Music Features

Musician Dave Alvin’s New Highway a Peerless Lyrical Odyssey

Veteran rock, blues and folk singer-songwriter-guitarist Dave Alvin has plenty of subject matter to cover in New Highway, his latest book that will be released on September 20.
Veteran rock, blues and folk singer-songwriter-guitarist Dave Alvin has plenty of subject matter to cover in New Highway, his latest book that will be released on September 20. Joe Murray
Vintage country, rock and blues critics, purists, and lifelong fans will tell you that the list is long of legendary storytellers whose songwriting and musical prowess have stood the test of time. Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Buck Owens, Marty Robbins, Johnny Cash, Wilson Pickett, Little Richard, Big Joe Turner, Lightnin' Hopkins, and Ray Charles are a few who come to mind.

There are only a rare few guitarist-singer-songwriters from the modern era who can hold a candle to these vintage greats. One of those whose words and music have burned a steady flame for more than three decades comes from the pen of veteran rock, blues and folk artist Dave Alvin.

The accomplished musician and his big brother Phil put their hometown of Downey, California — a few miles southeast of Los Angeles — and rockabilly and blues band The Blasters on the world map in 1979. After going solo in 1985, Dave Alvin cranked out no fewer than 16 solo albums. He won a Grammy in 2000 for Best Contemporary Folk Album with the release of Public Domain, a revisited homage to early 20th century folk standards.

No stranger to published works, Alvin’s latest effort may be his most prolific collection yet. In his new book, entitled New Highway (BMG), Alvin shares a collection of his writings, encompassing lyrics, poems, short stories and eulogies from his 40-plus-year odyssey of music-making. It will be released on September 20.

In the intro to his 200-plus-page book, Alvin looks back on “lives populated by celebrated or obscure historical figures, non-conformists, criminals, angels, liars, dreamers, deceivers, blues shouters, mad rock-and-rollers, honky tonk weepers, confused lovers, picket line believers, skeptical waitresses and other characters who have fascinated me.”
click to enlarge
Remaining hopeful after battling cancer and COVID-19, musician Dave Alvin attributes his perseverance to "a good kind of stubborn in me."
Joe Murray

Words to Live By

This music-inspired menagerie of words is not his first published effort, as the author previously released two works of poetry — 1986's Nana, Big Joe and the Fourth of July and 1996's Any Rough Times Are Now Behind You. His poetic entries also landed in works like Nude Erections, Hit and Run Poets and Poetry Loves Poetry — An Anthology of Los Angeles Poets.

"New Highway" is also a song from Alvin’s 1998 solo album Blackjack David. In a recent interview with Phoenix New Times, Alvin confesses, “The song is kind of my attitude; that is a hopeful attitude — let’s put it that way, against all the prevailing evidence. It’s different, 'cause, one, I have never published my lyrics, along with other writings. I‘ve always kept them separate. And I‘ve now come to the conclusion that, and it could change at any time, but they're all the same.”

What has emboldened Alvin’s hopeful attitude has been his three recent battles with cancer.

As an avid touring musician, like so many others, one’s earnings can be challenged without live shows. When COVID-19 was about to unleash its pandemic wrath, Alvin contracted a sepsis infection in January 2020. Two months later, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Then after a year seemingly in the clear, he was beset with stage 4 colorectal cancer.

Alvin knows the battle is never truly over, but survival is the goal. And without tours, the timing was right for the book to be realized.

“I always kind of wanted to do it,” he shares. “It was a combination of COVID and cancer. I really couldn’t go anywhere, especially because of my extremely compromised immune system. So, it was really weird after having been on the road for like 30 years, 40 years if you count The Blasters, to spend a certain amount of time forced to be in one place, forced to be at home. Certainly, I like my home, and you know I have a very loving and patient partner, and she has been great through this.”

Alvin attributes his ability to not only persevere through his illnesses — but also rise above the naysayers of the music business — to his temperament.

“Well, you know there’s a bad kind of stubborn, and there’s a good kind of stubborn, and I got a good kind of stubborn in me," he offers. "Because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have a music career. It takes that same kind of stubborn attitude.”

Alvin, 66, says in high school when he, Phil and the guys that became The Blasters started playing rockabilly, and music of a seemingly bygone era that was frowned upon by the status quo, he had to forge ahead.

"When we were all teenagers, a lot of people didn’t like the kind of music we liked, and we were just stubborn," he points out. "And that stuck with me throughout my music career.

"Early on, when we were signed with Warner Brothers, and then with [L.A. punk pioneers] X on Elektra, and then when I had my first solo album on Epic, there are all these people who have the power to tell you that you can or cannot do what you love to do,” he explains.  “And my attitude has always been, 'No one besides the cops can tell me we can’t go inside our garage and make noise with music.'"

Alvin credits that mental toughness for providing the survival instincts to keep him alive while pursuing his passion. “That’s fine; I’m still gonna make music," he maintains. "It's the light at the end of the tunnel, I’ll make it through this. I will play shows again. I will be on the road again, you know, I’ll write songs again."

click to enlarge
New Highway is a collection of Dave Alvin's writings, including lyrics, poems, short stories and eulogies.
Book cover image
The book's highlights include some four dozen tunes and their lyrics from across The Blasters and Dave Alvin songbooks. There are classic Blasters songs such as “Marie, Marie,” “Border Radio,” “Long White Cadillac,” “Bus Station,” and Alvin solo standouts like “Fourth of July," “Every Night About This Time,” “King of California,” and “Harland County Line.”

