Highway's Song

Big Bill Broonzy Helps Dave and Phil Alvin Find Common Ground

Phil and Dave Alvin

Phil and Dave Alvin

What do Downey, California, the Ash Grove, Big Bill Broonzy, and the Mississippi Delta all have in common? The answer is easy to anyone close to the heart of Southern California Americana music: the Downey-bred brothers Phil and Dave Alvin. In a rare move, the brothers have re-united and collaborated on a new album on Yep Roc Records, Common Ground: Dave + Phil Alvin Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy. They are now in the midst of a tour together for the first time since Dave left the seminal L.A. roots-rock band he founded with his older brother, Phil, the Blasters.

As younger men, it was the ego attachment to the music they love that helped break them up as collaborating artists. But, as now older, and maybe slightly wiser men, it is the same love for music that has brought them together in the studio for the first time in almost 30 years. It took the legacy of one of the great country blues artists of the 20th century who died in 1958, Big Bill Broonzy. He represents their common bond, their common ground, their common passion, their childhood, and their homecoming.

The Alvin brothers were raised during the culturally and musically pivotal years of the 1960s in Southern California. They were the right age to be able to catch the roots of the authentic country, folk, and blues comet that blazed through Los Angeles in the form of Ed Pearl’s legendary Ash Grove. The venue saw extended gigs from such country, folk, and blues luminaries as Lightning Hopkins, T-Bone Walker, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Lester Flatts and Earl Scruggs, and Hoyt Axton.

Since they were knee-high to a pair of grasshoppers throughout the decade, they weaned themselves on rare and earthy recordings from faraway Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee. While much of America was migrating to their sunny home state, the brothers were cultivating the musical earth hundreds of miles from their own enviable locale.

During the post-British invasion era and with the advent of the folksinger-songwriter migration from Greenwich Village to Los Angeles, Southern California experienced an explosion of music culture that was like a tidal wave for the youth of the area. Formerly known for producing the relatively mild sound of the Kingston Trio and the harmonies-meets-rock-and-roll of the Beach Boys with the undertow of authentic surf music, So Cal suddenly had access to the hardest of hardcore blues, folk, and country music. Thanks to the Ash Grove acts like the Dillards, the White Brothers, Lightning Hopkins, and Big Joe Turner found a welcome haven as though the best music of the southern plains, highlands, and Mississippi Delta just blew in one day with an easterly wind.

So, while most kids, who were around the same age as the Alvin brothers in So-Cal suburbs like Downey, were deep in community-sanctioned activities like Little League, the brothers were haunting independent records stores, absorbing the best in authentic American music. First hearing Howlin’ Wolf or Muddy Waters back in the mostly white-bred neighborhoods of the ’60s was a musically revolutionary revelation not unlike first plugging into electricity. The brothers collected blues and folk albums instead of comic books and baseball cards. When they heard about the Ash Grove, just 20 miles from their home, they found ways to get to the gigs, bumming rides from older friends. The rewards they reaped were rich. They saw Willie Dixon; they became friends with Big Joe Turner.

The garage and surf bands that grew out of their hometown provided added fuel to the brothers’ early developing punk sensibilities and passion for real music that would eventually lead them to found their best known collaboration to date.

The Blasters were more than just a little band from the suburbs. By 1979 the brothers had time to let their love for real music ferment into something comparable to the finest of California wines. The band took the best energy of surf music, the twang of real country, and the hardest boogie energy of the rock and blues they’d grown up with and melded it all into something unique and disarming. At the time, the temptation would have been to compare them to the relatively watered-down rockabilly of the Stray Cats. But, that would be like comparing cotton candy to a T-bone steak – rare and ready.

Meanwhile, by way of an abrupt narrative flashback, Big Bill Broonzy, from the 1920s until the late 1950s, was doing all that he knew to do to give his audience a full taste of the brew of his music. And that had to do with nothing more and nothing less than the finest authentic music drawn from his life.

According to Dave Alvin, “His influence on a variety of players went from uptown musicians to the country blues guys like Big Joe Williams. He was an influence on Muddy Waters, an influence on the folk musicians of the early 1960s, and one of the first blues guys to go over to Europe where he was an influence on skiffle bands and guitarists like Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton.”

However, in the 1920s Broonzy was an itinerant fiddle man in Chicago until he made his first recordings in 1927. As fate would have it, in 1928, when the hot young country blues artist Robert Johnson met with a tragic and mysterious early death, it was Big Bill Broonzy who replaced him in the historic show at Carnegie Hall, titled “From Spirituals to Swing.” He would go on to record over 200 songs, infusing them with his own pure country blues sensibility and scoring at least one well-regarded standard, “Keys to the Highway.” When Broonzy died in 1958, he was able to see the first rumblings of the early folk and blues revival that took shape and influenced everything to come, from Dylan and the Beatles well into the modern pop era.

