The Blasters broke around L.A. just about 30 years ago. Dave and Phil Alvin, with Bill Bateman and John Bazz, somehow combined the precision and prestige of California rockabilly, honky tonk, and blues with the insistent energy of punk. They made the sound by which we would soon judge all bar bands. Since then Dave Alvin has continued to explore California's musical landscape, often making terrifically quiet and thought-provoking music in comparison. There are worlds between, say, "Marie, Marie," on the Blasters' 1980 debut American Music, and the inward-looking "River Under the Road," from the just-released Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women. In one flip at the record store, Alvin goes from 24 to 53.
"When you play with a group of people, whether it's polka or blues, you play together and that's how you sound," Alvin says. "If you put the Blasters back together in a room they would sound like the Blasters. We did a reunion thing in 2003 and we sounded exactly the same. We sounded better, because we had all grown, but we sounded the same. If you put me with the London Symphony I'd sound different. I'd suck. It's good for me to play with other people. The only way to get better is to play with better people. That was the whole thing with the Blasters, the older guys. My brothers took me under their wing. It's been great to play with Cindy Cashdollar and the Guilty Women."
Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women features a who's who of women currently playing roots music—Cindy Cashdollar, Nina Gerber, Christy McWilson, Laurie Lewis, Amy Farris, Lisa Pankratz, Marcia Ball, Suzy Thompson, etc. A variation of that ensemble will be in Knoxville with Alvin. The new record places Alvin in an interesting setting. He's re-recorded "Marie, Marie" with female harmonies, giving it a whole new emotional and romantic tilt. (Put it this way: if you were Marie's father, you'd probably approve of this reading more than the original.) His two-step version of the Doris Day chestnut "Que Sera, Sera," is pretty perfect, with a good-natured undercurrent of "where the hell did my life go?"
For most of us, there's some serious separation between what we did and cared about and how we paid the bills in college and how we fill all those blanks now. So it's hard to imagine a life like Alvin's, which began with a creative burst, followed by what appears to be a steady stream of encouragement and rewards of different sorts. For a successful working musician, are the creative concerns different in middle age than when he was in his 20s? Is it harder to write a love song about a 20-year-old waitress than it is to write one about a 45-year-old waitress?
"I'm still worried about paying for gas and guitar strings," Alvin says. "It's the nature of this kind of business. Instability is constant. I'm always wondering, ‘Am I going to be working next year? Is somebody in the band going to die?' If I had a kid I would strongly recommend that they find some other kind of work."
Sadly, fiddler Amy Farris did die in September.
"The joke used to be, would we be pumping gas next week for money?" says Alvin. "That's not funny any more because a lot of us couldn't even do that now. Howlin' Wolf did it until he died. Roy Acuff did it until he died. I guess I'll do it until I die. I just hope it's not too soon."
Not to turn morbid, but a lot of Alvin's music lately has been associated with illness and death. He and others recently scrambled to record and perform as a way raise money to pay for open-heart surgery for Peter Case, a successful career musician who was uninsured. And Alvin was executive producer of Man of Somebody's Dreams, a tribute to the late Chris Gaffney, which came together for similar reasons. He's been observing the so-called health-care debate with some interest.
"The whole issue is so big and tragic," he says. "With Chris we started while he was still alive. He was still trying to book gigs. He couldn't imagine any other way to pay the bills. We put together a website and through the website we were able to raise the money he needed. People's generosity astounds me.
"There's this mythology—and I believed it too when I was 14—that anyone who makes a record is a millionaire. I think the audience is usually shocked to learn that most musicians live hand to mouth. Of all the people who make music, about half of 1 percent are your Springsteens and Madonnas. Ninety-six percent work day jobs. The rest are like me, and we're all basically one or two months from being homeless. I'm not looking for sympathy. But it's an unstable business. I haven't had a day job in 29 years. I was a fry cook and believe me, they would not want me back. That's the scary thing about doing this for 29 years: I never learned to do anything else."