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Yep, Dave Alvin heads in new direction

By Rick Bell, July 2004

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While Alvin still rolls out wonderful songs like "Everett Reuss" and the darkly semi-autobiographical "Out of Control," he's much more discriminating when it comes to committing a tune to tape.

Not surprisingly, "Ashgrove" is Alvin's first new full-length studio album in four years.

"I just felt it was time; I don't like to make a lot of records. Only when there's a reason," he says.

And the reason?

"The songs are pretty good."

Simple enough. But it's taken Alvin several years to compile an album full of songs worthy to record.

"As you get older, it gets more difficult to find time to write," he says. "It's hard to write on the road, and I'm on the road a lot. And I'm also up against myself, up against a body of work. It's like, 'Hey, top me.' I've become pickier with my songs.

"Look at Willie. He started as a songwriter, but he doesn't write much any more."

Alvin pauses for a moment, then takes a drag off his ever-present cigarette.

"But then, if I'd have written 'Crazy,' I'd have probably called it a wrap on my career.'"

Alvin's an admitted junkie of songwriters. But, he's also a performer, which makes a big difference when it comes to writing a song.

"I've got (songwriter) Harlan Howard's album 'Harlan Howard Sings Harlan Howard,'" Alvin says. "Harlan is one of the great songwriters of all time. But he was just writing songs. I've got to write and sing. I have to ask myself when I'm putting together a record, 'Can I sing this song six nights on the road?'"

Alvin says he normally begins planning a record when he gets five good songs. In the case of "Ashgrove," Alvin's debut on the up-and-coming Yep Roc label, he opted to have someone else produce the record.

Greg Leisz had produced Alvin's albums "King of California" and "Blackjack" and is an old friend from way back.

"Greg and I grew up together in the same area," Alvin says of Leisz, who's primarily a sideman and has performed with the likes of Joni Mitchell, k.d. lang and the Smashing Pumpkins. "He joined my first band, the Allnighters. He's on just about every other record made. His musical sense is amazing. I have total faith in him."

Alvin also wanted to be the singer, songwriter and musician this time out. As accomplished a producer as Alvin is - his production credits include The Derailers, Tom Russell and Big Sandy, to name a few - he wanted to just pick and sing on "Ashgrove."

"I produced (my album) 'Public Domain,'" Alvin says of his critically acclaimed tribute to some of the greatest folk songs ever written. "It was a drag. You have to have a split brain. When I make a record, I get headaches. I want to throw that responsibility on someone else. I want this vibe, to be the insecure artist who worries about hitting my notes, not whether the drummer is keeping time."

"Ashgrove" appears to be something of a rebirth for Alvin. For one, it's guitar-driven. The songwriting is potent, and Alvin frequently cuts loose on electric guitar.

The album is on a new label. For nearly a decade Alvin's work, both as a post-Blasters solo artist and as a producer, virtually defined the Bay Area-based label HighTone Records. Alvin either recorded, picked on or produced many records the label released.

"I owe everything to HighTone," Alvin says. "If it wasn't for them I'd be pumping gas somewhere. But I felt it was time for a change."

Alvin had produced an independent project for Kelly Willis' fiddle player Amy Farris when he met Yep Roc President Glenn Dicker. They hit it off. Alvin did a little checking on the North Carolina-based label and opted to release the album through them.

"This is a little different," says Alvin, now becoming something of the businessman. "I've never owned a record. I paid for this record."

Alvin also liked Yep Roc's philosophies about the music business.

"They're looking at how independent labels are going to be 15 years down the road. "The scariest thing is I spend most of the year on the road, but I don't make my money playing shows. It comes from publishing royalties."

On the heels of his latest solo effort, Alvin divulged a nugget that should be out early next year - a new studio album from The Knitters - the folk alter ego of the seminal '80s L.A. punk band X.

"Me, John and Xene did a new Knitters album," he says. "It should be ready to release in January.

Apparently there was a lot more thought that went into this record than the first one, which spawned a huge cult following over the past two decades, a reunion tour and even a tribute album.

"We did this one in three days," he says. "We recorded the first one in two days. We sure took our time this time around."

"Twenty-some years later, we have a new record," Alvin muses. "I love it. There's no pressure on me; I just set up the amps next to me and play."

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