Dave Alvin and the Legacy of California Music

Dave Alvin and legacy of California music with his new album West of the West - gee how many words can fit in this photo description?

Dave Alvin has always been one of those guys that recognized the essence of “roots.” His music, both solo and collaborative, be it with The Blasters, the Pleasure Barons, the Knitters, and the various other musicians he’s worked with over the years, was always one that recognized the legacy of rich traditions associated with American music. The past few solo albums (or CDs, as we like to call ’em in the 21st Century) are certainly no exception.

Public Domain, an album released in 2000, was a collection of old public domain songs that wound up winning a Grammy award for Best Traditional Folk Album. Ashgrove, released in 2004, was an album of Dave Alvin originals that acknowledged the impact of a little nightclub in the Los Angeles region where he saw such artists as Big Joe Turner, Lee Allen and T-Bone Walker.

His latest album, West of the West, continues the tradition, this time focusing on the music of California singer-songwriters. Dave spoke about California music in detail at the YepRoc Records website:

“I interviewed Buck Owens for Mix Magazine a few years ago,” Dave says, “and one of my questions was, ‘What was it about California that gave the Bakersfield sound that edge?’ And Buck said, ‘The biggest difference was that back East you had to keep a foot between the dancers, whereas in California it was all about rubbing up against one another and polishing each other’s belt buckles.’

“I think that’s true; California has that frontier, anything-goes openness and wildness that makes it different. It’s also a place with a lot of cultures, and that openness allows musicians from different cultures to trade ideas when they meet. You can hear the connection between doo-wop harmonies and surf harmonies, between T-Bone Walker’s guitar and David Hidalgo‘s guitar. To me it’s just amazing that the scope of California music accommodates everything from Brian Wilson to Merle Haggard. They’re both natives and one is no more valid than the other. Haggard was as shaped by the California experience as Brian Wilson was; he just expressing in a different way.”

This new album is an excellent tribute to the spirit of California music. There’s 13 songs by a diverse assortment of California singer-songwriters. While not every composer was actually born in this state, California was the place where they each embarked upon the transformation from childhood to adulthood, developing their own unique identities.

Starting off with a cover of “California Bloodlines” by John Stewart, West of the West takes the listener on a wonderful expedition, exploring music by such musicians as Tom Waits, Kate Wolf, Jerry Garcia & Robert Hunter, John Fogerty, Merle Haggard, and even the quintessential Beach Boy, Mr. Brian Wilson.

Dave Alvin’s version of “Redneck Friend” by Jackson Browne is an especially inspired rendition. To my ears, it doesn’t even sound like the same song.

Of course, I was especially tickled to hear Dave Alvin tackle a Richard Berry song for this new album. He didn’t cover LOUIE LOUIE, or even the next popular composition, “Have Love Will Travel.” Instead, he sang an under-rated little ballad entitled “I’m Bewildered.” It’s an excellent version.

I’ve been watching Dave Alvin for many years. When I lived in Los Angeles in 1997, I was a regular at Jack’s Sugar Shack, where Dave played under the moniker of “King of California” with admission prices approximately the same price as a draft beer. When I moved back to the Bay Area, I’d try to catch his shows whenever I could. I was very happy when he produced a few albums for Red Meat, who became one of my favorite local bands.

A few years ago, Dave granted me an interview for my MEANING OF LOUIE documentary, where he spoke glowingly of the impact Richard Berry had on the musical community of Los Angeles.

And now, we’ve got a nice recording of Dave Alvin singing a Richard Berry song.

Thanks Dave! You’ve got great taste!

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