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The passage of time, he says, has relaxed his songwriting. "That just comes with letting all the skeletons out of the closet. You can only dig into that psychic well so often before you run out of juice, and I think it just takes a while to kind of refuel. But I think now the writing is calmer. I've gotten a lot out of my system in the last seven or eight years." 1996's With These Hands was a family reunion of sorts -- brother Pete and niece Sheila contributed to the title track, dedicated to his father -- though he now concedes that the record is overproduced ("We used this weird method of mastering, this newfangled thing at the time that really squashed the whole record").
By comparison, Bourbonitis Blues, released early last year on Chicago alt-country label Bloodshot, is refreshing in its embrace of simplicity. With the exception of a handful of originals ("Sacramento & Polk," "I Was Drunk"), it's a loving, string-driven appreciation of older songs and covers: Ian Hunter's "Irene Wilde," his beloved Velvets' "Amsterdam" and "Pale Blue Eyes," and most interestingly, the Gun Club's punkabilly classic "Sex Beat," done acoustic and half-speed, an approach that reveals even further the lascivious drama the song always suggested. Guest appearances color the arrangements, including Mekon Jon Langford, former Jody Grind singer Kelly Hogan, and former dB Chris Stamey, who recorded most of the songs. Those collaborations have helped form a sort of extended family that includes folks he regularly shares bills with, like Jonathan Richman, Peter Case, Los Lobos, Flaco Jimenez, and Freedy Johnston, as well as old friends in music, like the late Townes Van Zandt.
Still, Escovedo keeps looking toward his past. He's currently working on songs for a production called By the Hand of the Father, a multimedia presentation of song, narrative, film and video, "based on the lives of five different men born in Mexico [who] crossed the border into the Southwest, and how they deal with their hearts being in Mexico and having to assimilate into a new culture," which is scheduled to open in Los Angeles in the fall.
Escovedo wasn't asked to research the music of the time -- the producers just wanted him to "write songs in the way that I write songs." That, for him, was a relief. "I'm not a musicologist at all," he says. "I just like music. I love records, and I love listening to songs, and I love stories."