist thought, but that the music you were about to see, ladies and gentlemen, wasn't just 'let's have a party and get drunk'; it came from a socio-economic consciousness. "Off to the left was a used record store. Then you went down a long hall to where the club was. The seats were pews like the Ryman, probably bought from a burnt-out church. It was funky, but not sloppy funky. It was a good-sized stage. The first show I saw was Big Joe Turner, T-Bone Walker, Eddie 'Cleanhead' Vinson and Margie Evans. Once I saw Big Joe Turner, forget it; I knew I'd seen something. The tragedy of learning this music from records is that you don't get the full effect with a lot of artists, the physical feeling of being in the presence of someone like that. "It's one thing to listen to a Lightnin' Hopkins record and a whole other thing to see him live. If you had any soul at all, you just responded to them. I still remember the first time I saw Ralph Stanley or the only time I saw Jackie Wilson. They were who they were, and they spent their whole lives being who they were. They suffered not only because of their race and class but also because they wouldn't change who they were. And they connected you to something beyond. When you heard Lightnin', you heard someone who traveled with Blind Lemon Jefferson. With Big Joe, here was a guy who heard Bessie Smith and sang with Duke Ellington." The Alvin brothers started going back to the Ashgrove regularly. Phil was as brash then as he is today, and he would go up to anyone, even Big Joe Turner, and say, "Hi, how ya doing?" with his shy kid brother bringing up the rear. By 1969, guys like Turner had played enough folk festivals to be accustomed to star-struck young white kids coming backstage, and the 300-pound bluesman welcomed the two sandy-haired beanpoles like old friends. Before long, the gregarious Phil discovered that Turner and Lee Allen played at the York Club, an African-American joint on the East Side. When the 17-year-old Phil showed up with his guitar, Turner invited him up onstage to join in on "Wee Baby Blues". Phil had had his own bands since he was 13. John Bazz had become the bass player early on, and Bill Bateman became the drummer a little later. They devoted themselves to duplicating their favorite blues and hillbilly songs as well as they could. One weekend, when they were hired for a wedding, they needed a lead guitarist. Everyone they knew was either dead or in jail, so they had no choice but to reluctantly hire Phil's eager kid brother. They became known as the Blasters and soon were playing biker bars, country bars and the few remaining blues bars for free beer. "By early 1977, I was working as a fry cook," Dave recalls. "I had a beard, and I had pretty much given up on having any kind of life. The Ashgrove was gone; the neighborhood joints were going. Phil was teaching math, and Bateman was working at Randall amplifiers. There was a thing on TV about the Sex Pistols and the Clash, before any of the records had come out here. The TV said Johnny Rotten was 21 and Joe Strummer was 24, and I said, 'Hey, wait a minute, I'm 21. Am I missing the boat?' "So we started going to see these punk-rock bands like the Weirdos, the Screamers and the Skulls. Musically it wasn't the same as seeing Big Joe Turner, but there was something going on there, and these kids were my age. We had been raised to be egalitarian, so we could respect what the punk bands were doing. It was conformity city in those days, and here were all these people who didn't buy into that. We couldn't be honest with ourselves and pretend we hadn't sat at the feet of Big Joe Turner, but we found a way to be ourselves and make it contemporary." Once they started getting gigs at the punk-rock and new-wave venues in West L.A., thanks in large part to the help of X and the Go-Gos, the Blasters created a sensation. Here was a band that could play as fast and as hard as any punk band but also had real instrumental chops. Plus they had a lead singer who could not only out-shout any other singer on the scene but could also stay on key. The Blasters played a lot of rockabilly, which was a significant subset of the new-wave scene, but they did it differently, because for them rockabilly meant black singers such as Wynonie Harris as much as white guys such as Gene Vincent. "I was blown away by the Blasters," John Doe of X told me in 2000. "I couldn't believe that someone in 1980 was making music like that. Phil had this old rock 'n' roll voice, and they were so unflinching in the way they played that music; it wasn't nostalgic at all. It was like hearing Chuck Berry or Eddie Cochran in their prime. We played together and hung out together and exchanged ideas." By 1980, the Blasters were itching to make a record. They noticed that this guy named Rockin' Ronnie Weiser was releasing rockabilly records on his own Rollin' Rock label. Phil found his number in the phone book, sang a few songs over the line, and was soon invited to Weiser's house in the San Fernando Valley. "Ronnie