By Jeff Moses
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By Mark Deming
"I'm not a musicologist," Dave Alvin insists for the third time in 15 minutes, "but let's say you have a certain amount of knowledge that there was a higher percentage of, maybe, Africans from the northeast quadrant of the continent in a particular section of the American South, as a result of the slave system. Now, you can trace those influences throughout the music of that area -- all the music, by white and black players and songwriters. Or Tex-Mex, you can say, 'Well, the accordion style was a European import that came from polka bands . . . but the fiddle style comes from someplace else, and the guitar style comes from another place.' You can trace a variety of things to a variety of influences.
"You really want to get another side of American history? Go back and pick up some reissues of those old 78s, old 45s, from some of those songwriters. You'll hear it."
If Dave Alvin isn't a musicologist, he'll do until the local college hires one. I mean, I hear Bob Dylan never took a creative writing class, either, but I wouldn't presume to correct him; and likewise, the best thing to do when Alvin starts talking music is just sit quietly and learn a little bit.
What Alvin means by that repeated apologia, you see, is that he doesn't have "academic" credentials. But it only takes a few minutes to realize that he's very learned, ferociously learned, on the subject of American folk music and its long, convoluted history. Since you may not find yourself in the fortunate position of hearing him ramble, though, your best bet is to pick up a copy of Public Domain on Hightone Records, upon which Dave Alvin's Guilty Men, a crack collective of roots musicians, run through 16 interpretations of jewels from America's cluttered and complicated folk-music songbook.
Though Alvin himself likely wouldn't phrase it this way, Public Domain is an album 33 years in the making. When Los Angeles-born Alvin was 12, he and his brother Phil began a lifelong prowl through junk shops, thrift stores, people's attics, antique stores and anyplace else that seemed promising in search of old 78s and 45s. Anything and everything, from folk to bluegrass to gospel and blues, went into their collection. Dave Alvin listened to those records, and he listened hard. Then he went and found more records, and he read up. And he traced the sounds he heard all over the map, from Delta blues to the Piedmont guitar sound, African-American fiddle players to Reconstruction-era gospel. In Alvin's case, "self-taught" wasn't by any stretch a code word for "untrained"; he went at his study with the intensity of a full-on scholar.
Come the 1980s, both Alvins were working in the Blasters, an acclaimed roots-rock outfit that developed a hard-core fan base during the second wave of SoCal punk. In the late '80s, the Blasters disbanded, and Dave Alvin found himself involved in a variety of projects. He served as guitarist for seminal L.A. punk band X (as well as its acoustic offshoot, the Knitters) and front man for the all-star collective called Pleasure Barons, and maintained a solo career that saw his songs covered by artists ranging from former collaborators X to Dwight Yoakam. 1994's Tulare Dust, an album of Merle Haggard covers, was Alvin's first full-ahead country project, though the influences had been there all along; 1991's Blue Blvd. is probably the best example of his merging of roots-rock with country overtones, and well worth the seeking out.
But Public Domain is another beast altogether. If Dave Alvin's solo career has been a long nod to the musical traditions from which he's drawn in order to craft his own songs, then his latest album is an explicit unpacking of those influences, the laying bare of his own musical roots, going back well over 100 years. Public Domain is to Alvin's career what Good As I Been to You is to Dylan's, and though it's decidedly less traditionalist than Dylan's homage, it's every bit as respectful, every bit as knowledgeable.
And it also happens to be one of the best albums of the year, in case anyone's keeping score.
"We tend to tame things in America," says Dave Alvin. "We've tamed the land, the rivers, animals -- and we've tamed our folk music. That's what the album's subtitle, Songs From the Wild Land, refers to. There aren't any morals to these songs."
The 16 tunes on Public Domain-- 15 listed and one, an amalgam of Big Bill Broonzy's "Saturday Night Rub" and Georgia Tom Dorsey's "Hokum Stomp," unlisted -- will sometimes be familiar to the folk music aficionado, but more than likely, these are songs that you'll only have heard a snatch of here or there, or in a radically different form. Early on, Alvin decided that the m.o. for this album would be deeply personal -- fair enough, given that he'd tried to faithfully represent the vast tradition that had helped shape his own songwriting -- and that meant he often intentionally passed over songs that were too closely associated with a particular interpreter.