Dave Alvin Digs Deep Into Americana On Public Domain

Former member of Blasters, Knitters and X draws connections between styles.

Singer/songwriter and guitarist Dave Alvin has raised the roof countless times as a member of seminal roots-rockers the Blasters and as a latter-day member of X.

His song "American Music" (RealAudio excerpt), from the Blasters' self-titled 1981 major label debut, paid homage to the variety of roots music emanating from different parts of the country. And from the stage, he's been known to further insist on the connections between genres, saying with a sly grin that "it's all folk music, some of it's just louder than others!"

With his latest project, the just-released Public Domain: Songs From the Wild Land, Alvin digs deeper into his roots-music heritage.

"In some ways, without sounding too grandiose, this is my folk-music manifesto nailed to the church doors," Alvin said.

Opening with "Shenandoah," taken out of the realm of the familiar by Alvin's R&B interpretation, the album is an ambitious, 15-song foray bent on demonstrating that so much of our music is related.

"I think there's a pretty direct line that goes from Blind Lemon Jefferson and the Carter Family — you can trace the lines; they're in heavy black ink — straight to things like rockabilly and Chicago blues."

Public Domain was a long-put-off project for Alvin, 45. It was given new urgency by the ill health of his 84-year-old father, Cass Alvin, a union organizer whose lessons and music collection had informed young Dave and brother Phil Alvin, a fellow Blaster. (Cass Alvin died May 15.)

"I was producing this record with a singer named Christy McWilson, and the record was going really well. And I was visiting my dad in the hospital every day," Alvin said.

"And I just thought, 'To hell with it. I've got the studio, I can round the musicians up really quick.'

"Most of the songs were things that I'd run into collecting records as a kid with my brother Phil. So they're all part of the 'holy writ,' but at the same time they're all songs that had some sort of effect on me as a songwriter, and the way I view the world. Rather bleak at times.

Unexpected Connections

"I don't know the exact origins of 'Don't Let Your Deal Go Down' (RealAudio excerpt), but it is known as a mountain song," he said of the tune he re-imagines as an electric Chicago blues. "I'd say there's a good 50-50 chance that it's an African-American song, at one point in the 19th century, that just fell out of black music vocabulary.

"Whereas something like 'Railroad Bill' (RealAudio excerpt) is a black folk song, but we did it more bluegrassy. Yeah, they're all connected. All these musics come out of the same place and rub shoulders with each other."

Of course, connecting the musical dots is nothing new for Alvin. His live shows with the Guilty Men, the band featured on Public Domain along with guitarist Greg Leisz and harmonica player John "Juke" Logan, often find him linking Woody Guthrie's "Do Re Mi" with rocker Chuck Berry's "Promised Land."

"They're both basically about the same thing," Alvin explained last week. "One's a warning about the joys of the Golden State, or the promised land, and Chuck Berry's is maybe more celebratory, but they work together.

"If I was to play 'Promised Land' acoustic and you didn't know it was a Chuck Berry song, and we had a Dobro on it, then people would say, 'Oh, that's a great old ... what is that, Roy Acuff?' "

Simple Priorities

Alvin, who lives in a $750-a-month duplex in the Los Angeles community of Silver Lake, recalls being happy when, after his first cross-country solo tour backed by Missouri's Skeletons, which included Guilty Men Bobby Lloyd Hicks (drums) and Joe Terry (keyboards), each musician walked away with more than $200.

"But we were making $200, $300; we weren't losing $200, $300. So it was like, 'OK, this is profitable.'

"It's been eight, nine years of solid touring. Would I like a nice house overlooking the lake? Yeah! Hopefully, maybe, that'll come. But the great thing is, I'm working," Alvin said.

"I'm real happy. My goal is to be good. And one day I will be. It's getting closer."