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Dave Alvin tries keeping it all straight

By Rick Bell, June 2002

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"It was an escape valve for us," Alvin recalls of the group, which finally reunited for the first time two years ago and again is touring the Interstate 5 corridor this spring. "In the early days, we were asked to do a lot of benefits. And we said, 'Well, we won't do it, but The Knitters will. We were able to step out of our band expectations and could do folk, or Haggard tunes or whatever. But after I joined X, there was no more reason to do The Knitters."

Yet the legacy left by The Knitters - they loosely took their name from Pete Seeger's folk group of the 1950s The Weavers - not only spawned the reunion tour, but a tribute album titled "Poor Little Knitter in the Road" to the one and only album The Knitters ever released.

"It took us two days to record it," Alvin said of The Knitters' original album. "And I was drunk one of the days."

The Knitters also present Alvin with the rare opportunity to be just another guy in the band. Instead of being the front man, Alvin says he just shows up and plugs in.

"I don't have to be me," he laughs. "In some ways, it functions like it did 17 years ago. I just show up. I don't have to sing. I know how the songs go and just play. It's almost like a vacation."

Still, there's the sense Alvin likes to be too busy. With the Guilty Men, Alvin books the shows, pays the musicians, pays for the hotels and gas and is the band's manager.

The new album "Out in California" indeed is live, but Alvin didn't just let the tape roll on a couple of shows with his Guilty Men. Methodically crafted, Alvin took care to record the best from acoustic sets, all-out rockers and everything in between.

The lone new number is Alvin's rolling country song "Highway 99," which pays homage to the road that cuts through the heart of California's San Joaquin Valley.

"It's a tribute to the Bakersfield Sound," says Alvin, who actually has crafted a 13-song record that is at once a tribute to his home state and simultaneously is a retrospective to Alvin's 20-year career. "It honors Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and Wynn Stewart."

The CD's jacket is a throwback to the days of vinyl with wonderful artwork of California icons - a mission, a golden bear, the desert, Mt. Shasta and the state flower, the California poppy. Alvin and his six Guilty Men even pose with a lassoed, oversized rattlesnake.

"The cover has a semi-psychotic feel to it," he says. "We dug up old 19th and early 20th century postcards with archetypal images of California."

About the only thing missing is string bikinis and Santa Monica Pier. Alvin says he wrote "Highway 99" last year while he sat around the house. Most of the rest of the album are Alvin tunes as well, though they recall days past.

"The songs are kind of staples of the live show," he says. "We'd play a gig, and people would come up afterward and tell us how much they liked the sound. In the studio, it's gotten more and more introspective. But the live shows have stayed loud and proud."

Besides Alvin, the Guilty Men are comprised of Bobby Lloyd Hicks on drums and harmony vocals, Chris Gaffney on accordion and harmony vocals, bassist Gregory Boaz, Joe Terry on keyboards and vocals, stringmaster Rick Shea on electric pedal and lap steel, as well as guitars, mandolin and vocals, Brantley Kearns on fiddle, John Logan on harmonica and Greg Leisz, who sits in on a couple of songs on dobro and electric guitar.

Despite the title song and despite "Highway 99," Alvin maintains he's not solely focused on the West Coast.

"I'm not an L.A. songwriter," he said. "I write songs about the U.S. in total. On the other hand, I'm a big fan of Texas songwriters like Guy Clark and Joe Ely. I think wherever your heart is broke the first time is where you're from. If it was broke in Texas, you're a Texas songwriter."

Being a fourth generation Californian, Alvin nonetheless admits he's heavily influenced by the West Coast. If he's co-writing a song with someone from Louisiana, for example, then they bring their turf to the table while Alvin adds his state's values.

It goes even further. Any time a songwriter mentions a city, or any location for that matter to the lyrics, he said, listeners perk up a little more.

"(Blues and country legend) Jimmie Rodgers had a theory," Alvin said. "With songs like 'T for Texas' and 'Peach Pickin' Time in Georgia,' if you mentioned a state, people there would buy the record."

It worked with him, he added.

"On 'Me and Bobby McGee,' when they mentioned Salinas, I knew where that was," he said. "And when Frank Zappa mentioned El Monte, I was like, 'I know where that is! It's right by where I live!"

Alvin said there's a good chance more Blasters reunion dates will be added, but as of yet there are no firm dates.

"We might do a couple more gigs. It was a lot of fun onstage, but off stage, I don't know," Alvin laughs. "These are the guys who taught me to play. The reunion tour meant a lot to a lot of people to see us onstage. It meant the world to see my brother and me getting along. We love each other very much."

Now that's a folk song with a California bent that's yet to be written.

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