listened to our demo, which was Carl Perkins songs and Howlin' Wolf songs," Dave recalls. "He said, 'This is great, but to make a record you need original songs.' That had never occurred to us. The whole reason we started the band was to play Junior Parker and Slim Harpo songs. So we had a band meeting the next day and Phil said, 'Everyone bring two songs to the next meeting.' The next rehearsal I brought three songs and no one else brought any. That's how I became the songwriter." The three songs were "American Music", "Flat Top Joint" and "Barn Burning." A few weeks later, he came up with "Marie Marie". Not a bad start for a songwriting career. But Alvin was already a writer. During his checkered, incomplete college days in the '70s, he had gone to a Charles Bukowski poetry reading, and it affected Alvin the same way that seeing Big Joe Turner at the Ashgrove had. Here was poetry that was neither academic nor precious; here was poetry as rough and tumble as the barroom where it was bellowed. This was Bukowski in his razor-sharp, take-it-or-leave-it prime, before he descended into self-parody. Alvin dived into poetry in much the same way he had once dived into the blues. Soon he was studying with such writers as Gerald Locklin, Elliot Fried and Gerald Haslam. "Everyone I knew in those days wrote poetry," Alvin says. "The women I slept with wrote poetry and the guys I got drunk with wrote poetry. I'd read my poems up in Santa Barbara and down in Long Beach, but Phil would have to drive me, because I needed to be drunk to read my poetry. "So when it came time to write songs for the Blasters, I went home and said, how do I write a song? What happens if you combine Chess Records, Sun Records and small-press poetry? If Willie Dixon, Leiber & Stoller and Charles Bukowski sat down to write a song, what would it sound like?" It would sound like "Border Radio", which grew out of Alvin's poem "National City 1979" (available in his book Any Rough Times Are Now Behind You, published by Incommunicado in 1995). It would sound like "American Music" -- its vision of "Louisiana boogie and the Delta blues/Country swing and rockabilly too" delivered not only by the lyrics, but by the music as well. It would sound like "Barn Burning", an arsonist's brooding monologue that is half confession and half threat. In 1980, Rollin' Rock pressed up 2,000 copies of the Blasters' debut album, American Music. Slash Records, based on the recommendation of X, not only signed the Blasters, but also snatched up the rights to American Music, leaving that album as an out-of-print collectible fetching more than $100 until it was finally reissued (with six bonus tracks) by HighTone in 1997. Two songs -- the anthemic "American Music" and "Marie Marie", which had become a top-20 UK single for rockabilly artist Shakin' Stevens -- were recycled for a self-titled 1981 album on Slash, supplemented by two more instant classics, "Border Radio" and "So Long, Baby, Goodbye". The critical consensus is that the first Slash album was the Blasters' high-water mark, but to my ears the band got better with each studio release. The original quartet added pianist Gene Taylor, tenor saxophonist Lee Allen and baritone saxophonist Steve Berlin between the Rollin' Rock and Slash albums, and the seven musicians became better players with each year of road work, even as Dave's songwriting grew more ambitious. Songs such as "Long White Cadillac", "Red Rose" and "Jubilee Train" (on 1983's Non Fiction), as well as "Dark Night", "Help You Dream" and "Common Man" (on 1985's Hard Line), boast a narrative scope, a social perspective and a visual imagery only hinted at on the first two discs. But it was a poorly kept secret that Phil and Dave were fighting all the time. They would rarely look at each other onstage. After shouting bouts on NBC-TV's "The Today Show" and Art Fein's radio show, as well as quarrels documented in several newspaper stories, the band's manager refused to let the brothers do interviews together. "For the first couple years, everyone would fight a lot," Steve Berlin told me in 2000. "It had a lot to do with the alcohol; an argument would start, someone would get belligerent and they'd go at it. Then as time went on, it became all that they did. They'd fight about anything and everything. They were Dave's songs and he had the vision, but no one gave him credit for that. Everyone thought they ran the band, and whoever screamed the loudest got their way." "With your brother," Phil told me in 1986, "you've been fighting all your life, so you know where each other's sore points are. At the same time, living in the same family, you leave spaces for each other. David didn't play Little League, because he would have had to compete with me, and he would have lost; I hit too many home runs. David wrote and drew pictures, so he was the only person who wrote and drew pictures. That's why I let him keep all the songwriting credits and did all the lead vocals myself, so we wouldn't be stealing out of each other's pot." "Some of it