Highway's Song

From Downey to Lubbock: Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore

Dave Alvin & Jimmie Dale Gilmore

Cover of their new CD, Downey to Lubbock.

It seems music is like the earth, the land, the highways… all joined together, connected and flowing like its own river of love.

On the surface, the land from Lubbock, Texas to the Southern California suburb of Downey have little in common. From the busy freeways southeast of Los Angeles that lead west to the blue Pacific Ocean and east to the glossy desert of Palm Springs, to the dry red dirt plains, tumbleweeds, and gravel roads of West Texas, the places may seem to be far apart. But the link between the two areas is not that distant. Indeed, from ancient dust bowls to bountiful fruit orchards, the connected migrative road between the two regions is etched in our common American history, And the people are of a kindred heritage and soul-bloodline… musically and spiritually.

The same could be said of Downey born and bred Dave Alvin, a songwriter with a penchant for blues and a smooth-as-whiskey-baritone vocal and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, a West Texas native with one of the purest country voices and songwriting talents to come along over the last few generations.
At first it seems an unlikely pairing. As Jimmie Dale explained in a recent interview. “It was really my booking agent’s idea. Dave and I had been good friends for many years and we really get along well. But, what was surprising is we found that we both had a common love for old blues. Neither of us really knew that until we were on tour together last year. But, when we started working, it came together.”

So, with the release of Downey to Lubbock the two artists have found a rare chemistry that was waiting to be tapped for the many years they’ve been friends. The title and opening song on the album is a prime stylistic example of the blues connection and their biography that centered on the West Coast mecca club of roots music during the 1960s, the Ash Grove.
“I moved my family out to Southern California in the ’60s from Texas,” Jimmie Dale explains. “We hung out at the Ash Gove all we could. I got to be friends with Lightnin’ Hopkins, Son House, and Brownie McGee–later in Berkeley. The real heavy hitters of blues.” He then added a bit of trivia for San Diego music historians. “I had what I consider my first professional paying gig at the Heritage coffeehouse in Mission Beach. I think it was around 1966. I was paid something like $15, but it was the first time I’d ever been paid to play.” Notably, it was the Heritage where a young man named Tom Waits served as doorman in 1972.

At the same time, young Dave Alvin and his brother Phil, could make a freeway-close drive from Downey to the famous club on Melrose Ave. in Los Angeles where they both received enough of a musical educational in 1979 to form the now-legendary Blasters, one of the finest roots-blues bands to hail from Southern California. From the Ash Grove days, the Alvin brothers grew a legacy of music with the Blasters that extended to L.A.’s New Wave and Punk scenes in the days to come. It was music that was grounded in blues, country, folk, and rock. Much of the music they heard was born along the roadhouses and cotton fields between Lubbock and Downey and transported there by artists like Lightning Hopkins and Son House.

Meanwhile, by the early ’70s, in Lubbock, three now-also legendary high school friends–Butch Hancock, Joe Ely, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore–met up. But, they soon found their way to the stream of great American music through their own unique inspirations. In 1972, they formed the Flatlanders, recorded a commercially unsuccessful album and then split up for more than 20 years. According to Gilmore the music that drew them together was saturated in country-western, blues, and folk and the unlikely lure of eastern philosophy. The three of them became drawn to Zen Buddhism and Hinduism through their curiosity for something more than the dogma of fundamentalist Bible-belt religion that permeated Lubbock. Jimmie Dale would come to be known as a hillbilly Zen artist whose veins ran with the West Texas wind and the music of his place and time.

Like two distant cousins whose lives run on parallel paths, Alvin and Gilmore both developed strong solo careers following their legendary bands. In 1987, after short stints with L.A.’s premier punk band X, the Flesh Eaters, and the Knitters, Dave Alvin released his debut solo album, the critically successful Romeo’s Escape. It would be followed by The King of California–an all acoustic album–and the Grammy-winning Public Domain: Songs from the Wild Land.

Jimmie Dale Gilmore came on his solo career in a characteristically roundabout and mystical way. In the years after the Flatlanders, he studied and practiced eastern religion. According to his website he “joined an Ashram in New Orleans, then moved to Denver, worked as janitor in a synagogue, and did not record another album for 16 years. In 1980, Gilmore returned to Austin, where he began playing regular gigs in local clubs.” In 1988, his first solo album, Fair & Square, was released. It was followed by his self-titled album, After Awhile, and Spinning Around the Sun. The albums included original songs like his classics “Dallas,” and “Tonight I Think I’m Gonna Go Downtown.” He also covered songs by his bandmates Joe Ely–who produced his first album–and Butch Hancock.

With such parallel legacies, the road between Downey and Lubbock does seem to be closer than ever with the release of the new album and the subsequent tour. What began with 12 acoustic tour dates has been re-born to a national tour with a band. The album is what Gilmore describes as an “unplanned, found treasure.” And it’s a project he’d like to return to. On the phone from the road between Buffalo and somewhere in Pennsylvania, he said, “It’s all kind of embryonic right now, almost too soon to say, and we’re enjoying this now. But, I’d really like to do another a record with more of our own songwriting together on it.”

The 11-song set includes the co-written title song “Downey to Lubbock” and an original Alvin song written for the album, the reflective “Billy the Kid and Geronimo,” with the shadows of historic outlaws and the famous native American chief covering the two artists as they sing. The remaining carefully selected covers enhance the sense of California/Texas history and the organic blues bond between Alvin and Gilmore. Some are hard core clues like “Walk On,” a Ruth McGhee classic, and Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Buddy Brown’s Blues,” while others include the folk-pop of a ’60s classic, “Get Together.” Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee” has never been interpreted with a more haunting feel than on this album. Alvin, continuing his love for California’s own John Stewart, faithfully recreates “July You’re a Woman” while the two of them jamming on Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” setting the R&B universe on fire again.

For Dave Alvin, a guitar-slinging singer-songwriter and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, a Flatlander Hillbilly Zen poet, this collaborative adventure is symbolized in the road trip between Texas and California. The album and live shows create a musical wake-up call to the kind of celebration that is an intricate part of what it means to be a roots-rocker and a country-blues artist. Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Dave Alvin have realized this in a way that illuminates the way for everyone who has ever traveled the road that waits for us between Downey, Lubbock, and beyond.

Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore come to the Belly Up on Wednesday, July 25.

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