Growing up in the '50s and '60s in the blue-collar town of Downey, Calif., Dave Alvin had firsthand experience with the variety of music drifting across the Golden State. From the Mexican-tinged sound of Buck Owens' Bakersfield country to the South Central Los Angeles R&B scene, from the painterly songwriting of Tom Waits to the heavenly harmonies of the Beach Boys, Alvin was immersed in it all. On "West of the West," the Grammy-winning Alvin's recently released new album, he pays tribute to his home state by performing 13 tracks by California born and bred songwriters both famous (Brian Wilson, Jackson Browne) and largely unknown (Jim Ringer, "Blackie" Farrell). It's a lovely album, and one that reveals some clues about a place -- physical and mythical -- that has an unmatched hold on the popular imagination.
It's hard to imagine someone engaging in a similar project focusing just on songs from, say, New Mexico. What is it about California that results in such interesting music?
I think there was a time in the country, maybe 50 or 60 years ago, when California was one of the only places where things were a little more culturally mixed and open. If you look at the Bakersfield sound, it's an interesting mix of things -- electric rock 'n' roll guitars, a bit of rhythm and blues -- and that wasn't being done in Nashville at the time. In the case of Buck Owens there was a definite Mexican influence, too. So there was an openness mixed with a diversity that you weren't getting in many other places.
The songs and songwriters on the album are a pretty diverse bunch. Is there anything that connects them aside from being a product of California?
I don't know. I think maybe there's a certain bittersweet thing to California. I think there's a combination of the physical beauty of the place and the myth that comes when you're born here. You're told constantly as a native Californian that this is the promised land, and at times, on summer nights when it's 80 degrees and it's gorgeous, you can buy into that for a little while. But then on the other hand you have L.A. with its great disparity between the wealthy and poor and that's reflected in California songwriters from Woody Guthrie to Rage Against the Machine.
How does your approach toward an album differ when you haven't written any of the songs? Is it easier, harder?
It's more of a challenge. I did a record called "Public Domain" a few years ago that was all traditional songs and with that I could be a little looser because the people who wrote those songs weren't alive -- and if they said they wrote them they were lying. With these songs it was challenging because all the writers are still alive and they're gonna say "that's not bad" or "what'd you do to my fuckin' song?" and it's scary. Some of these people are pretty friggin' serious songwriters, so it's a little stressful.
It's different work from when you sit down to write a song. I purposefully wanted to make the distinction between Dave Alvin and the songwriters foggy -- because that's the way to pay tribute to these songs, to make people wonder where Dave Alvin ends and the other songwriter begins.
-- David Marchese