is brother stuff," Dave says today. "It's like that Bob Dylan line, 'We always did feel the same; we just saw it from a different point of view.' It came down to what direction was the band going to go in. My brother's feeling is that I had very little to do with the band, that me or Bill Bateman or Gene Taylor were replaceable, that he and John had had a band going since they were 13. I tend to disagree; I think I had something to do with the Blasters." "The sound of the Blasters didn't come from David," Phil said in 1986. "The sound came from us hanging out with T-Bone Walker and Big Joe Turner when David was too young to even be in the band. We took him along and introduced him, so it's true that he met them all, but he wasn't in the band until years later. "Most of what we hear about music comes from writers," Phil continued, "and their predisposition is for the word. That created the myth of the singer-songwriter. It's the biggest myth; singing comes from a completely different part of the brain than songwriting. Singing is all emotion, while writing is all analysis. I can go to China and make people feel sadness, joy or fear, even though they don't understand the language. So why should the songwriter be king?" "In the Blasters, we were trying to do songs that could have been from '57 or '62," Dave says. "Someone would say, 'You can't use that chord; you can't use that phrase; it's not a Blasters song.' I'd get halfway through a song, and I'd say, 'Oh, the Blasters couldn't do that,' and I'd throw it in the trash. Eventually, I started saving those songs. When Nick Lowe agreed to produce a fourth Blasters album for Warners, I wrote 'Fourth Of July'; it was the first song that was totally mine. My brother couldn't sing it; it's not that he wouldn't sing it, but that he couldn't." Steve Berlin left the Blasters in 1985. After a November show in Montreal, Gene Taylor got on the Fabulous Thunderbirds' bus and never came back. Dave had co-founded a country-folk-rock band, the Knitters, with three-quarters of X, and Phil was working on his first solo album. When Billy Zoom quit X and Warner Bros. pulled the plug on the Nick Lowe album, Dave gave notice to the Blasters and signed on as Zoom's replacement. But that didn't last long either. There were a lot fewer fights, but once again he was the guitarist in a band where he had no chance to sing his own songs. (John Doe sang lead on X's recording of "Fourth Of July" on their 1987 album See How We Are.) Meanwhile, Lowe's British label, Demon Records, had given Dave a contract for a solo album, to be produced by Steve Berlin and Mark Linett. In the wake of Steve Earle's chart-topping Guitar Town in 1986, Epic Records in Nashville decided they needed a roots-rocker of their own, so they grabbed the U.S. rights for the Demon disc, Romeo's Escape. The album boasted great songwriting, but it was hampered by Dave's vocals; he was trying to sing like his brother and failing miserably. "I was fortunate to have very patient fans who accepted me learning how to sing as I began my solo career," Alvin admits. "I didn't know how to sing; I was fighting against my natural register. George Jones, John Doe and my brother were tenor voices, but I was a baritone. "Greg Leisz finally told me, 'You should really use the voice you have.' When I did some shows with Richard Thompson, I saw what he was doing; he was putting his voice right in the music rather than trying to soar over it. Instead of trying to sound like Curtis Mayfield, I said, 'Maybe I can sing like Jerry Butler; maybe I can work down there.'" As he was struggling with his vocals, Alvin's career was crumbling. The day after his first solo Nashville show, Epic yanked his tour support. Just to prove that no one was going to stop him from playing live, Alvin spent all his savings from the Blasters and X years to keep his band on the road for another year. Deciding it was hopeless to push Alvin at country radio, Epic Nashville transferred his contract to the pop division. Recording began on a second album, but it was never finished. Alvin came down with meningitis and almost died. For a moment there, he was "The Man In The Bed". "This was 1989, the lowest point in my life." he recounts. "I was living in Nashville, I was broke, and I didn't know what to do. I didn't want to go back to the Blasters with my tail between my legs. I had moved to Nashville to become one of those songwriters, but it wasn't working. Nashville is the modern Brill Building, which is not a bad thing, but some people are Carole King, and some aren't. If you put a gun to Carole King's head and told her to write a two-minute song for a harmony group by five o'clock, she could write 'Up On The Roof', which is a great song, and I couldn't. "About this time, Katy Moffatt, who had sung on my first album, told me about this great songwriter she knew named Tom Russell. I got a copy of his album and the first song was 'Blue Wing', and that was a life-changing thing for me. I heard that song and said, 'I'm going back to California to write that kind of song. I'm not going to worry if Randy Travis is going to cut it or if my brother will sing it.' "I said, 'OK, I almost died in the hospital, so I'll do whatever the fuck I want.' Nobody wants to hear about a Civil War prison camp? Who cares? It's about my great-great-great-uncle, Asa Powell, so I'm going to write 'Andersonville'. 