Dave Alvin happened to find the subject of a new song while poking around a dingy Southern California junk store. Though the venerable Los Angeles-based roots rocker and charter member of The Blasters may not be the first to find inspiration among the dusty shelves of some hole-in-the-wall antique shop, his song "Everett Reuss" is certainly among the more charming narratives in recent memory relating the life and times of a minor folk hero.
Reuss, now immortalized in song on Alvin's latest album "Ashgrove," was a young Depression-era poet and artist who wandered much of the Southwest. He had his letters, writings and drawings pulled together for a book, á la Woody Guthrie's "Bound for Glory," after his mysterious disappearance.
While it remains to be seen whether he will be remembered in the same breath as Guthrie, Alvin manages to faithfully depict the enigmatic Reuss in a five-minute song.
"I was in a junk store one day and lying on top of a stack was a book from 1940 that had a beautiful etching on the cover," Alvin says of the book on Reuss. "It was one of his etchings. The drawing caught my eye. I'd heard his name before. It turned out the book was a collection of letters and poems from his travels before he disappeared in 1934. I thought, 'This is one of my guys.'"
Reuss, 20 years old at the time, literally vanished into the vast deserts of Utah. Alvin tosses out a couple theories in his song as to what may have happened to the California boy who ran off to the High Sierras, did the snake dance with the Hopi Indians and sang songs with the Navajo. Maybe he was killed by a drifter or mauled by wildcats, Alvin surmises in the lyrics.
Then, he takes it a step further in a phone interview.
"You know, they never found his body; I don't think he's dead," Alvin says with just enough conviction in his voice to give pause. Okay, sure, why not? He disappeared without a trace, and he'd be 90 this year. Still...
"He was a very educated kid. He went on many journeys, and he had his parents' permission," Alvin says. "In his last big trip, he went away and never came back. Who knows?"
Alvin says he paid $15 for the tome on Reuss about a year and a half ago and wrote the song from what he read in the book.
"I found out a lot more later," Alvin says. "I wrote the song off the book. The first time I played it live was at a radio station in Salt Lake City. He's unknown (in Southern California), but in Utah, he's a folk hero."
Alvin's use of the first-person narrative for "Everett Reuss" is a style he's admired since he can remember. It hasn't been tremendously popular on country radio of late, but Alvin says he doesn't base his craft around the Nashville hit parade - at least, not the current chart-toppers.
"What gets on Nashville radio doesn't stop me from how I write," he says. "In my most formative years, I didn't know the names of the big songs. But (Marty Robbins') 'El Paso,' which is a narrative, is my number one musical influence. And (Chuck Berry's) 'Memphis.'"
Alvin says folk singers and songwriters still use a lot of narrative. It's just another way of getting the point across, he says.
"I don't sit down and say, 'I'm going to write a first-person narrative.' When (Merle Haggard) wrote 'Tulare Dust' or 'Kern River,' he related his experiences. You just write a song about you. It doesn't matter if you're in Maryland or Mississippi or California. You just write."
Alvin's latest album is chock full of personal experiences. It's also rife with references to his beloved Golden State. In fact, "Ashgrove" may be the most autobiographical album - musically and lyrically - Alvin has ever made.
Alvin harmoniously blends all his influences - country, blues, folk and straight-ahead rock - with lyrics that reference everything from SoCal radio stations like KRLA and XPRS to scoring speed in San Bernardino. Alvin makes no apologies for liberally citing his stomping grounds.
"Some of my best friends are Texas songwriters, like Terry Allen, Guy Clark and Joe Ely," he says. "They have no qualms writing about Texas. And we have some great California songwriters, like Jerry Garcia, Robert Hunter, Hag, Wynn Stewart and Tom Waits."
Adding bits and pieces of his own life to the songs on "Ashgrove" lifts them to another level, Alvin says - not completely autobiographical, but not fiction.
"It's a little bit of both," he says. "I add my experiences. I write odd little songs. It's funny; the more personal you make the song, the more universal it becomes. When I write universally, it falls flat on its face. My song 'Fourth of July' is intensely personal, yet it's one of my most popular songs. I have no idea why. It just is."