Dave Alvin's Deep Roots
By Alan Sculley (The Herald, Everett, WA) - January 21, 2005
Since coming to prominence in the early 1980s as the songwriter for the terrific rockabilly and
roots rock band the Blasters, Alvin's career has stayed on solid footing while his music has
matured and grown richer.
He left the Blasters in 1985, embarking on a solo career that has seen him continue to
generate some of the best roots albums of his generation.
The topic of Alvin's career arc came up because his latest CD, "Ashgrove," frequently
has him in a reflective mood, looking at a life in music that now extends back 25 years.
The CD's title song is named after the legendary but long-gone Los Angeles club the
Ashgrove, which hosted some of music's most important blues and roots music artists,
including Big Joe Turner, Lightin' Hopkins and the Rev. Gary Davis. It was the club
where Alvin first saw the blues and folk artists whose music continues to influence
The second verse of "Ashgrove" sets the stage:
"Well, it's been 30 years since the Ashgrove burned down/and I'm out on this highway
traveling from town to town/Trying to make a living, trying to pay the rent/Trying to
figure out where my life went."
As a musician who is now 49, Alvin figures it's only natural he's grappling with issues
of aging, mortality and loss in his songwriting. He also saw the reality of death hit
home in 2000, when his father, Cass, lost a long battle with Parkinson's disease.
His mother, Nana, had died in 1984.
On the touching ballad "The Man in the Bed," Alvin pays tribute to his father's spirit,
assuming his father's voice as he remembers himself as the youthful, vigorous man his body
no longer allows him to be.
Alvin said the death of his father, along with the recent deaths of a few friends,
definitely informed the lyrical direction of "Ashgrove."
"In the old days, say 15 years ago, when I'd lose friends, it tended to be from exaggerated
whatever, people who lived on the edge," he said. "But then you get to a point where you're
just losing people from normal wear and tear. So all that, yeah, that played a part."
The reflections on life, loss and Alvin's early musical experiences at the Ashgrove
raise the question of how Alvin views his career as he nears 50. He is widely viewed
as one of the masters of the roots rock form, effortlessly bringing blues, rockabilly
and folk together into a gritty, tuneful and distinctive sound that's complemented with
lyrics where the struggles of the common man are frequently told through the eyes of
vividly drawn characters.
Yet Alvin has never been a star or had a hit record. He continues to carve out a living
as a working musician who spends most of his year on the road.
"You know I'd be a liar if I said I'm totally satisfied," Alvin admitted. "But on the other
hand, I have a house that I'm worried about having mud come down the hillside. I'm pretty
lucky to have a house that has mud coming down the hillside. It's not a mansion, but it's
really a nice place. And for 25 years now I've somehow managed to eke out a living as
a musician on the fringes of the music world. So one hand I'm very lucky.
"And every gig that I play, even when they're Monday nights in a snowstorm, there's a
part of me that realizes that I am so ... lucky.
"But on the other hand, there are things that I wish I had done differently throughout
my career. I wish I had come out of the womb Stevie Winwood as a vocalist. I didn't," Alvin
said, making light of his baritone voice, which he only began growing comfortable with
well into his solo career. "I wish maybe the Blasters would have gotten more airplay.
And there are times that I wish, you know, I think I'm a pretty good songwriter,
and there are times when I wish I was taken more seriously as a songwriter."
Anyone listening to "Ashgrove" would be hard pressed to overlook Alvin's songwriting talents.
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