'Plastic Rose' will never be covered by anyone, but I don't care. If Sam Cooke can write a song about being born by a river in a little tent, why can't I write 'Dry River', about being born by a river paved over with cement?" Those three songs are all on Blue Blvd, still the finest moment of Alvin's 25-year recording career. In the four years since Romeo's Escape, Alvin had learned how to transform his limited vocal instrument from a liability into an asset. Released by HighTone in 1991, Blue Blvd offered an anthemic brand of rock 'n' roll that split the difference between Bruce Springsteen's Born In The U.S.A. and Steve Earle's Guitar Town with songwriting of the same caliber. To support the record, Alvin teamed up with Missouri band the Skeletons for a series of shows that distilled roots-rock down to its riff-and-rhythm essence and upped the urgency. Flanked by Lou Whitney and D. Clinton Thompson, Alvin had each listener believing that even in the twilight of the Reagan-Bush years, there was still reason to get out of bed each morning, that one could stand in the bone-dry concrete culvert of the Los Angeles River and feel as if they were "soaking wet." The years of 1991-92 may have been an artistic breakthrough, but Alvin still wasn't paying the bills. So he did what every aging rock 'n' roll bandleader still stuck on the club circuit does: He started doing solo acoustic shows. "I had never done that before," he says, "but I found I really enjoyed it. If you're not John Fahey or Richard Thompson and you're playing acoustic, the strength you have is the lyrics. Playing with the Blasters, I was really proud of my lyrics, but most people never heard them. I said, 'OK, I'm not a great singer; how do I get the lyrics across with the voice I do have? How do I grab the audience without rocking out?' Silence and space had been something I'd been afraid of, but now they became pals of mine. Dynamics became a big tool. Out of all those experiments came King Of California." That 1994 HighTone album featured new versions of four old Blasters songs and two Romeo's Escape songs, just to prove how much Alvin had improved as a singer. It also included a version of Tom Russell's "Blue Wing", the song that had set Alvin on this country-folk path. Similar arrangements dominated his next two studio albums, 1998's Blackjack David and 2000's Public Domain: Songs From The Wild Land (the latter of which won a Grammy for best traditional folk album). Bookending those were two live albums -- 1996's Interstate City and 2002's Out In California -- that represented the bluesy, amplified side of his music. "I didn't see the difference between electric and acoustic music," Alvin asserts. "When you're dealing with traditional music, it's the same notes, just played louder or softer. Lightnin' Hopkins usually played solo acoustic at the Ashgrove, but one time he had a band and some people were aghast. It was like Dylan at Newport, only this was the Ashgrove in '71. I didn't see what the problem was; he was playing the same notes and singing the same songs. "Winning a Grammy for Public Domain meant a lot to me," Alvin admits. "It would have meant the world to my parents after all the crap my brother and I put them through. They weren't crazy about us leaving home every night as teenagers to go hang out in blues bars with older men. They didn't stop us, but they were worried about our safety. I know they gave a Grammy to Milli Vanilli, and I know it doesn't mean you're good, but it does mean that all the bad gigs, playing for the bartender on an island in the North Sea, playing Sioux City in a blizzard, all those years weren't in vain." During this same period, Alvin became one of the most sought-after producers and co-writers on the Americana scene. He produced records for Tom Russell, Sonny Burgess, Big Sandy & the Fly-Rite Boys, Katy Moffatt, Christy McWilson, the Derailers, Ted Roddy, Billy Bacon & the Forbidden Pigs, Candye Kane, Red Meat and others. He co-wrote songs with Chris Gaffney, Rosie Flores, John Doe, Bruce Bromberg, Fontaine Brown and others. The new Ashgrove album features co-writes with Russell ("Rio Grande"), Los Lobos' David Hidalgo and Louie Perez ("Somewhere In Time"), Shannon McNally ("Sinful Daughter") and the Iguanas' Rod Hodges ("Nine Volt Heart"). This year Alvin not only produced Amy Farris' debut disc Anyway, but also co-wrote three of its songs. "I'm a pretty hands-on producer, because I'm a control freak," he confesses. "I'm not a phone-it-in producer, who shows up in the studio to hear the songs. I obsess over every note and how to conceptualize every song. I like arranging songs, because it's similar to