Short Stories, Big Names

In New Highway, he tells short stories of his brushes with some of the greatest rock, blues, and country icons like Ray Charles, Big Joe Turner, and Sun Records’ Sam Phillips. Then there's Alvin the teenager as a would-be young rock journalist sitting alongside Buck Owens, who mysteriously displays his stack of $20 bills on a table.

In pages that pay tribute as much as acknowledge vital people in Alvin’s life, he says it is a unique experience gained by crossing paths on the road with other musicians and industry notables.

“Your average person doesn’t meet as many people as touring musicians meet," declares Alvin, whose November tour with Jimmie Dale Gilmore and the Guilty Ones includes a November 11 show at the Rhythm Room. "They don’t get involved with, not romantically, but in business as musicians do. And so, because you know so many people, you’re gonna know more people that die. The things that move me to write [about] people passing away, that moves me to write.”

Special eulogies were written on key figures from different walks of life who were inspirations.

Among them were longtime pal and guitarist Chris Gaffney, sax man Lee Allen, R&B and rock performer Johnny Otis, Jimi Hendrix (memorialized in the song "Nana and Jimi" after Alvin saw him perform), Slash Records founder Bob Biggs, and other friends and band supporters.

Two of his late music connections are especially memorable and bittersweet subjects. Gaffney, who passed away in 2008, played on many Alvin projects, and toured with Alvin’s Guilty Men lineup. Ed Pearl, who died last year, was founder and longtime owner of the Ash Grove, a hallowed blues and folk hall in L.A. during the '60s.

“I miss people and by writing about them, I feel like they’re around a little; keeping them alive for a little bit longer,” Alvin explains. “There was one [eulogy] in there for Miss Mercy [a member of late '60s all-girls band the GTOs] and my dear friend Bruce Bromberg [Blues Hall of Fame inductee and co-founder of HighTone Records]. They were totally different people. They loved the same kind of music. I treasured them both, and I miss them.”

Something else that Alvin not only treasured, but nearly led him down the path to becoming a college professor, was his relationship with the late Long Beach State University English professor Gerald Locklin. Locklin’s classes and friendship were vital to Alvin's education as a writer, and a student to music and the English language.

“It was the history of English literature," Alvin recalls. "I was attending Long Beach State University. It had a great literature department. And I imagine they still do. But the people who put the department together thought it would be a good idea to have a bar on campus, a beer and wine and pizza bar on campus.

“Locklin was no stranger to beer. The class was for seven [people], and I think it started around 4 or 4:30 when we started drinking beer with various students and other professors. The subject that night was 18th century pamphleteers [Joseph Addison and Richard Steele] who wrote in the legendary essay publication The Tatler. And I was a big fan of their writings because it’s quite contemporary," he continues.

“So, we got kind of beer drunk, and Locklin turned to me and said, ‘I don’t think I can teach the class.’ And I said, ‘Well, I can do it.’ So, he gave me his teacher’s book that had all the information you’d want, so we went up and I taught the class and sobered up. Being young, immortal and dumb helped.

“The reason he could get away with that was because he was a great, great teacher and extremely beloved by the students. And he treated all students with a bit of respect. He treated me like a semi-adult; like I could be a real writer.”
click to enlarge
After about 40 years on the road, Dave Alvin isn't ready to call it quits yet, saying, "I’m still gonna make music. ... I will play shows again."
Chip Duden

Learning by Watching

One of the more moving and pivotal poems Alvin added to the book was as much homage as it was a message to white America on the why of Black Lives Matters from a musical standpoint. Alvin cut his guitar teeth on the impromptu teaching of some of the great African American artists of rock, blues and more.

He and the likes of Ed Pearl, Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal, and Ry Cooder got their breaks and learned their trade watching great Black performers in their stomping grounds, which included the Ash Grove.

“Most people don’t look at music from a historical and sociological bent,” notes Alvin. "And that’s fine. If you’re a student of that kind of music, American music, it’s not just about learning the song or the style of the guitar playing. It’s learning, 'Why did this come about? What were the influences on it? Or why did this kind of music exist in the first place?'

"Going to the Ash Grove and being around people like Big Joe Turner, Lightnin' Hopkins, Johnny Otis, they made you think about that.”

The grand finale entry for Alvin was an ode to a youthful teenager's first taste of freedom. In the segment titled "For the Rest of My Life," Alvin shares his experience clinging to the open flatbed part of a high-speed truck odyssey to the Ash Grove to watch blues artist Freddie King.

“I’d had transcendental moments previous to that seeing Jimi Hendrix or seeing Big Joe," Alvin conveys in our interview. "But it was the combination of a long summer night, the first time smoking weed, and then being pressed against the back of a flatbed truck with no walls on it, hanging on for dear life, and you're high, and you’re on your way to see Freddie King; that’s where I want to be right now.

"How do you get through the cancer bullshit? Well, you know, that’s one of the ways. I wanna feel the way I felt that night, forever. I don’t care if I have to go to the hospital five days a week to get radiation. Fine. At some point, I will be in the back of that truck again.”
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Mark C. Horn
Contact: Mark C. Horn