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Dave Alvin's women are as guilty as his men

By Brian Baker, May 2009

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Convening at Ray Benson's studio in the Texas capital under the auspices of Ray's son, Sam Seifert, Alvin and the Guilty Women began forming the music that would comprise their eponymous debut album. Taking nearly the same approach to the studio that they had at Hardly Strictly, the group reprised only one song from their festival set, preferring to work out material that was largely new to many of the players and once again, without any rehearsal time.

"We only did one (from the festival); we did 'Marie Marie,' which is a song I'd written for The Blasters many, many years ago," says Alvin. "The lyrics of that song revolve around a girl playing guitar on the back porch and singing sadly, and it just kind of fit in. It was like, 'You know, that would be a good song for the Guilty Women.' We changed it around. I'd always thought of it as either a Chuck Berry kind of song, sort of like The Blasters did it, or I saw it as a Balfa Brothers song; they were a great family group of Cajun musicians - Dewey Balfa being maybe the most famous - so the Guilty Women version is kind of in the Balfa Brothers' Cajun tradition with maybe a little zydeco thrown in there."

For Alvin, the biggest challenge in assembling the Guilty Women in the studio was to create a continuity among players who had never played together before and to make them sound like a cohesive band while incorporating blues, jump blues, Western swing and folk. Alvin hit on a relatively simple and ingenious solution.

"I made a producer call; I would only play acoustic guitar, and whatever solos I took would only be on acoustic instruments," says Alvin. "Cindy Cashdollar, of course, could do her multiple steel thing and then Nina Gerber would only play electric. Just by doing that, we'd have a sound because of the way I play acoustic and the way Nina plays electric. Right off the bat, one problem was solved."

Cashdollar, who plays with Asleep at the Wheel, and her cohorts worked their own angles to find the Guilty Women groove, relying on past experience and respect for each other's obvious talents. "Dave had great ideas on who should do the intro and who should lay out on the first verse, and then once it got rolling, it just became a point of listening," says Cashdollar. "I would listen to Nina's lines on her solo, and if my solo followed her, I would try to complement how she ended her solo and work what she did into mine. And I think that's how everybody worked, by just listening to what everybody else was doing."

Musically, Alvin and his Guilty Women are clearly sympatico and nowhere is that more evident than in his vocal compatibility with Christy McWilson. The duo connects with the same kind of inspired synergy that sparked between John Doe and Exene Cervenka of X.

"Christy is my vocal foil in the band, and she's like my old friend Chris Gaffney, who could sing harmony with me and never rehearse with me," says Alvin. "When they talk about the Everly Brothers or the Louvin Brothers, that kind of thing where the harmony came natural. That's the way it was with Chris, and so Christy is in that league for singing with me. Singing with me is not easy; it takes a lot of patience. But also, Christy and I have kind of a George Burns and Gracie Allen kind of stage vibe together."

Half of the album's material is written or co-written by Alvin, with a pair coming from vocalist McWilson (whose two HighTone albums were produced by Alvin), one from the late Kate Wolf (Gerber's former employer), a Tim Hardin classic and an interesting spin on Doris Day's signature, Que Sera Sera.

"Each song's got a thing," says Alvin. "Each song has its own moment that I go, 'Wow, I'm so glad we cut that.' The thing that amazes me is how easy it all came out."

Like the festival, the recording of "Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women" - completed in just over a week's time - was a tremendous success. As a result, Alvin and a rotating cast of the Guilty Women (depending on the schedule and availability of each) will be out on a fairly widescale tour this summer.

When Alvin looks back on the process of assembling and recording the Guilty Women, he tends to focus on his band, leaving himself out of the equation to a great extent. "Despite the fact that I'm up there, it's a band of women playing with women and I think that was a high for them, and it was a high for me," says Alvin with complete humility. "Psychologically and emotionally, I wasn't looking for Chris Gaffney onstage because I knew he was there, if that makes any sense."

"Dave Alvin is a brave man, for sure," says Cashdollar with a laugh. "He's one of those people that kind of let you intuitively play, and if they have any comments, it will come afterward. He's not one of those that will say, 'I want you to do this, this and this' before you even get a chance to hear the song. I don't mind direction; I appreciate it, more often than not. I got a sense of what it would be like in the studio after doing that one set at the festival. I had a feeling he was going to be the kind of person to let you find your own way first, and that was really nice."

Alvin's bravery extends to the making of "Man of Somebody's Dreams," not only for piecing together a loving tribute to his best friend - which finishes with Gaffney himself singing the last song he worked on before his death, The Guitars of My Dead Friends - but for courageously navigating the treacherous business waters necessary to complete a project of this nature.

Although there is enough interest in Gaffney and plenty material to do another volume of "Somebody's Dreams," Alvin is more than willing to pass the torch to the next curator. "If we do it again, I don't think I'll be involved in producing it," he says with a wry laugh. "Like I said, Chris never got the breaks, and because he was my best friend, I want to rectify that a little. I'd love for there to be a volume two, but somebody else can produce it. "

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