Tuesday, June 23, 2009
"Folks say he's a hero..."
One of the very best folk-rock/roots/Americana CDs of the last quarter century is one I didn't know of until three weeks ago; flat out missed it a decade back. But here's how I got enlightened...
Walking into a used CD store just as it was opening one morning, I said hello to the lone clerk, who remarked that it was time to put on his favorite early-in-the-day album. I paid no attention, went about the store browsing for nothing in particular, but gradually began to realize that something really exceptional was playing on the system--rocking, in-the-groove arrangements backing a fine baritone voice singing songs that were mostly originals but sounded instantly familiar, like folk tunes a hundred years old.
I went back to the counter, asked to see it, studied the cardboard packaging-- Blackjack David by Dave Alvin, released in 1998 on Hightone Records...
Well, dog my cats, as Walt Kelly might say. It was the cool and
way-hot, always brilliant lead guitarist of modern rockabilly/r&b giants The Blasters--whose brother Phil did all the singing in the days of that late-lamented, all-stops-out rock band. Known more for squabbles with Phil (shades of the Everlys!) than for speaking out, I knew Dave had carved out a solo career after he left The Blasters, and I even own a copy of Public Domain, his Grammy award-winning CD of traditional songs, but nothing had prepared me for this years-earlier, clarion-call announcement of classic greatness, using the old English folk ballad as his springboard theme--Blackjack Dave indeed, stealing the listener away to mysterious gypsy music!
The "gratitude" paragraph on the digipac ends with these words: "Thanks for waiting so long." Turned an instant believer, I wasn't willing to wait any longer. I asked the clerk if there was another copy, and if not, could I buy the store's? Reluctantly he agreed to sell me the one playing...
And I've been spinning it every day or two now ever since, with no let-up in enthusiasm. Anyone remember Self Portrait, the weird and disappointing two-record set Dylan issued in 1970, where he seemed to be trying to sing, even croon? Now imagine a first-rate baritone voice (sometimes raspy, sometimes as smooth as Elvis) singing a similarly eclectic array of songs, with a solid rocking back-up including slide and pedal steel, accordion and fiddle, dobro and banjo and drums, played by alt.country stalwarts like Greg Leisz, Bobby Lloyd Hicks, Dillon O'Brian, Chris Gaffney, and Brantley Kearns. That, my friends, is what awaits you on Dave Alvin's 1998 album.
Not only that but, aside from the beautifully reworked title track, the eleven songs are all Alvin originals, or co-writes with established pros like Tom Russell ("California Snow") and Gaffney ("1968"), worthy of Jimmie Rodgers' or Woody Guthrie's best. I'd forgotten or maybe never even noticed that silent Dave was the writer of all the classic Blasters numbers--"Marie, Marie," "Border Radio," "American Music," "So Long, Baby, Goodbye," "Red Rose," "Long White Cadillac," and plenty more.
As fans know, his lyrics for "American Music" handily summed up what The Blasters were about:
It's a howl from the desert
The screams from the slums
The Mississippi rolling
To the beat of the drums...
We got the Louisiana boogie and the Delta blues
We got country swing and rockabilly too
We got jazz, country western and Chicago blues
It's the greatest music that you ever knew.
For this solo album Dave eliminated the howl and the screams and his own amazing, flailing rockabilly guitar, but the rich Americana remains. These are truly story songs too, each one telling a tale worth hearing: the sorry woman trying to hold her life together, hopping a bus and hoping for the best ("Abilene")... the thumping lover's lament called "Evening Blues," with accordion bearing his sadness and a repeating chorus, "Oh I wish that I could hear/ The blues you sing to yourself"... The old-style murder ballad with the singer tricked and trapped by blind love ("Mary Brown")... the gentle lost-love, letter-that-won't-be-sent musing titled "From a Kitchen Table"... the haunting and beautifully composed "California Snow," with a border guard examining his life, recalling an illegal-immigrant tragedy in the treacherous, unexpected weather ("The California summer sun will burn right through your soul/ In the winter you can freeze to death in the California snow...").
And then there's the swaying, night-song solitude of album closer "Tall Trees," and the perfectly played (channelling Guthrie and the Carter Family), folk-rocking story of Johnny and Joe, country boys gone to "1968" Vietnam, with only one coming home, and him lost ever since in guilt and sorrow:
Tonight in this barroom
He's easin' his pain
He's thinkin' of someone
But he won't say the name
Folks say he's a hero
But he'll tell you he ain't
He left the hero in the jungle
Back in 1968..."
I'll bet anyone discovering this classic set, which some cite as Alvin's best album, will have as hard a time as I did resisting the just-right rhythms and extraordinary sound and Dave's got-to-sing-with lyrics. He and producer/player Leisz and all the other musicians really delivered the goods.
But I'm searching for Alvin's other albums. What if this Blackjack lightning struck twice?