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Alejandro Escovedo: a man under the influence of his roots

By Nick A. Zaino III, June 2001

The first track from Alejandro Escovedo's latest solo album, "A Man Under the Influence," "Wave," tells the story of a young man setting out to find his family and himself in a strange country.

While "A Man Under the Influence" wouldn't sound out of place with the rest of Escovedo's work, he's clearly an artist in transition. So, it should come as no surprise that he would seek out new surroundings for inspiration.

Escovedo recorded the album in North Carolina with Chris Stamey producing.

"I wanted to do a different kind of record, and I wanted to get out of Texas to make it," he says in an interview at a Somerville, Mass. nightclub. "I made all of my records, my solo records there. I just wanted to go somewhere new. Have to keep moving, you know?"

The 50-year-old Texas native has lived and worked in the Lone Star state for the better part of 25 years. Still, it's hard for him to accept the "Texas songwriter" label that has developed over the years.

"It's hard to say, I mean, Texas is so bizarre. You have like, Terry Allen, then you have David Garza. You have Joe Ely, and then you have a number of people. Jon Dee Graham. There's just a large variety of musicians there, and there's all sorts of things happening."

Escovedo's own career has spanned many different phases and genres. He has been a sideman, a cowpunk pioneer and an acclaimed singer/songwriter in his own right. His work has put him at the forefront of the alt.-country movement, another label Escovedo finds inscrutable. "Am I alt.-country?" he says. "I mean, I cover Stooges songs and John Cale. It's just a ridiculous label. But it makes it easy for people. Makes them want to be part of something."

"I've seen these things happen. I've been doing this for 25 years, and I've seen a lot of scenes. You know, the country punk, punk rock scene. Glitter rock. There's always something people are turning on to. They're bands, you know? Rock and roll bands. I think it's good. It's fine. But I don't feel a part of it. I don't put on my alt.-country suit and go out for a night on the town."

So what influences Escovedo's music? Ask him to what music inspires him to play, and he's as likely to mention Ian Hunter, Leonard Cohen and the Rolling Stones as he is Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins and Muddy Waters. He regularly mixes songs like the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog" and the Stones' "Sway" into live performances, fitting them seamlessly with his own material.

"It's just has to be something that seems to fit into the story I'm telling," he says of his choice of cover songs. "The whole complete ball of...whatever, confusion. Just anything that fits into the story that I can relate to, and it sounds like something I could sing with some sort of conviction."

"I loved Lou Reed because it wasn't hippy stuff, and it was about real life," Escovedo says of one of his songwriting touchstones. "It wasn't asking these questions that were never answered in songs. It was kind of just really telling stories, and that was what was important."

Escovedo spent years soaking in the music around him, listening to as much music as he could, honing his guitar skills with Bay Area punks The Nuns and watching the songwriting brothers Chip and Tony Kinman during his stint in Rank and File. Then, when he was 30, he finally wrote his first song. He hit the ground running with "The Rain Won't Help You When it's Over," a song covered a few years back by Whiskeytown.

By the time Escovedo formed the True Believers with his brother Javier and guitar player/songwriter Jon Dee Graham, he was no longer satisfied with the role he was playing in his bands.

"I just was kind of like a rhythm guitar player," he says. "I was the guy with good pants and shoes. Good haircut, sometimes. That was kind of my role in the bands. And then when my brother came to Austin to form the True Believers after I left Rank and File, he had a whole suitcase full of songs, and I knew I had to start writing or forever hold my peace."

"I think experience had a lot to do with it and having been in a band all that time," he says. "Then, I moved to Austin, and I really got to feel confident enough because there were so many songwriters around there who were very generous with their time and their experience to kind of help me or inspire me. It was just the perfect time, perfect place for me to start expressing myself. I'd waited for so long to do that."

The True Believers firmly established Alejandro, Javier and Graham in the Austin scene. All three managed to emerge from the band's three-guitar attack as individual artists. Their future looked even brighter in 1986 when Rounder picked up their self-titled debut and secured distribution through EMI. But when EMI merged with Manhattan Records, the band was dropped from the roster with their second album already recorded.

The band wouldn't last long after that.

The deal with EMI would be only the first of many label problems Escovedo would endure over the years.

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