The distance from Downey, California, to Lubbock, Texas, is 1,184 miles, mostly the big sky variety. On a straight-through road trip it would take a day and most of a night to complete.
Just slightly halfway through that Western odyssey of Americana wandering, one would find him or herself cruising the open-road on I-40 through Flagstaff. If you get struck by Valley fever (no, not that kind) and divert your travels south two-plus hours, you wind up in Phoenix.
That is where Dave Alvin and Jimmy Dale Gilmore will be stopping for a gig at the Musical Instrument Museum on July 23. The occasion is the live unveiling of cuts from the duo’s unlikely first joint studio effort, fittingly called Downey to Lubbock.
Alvin, 62, is a revered roots-rock guitar virtuoso, formerly of the Blasters, X, the Knitters, the Flesheaters, and the Guilty Women and the Guilty Ones, his longtime solo project band on this album. A Grammy-winning singer-songwriter, Alvin is quite simply among this century's most traveled and most acclaimed American music songwriting masters. He was raised in Downey with older brother and Blaster singer Phil. It is where he first cut his teeth on early-century rock and blues record bins before setting course to international fame with his versatile Fender Strat flash and licks.
Gilmore, 73, born and bred on the high plains of Lubbock, is part Cherokee and Apache, and was schooled by his musical father on a steady diet of early-day country and folk standards, such as Johnny Cash and Hank Williams. Gilmore soon gained legendary panhandler-state fame with childhood friends Joe Ely and Butch Hancock as The Flatlanders.
Like Alvin, Gilmore has played hundreds of gigs among many a folk, country, juke, and jive joint in Texas, and the country over. Unlike Alvin, though, Gilmore is more homegrown, soft-spoken and modest. His gentle, yet firm vocal yearnings are familiar among those who are dyed-in-the-wool Texas country rocker fans of the three-time Grammy nominee.
Two proven musical talents with little in common?
Maybe on the surface, if you compare music each has created. But as wide apart as the open plains of Texas and the hustle-bustle of Los Angeles are, it is the familiar musical circles these two wandering troubadours have travelled that forced their paths to cross. Over the past three decades a mutual admiration for each other’s body of work created a common bond.
“There’s something that we discovered that we had in common: our attitude toward the history of the music,” Gilmore notes. “When we were younger in life, long before we knew each other, we were learning how to play. It became evident that we both had this attitude of like wow, here’s the roots, where’s the roots of the roots? The fluke of our lives is that we got to know some of the giants, and to some degree, unsung giants of American popular music."
A mutual friend, singer-songwriter Tom Russell, had put together a tour of the Northeast in 1990, Alvin recalls. And from many bumps into each other across the country touring, an improbable yet unstoppable force and fate would finally bring them together on stage.
The two did a 12-gig acoustic tour together, including a show at MIM in 2017. So much as the tour was well-received, the resonance in Alvin’s mind led him to only one possible conclusion.
“He pulled out 'Get Together', and he sang the first line, and I said, ‘We should record this’ and that’s really how it started in my brain,” Alvin recalls as the impetus to record with Gilmore. “The nature of the shows allowed for randomness and it wasn’t ‘Can you top this? Stump the band?' It was, 'Hey, do you know this Merle Haggard song, do you know this Sam Cooke song?’ It created an idea in my brain we should capture this because it’s different than most of the records he had made, and I wanted to capture that.”
“It’s been part of my repertoire for quite a long time,” Gilmore acknowledges. “I’ve always loved Jesse Colin Young (whose version of 'Get Together' is most known as a '60s rallying cry during the Vietnam War). “I did that one and it got a huge response from the audience, and then afterwards Dave leaned over and said, ‘We are doing this one every night.’
Of the dozen numbers that the duo recorded on Downey to Lubbock, 10 are covers cooked together in a melting pot of blues, country folk, and rock, as diverse a collection as you will find. The numbers range from Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee”, Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”, the Memphis Jug Band's’ “K.C. Moan” and “Stealin' Stealin,'” and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee's gospel classic “Walk On”.
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The other two cuts are Alvin-penned originals, the autobiographical title track “Downey to Lubbock” and “Billy the Kid and Geronimo”, a soon-to-be modern-day Americana classic about the untamed West’s outlaw heroes.
“It ('Billy the Kid and Geronimo') was a song that I sort of had laying around. ... I thought if Jimmy does Geronimo, and I am the narrator/Billy the Kid, it may work really well," offers up Alvin. “They are the two most famous guys in New Mexico. The also represent opposite types of stories of the violence of frontier life, American life in general. What happened if they met? You put yourselves into their shoes or that situation, and then just play around with their stereotypes.”
In the end, Alvin and Gilmore have re-energized some classic threads of the American West musical fabric, and in so doing, prove that two passionate musical journeys, while seemingly so different, can sometimes meet at the crossroads of their lives, and make that journey more enriching and even spiritual.
Dave Alvin and Jimmy Dale Gilmore perform on Monday, July 23, at the Musical Instrument Museum, 4725 East Mayo Boulevard. Tickets are $43.50-$48.50, at mim.org.