songwriting. Maybe you can take a song that's not a great song and make it good with a great arrangement. I also wanted to help musicians I liked; I didn't want them to make the same mistakes the Blasters did. With certain bands, I could see them reliving everything we went through." By 2002, all the Blasters albums on Slash were out of print except for a single-disc greatest-hits collection. Rhino offered to release the two-CD Testament: The Complete Slash Recordings, but they wanted the original quintet to reassemble for a promotional tour. This was a tricky proposition, for Phil had kept the band going; he didn't want to foster the impression that the original lineup was the real Blasters and the current lineup wasn't. On the other hand, Phil had never delivered on repeated promises to release a new Blasters album after Dave left the band. Several studio albums had been started and a couple of live albums were ready to be released, but Phil could never pull the trigger. Eventually, the always-complicated Alvin family negotiations were resolved, and the brothers rejoined Bazz, Bateman and Taylor for a short West Coast tour in 2002. The results were better than anyone expected, and two different shows at the House Of Blues in L.A. were taped and released by HighTone as Trouble Bound. That, in turn, encouraged a cross-country tour by the band. "Playing with the Blasters again was like going home for Thanksgiving," is how Alvin describes it. "It's nice to see the family, eat some turkey, watch some TV and then say, 'Bye, I'll see you next year.' I have no intention of writing ten new songs for the Blasters, but I was impressed by how good we sounded. Everyone is a better musician than they were before, especially me. In the early days of the Blasters, the weakest link in terms of musical chops was me, but now I was no longer the weakest link." Shout Factory Records then made the band an offer it couldn't refuse: their own version of The Last Waltz, a filmed concert with hand-picked guest stars. Sonny Burgess, the wildest of the Sun Records rockabillies, was an obvious choice, because Dave had produced Burgess' Tennessee Border. Chicago blues-harmonica whiz Billy Boy Arnold was added because he had played on Phil's solo album and because the Blasters had done two of his songs. Two West Coast R&B vocal groups, the Calvanes and the Medallions, rounded out the lineup. The Blasters Live: Going Home was released earlier this year as both a DVD and CD. "I want to go back to the Ashgrove," Alvin sings on his new album, "that's where I belong." That night in 1969 -- when he first came face-to-face with Big Joe Turner, when he first realized art didn't have to happen in the Hollywood Bowl or a Greenwich Village tavern, when he first saw that a working-class guy could express himself in the language of the street -- has fueled him ever since. There have been other nights -- singing by a campfire in the Sierras, playing with the Blasters in Seattle, hearing Charles Bukowski in Long Beach, hearing X at the Whisky A Go Go, hearing Merle Haggard at the Palomino -- but they merely reinforced the original lesson. If there's a reason to get out of bed in the morning, it's that ability to redefine the world with your own voice, regardless of whether anyone is listening. "Everett Ruess", a song on the new album, describes the joys of hiking and camping in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah. It's a pleasure Alvin has often indulged, and he relishes the clarity that isolation and steady exercise can provide. "I hate your grand cathedrals where you try to trap god," he sings on the song, "because I know god is here in the canyons with the rattlesnakes and the pinon pines." In 1999, Alvin was keeping a grueling schedule. He'd get up in the morning to drive out to Downey and sit with his dad in the hospital, then go to the studio from one to seven to produce Christy McWilson's first solo album, then go home to eat and crash before going back to Downey. To refuel, whenever he had a spare moment, he'd head up into the mountains and go hiking. As he hiked, he found himself singing a lot of old folk and blues songs. "That gave me the idea for the Public Domain record," he explains. "It finally dawned on me that those folk songs are poor people's therapy. From the outside, the songs might seem ridiculous, but that's life for poor people. "In the same way that the Ashgrove songs are about survival, those Public Domain songs are about survival. The reason they got into the public domain was they touched a nerve. You're thrown into this world where bad things happen -- tragic death and economic injustice -- so how do you deal with it? Well, one way of dealing with it is in these songs. It's a way of explaining the world." ND senior editor Geoffrey Himes says that two of the best rock 'n' roll shows he has ever seen were the Blasters (the septet version with Lee Allen and Steve Berlin) at the Bayou in Washington in 1983, and Dave Alvin & the Skeletons at Liberty Lunch in Austin in 1992.