Dave Alvin knows that music isn't created in a vacuum. And although he excels at all four styles, he'd be the first to tell you that he didn't invent blues, country, folk or rock. Calling him the godfather of alt-country may not be a stretch, though; from day one of his distinguished career, Alvin has not just acknowledged the music and musicians who came before him--he's celebrated them and their life-altering impact.
"It's part of the job description, you know?" offers Alvin from the lobby of yet another hotel on the road. "There were people I listened to growing up who did that for me, exposed me to other artists, other music. It's not about me writing my little songs and singing them. It's about sharing the whole tradition of American music."
That sharing was on display in the vintage honk and rumble of The Blasters, the red-hot quartet that Alvin started with his brother Phil in Downey, Calif., in the late '70s and whose debut was titled, aptly, American Music. It continued through his contributions to Merle Haggard and Mississippi John Hurt tribute records, and courtesy of his Public Domain album and pioneer-honoring songs such as "Border Radio," "Ashgrove" and "Nine Volt Heart."
West of the West, his second release for local label Yep Roc, extends this positioning of Alvin as music historian, albeit one that can rock like a down-mountain train. The record is subtitled "Songs from California Songwriters," and in the revealing liner notes, Alvin confesses that a couple of the featured writers (namely Jackson Browne, Jim Ringer and Richard Berry) were actually born elsewhere. As it turns out, that was nothing a loosening of the guidelines couldn't fix. "Well, if they weren't born in California, they at least had to have had their first kiss or broken heart out here," Alvin writes in the liners.
One of Alvin's goals for the record was to show that California music, in his words, "is not as it always appears. It's more complicated than you think." Thus, listeners get Haggard's "Kern River" sandwiched by a blues-rock version of Browne's "Redneck Friend" and a wah-wah-led take on Tom Waits' "Blind Love," as well as the Grateful Dead's "Loser" bumping up against the Beach Boys' "Surfer Girl."
And there's at least one more song that Alvin admits would have been a nice fit: Lowell George's "Willin'." "But the world doesn't really need another cover of that one," Alvin says, laughing, "especially by me."
Dave Alvin & the Guilty Men play The Pour House on Monday, Sept. 18. Tickets are $15, and the show starts at 8 p.m.