For young Phil Alvin, Broonzy’s influence remains significant and tangible. During the ’70s when his older brother had a blues band, he was sure they covered classic tunes by the blues artist. When he was able to gig with one of Broonzy’s friends, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Alvin said, “I felt I had a connection with him. But, that show solidified that connection.” Of the new album he said, “He influenced how I became a singer and the kind of singer I became. These are songs I’ve been singing for so long. I don’t think I could have done the record without “Feel So Good” or “Trucking Little Woman” – those were natural ones for me to choose.”

Like Broonzy in the ’30s, it was natural for the Alvins to take what they knew and bring it all together into its own unique stew. As the older brother, Phil was the initial driving creative force behind the early Blasters’ rise. With brother Dave and friends Bill Bateman and John Bazz, the band’s most creative period lasted from 1980 until 1985. Although they never gained commercial success, they are today regarded among the most influential bands in American roots music.

After their break-up, Phil recorded a solo album, Un “Sung”Stories. He would then take the unusual-for-a-musician-move of earning a graduate degree in mathematics and artificial intelligence.     Since the late ’80s, he has reformed the Blasters minus brother Dave and released another solo album, County Fair 2000. The Blasters have also released two post-Dave albums, 4-11-44 in 2005 and Fun on Saturday Night in 2012.

Dave Alvin has forged a formidable solo career since his days with his brother and the Blasters. Following a brief stint with the L.A. punk band X, which resulted in the classic album See How We Are and their well-known anthem “Fourth of July.” Later, he would also join the experimental country band the Knitters.

But, his focus was on a solo career that would combine his blues and folk sensibilities with his own brand of political and literary influences. The resulting albums, including The King of California and Best of the West – a tribute to California’s own songwriters including John Stewart and Brian Wilson – would form a solid foundation for the finest Americana music this side of Nashville and Austin. In 2000 he won a Grammy for Public Domain: Songs from the Wild Land, an album of traditional folk and blues songs.

The brothers have coexisted well over the years, not really feuding, but never having a strong reason to compel them to work together again.

In 2011, with the release of Dave Alvin’s Eleven/Eleven, the brothers collaborated vocally on the song “What’s up with Your Brother,” a gentle play at what used to be a sometimes contentious relationship and a potential Blasters reunion.

But, it was 2012, when Phil Alvin fell ill and came close to death’s door when the brother’s decided to come back together with something more substantial. Although they performed live together in a 2003 reunion tour and performed tracks for the Stephen King/John Mellencamp musical release Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, this new tribute to Big Bill Broonzy will be their first full collaboration since 1985 with the Blasters.

It began as an EP that their label convinced them to turn into a full album. So, the original brothers of California roots music return to their own origins, recording an album of songs by one of the original heroes of country blues, Big Bill Broonzy. Ironically, it is titled Common Ground: Dave + Phil Alvin Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy.

“We argue sometimes, but we never argue about Big Bill Broonzy,” Dave Alvin laughs about the inspiration behind the idea to come together for this album.

Uniquely, more so than almost any other project they could have attempted together, this album brings the brothers back to where they started when they first encountered early 20th-century blues back during their childhood in the ’60s in Downey, California. What makes this tribute so engaging is the knowledge and obvious love for the artists that the brothers bring to the proceedings. As Phil Alvin explains, “It’s hard to pick a peak time for him.” So, they cover songs and guitar work he covered during the late ’20s and early ’30s as well as the songwriting that took him from the late ’30s to the 1950s.

Broonzy, an early pioneer of Americana music, was not afraid to experiment with the experience of crossing genres. As Dave explains, “He was denigrated because he had such a long career and he wasn’t afraid of the purists. He didn’t like to be pigeon-holed.” He went on to explain how Broonzy could play acoustic folk shows to liberal white audiences, then deliver an uptown blues show with an electric band.

See Phil and Dave Alvin & the Guilty Ones at the Belly Up in Solana Beach, Wednesday, June 11, 8pm. The Jack Tempchin Band opens.

2 Comments

  1. Ed Boswell
    Posted June, 2014 at 7:10 PM | Permalink

    Good article. One correction is in order. Phil Alvin was a good baseball player, and played little league, and stopped playing organized ball around the age of 14, after suffering a serious knee injury that is his traveling companion to this day. Dave did not play little league.

  2. Posted June, 2014 at 11:18 AM | Permalink

    You’re wrong, Ed Boswell. I did play little league. I was right fielder for the Downey Panthers and I was terrible.

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