By Eleni P. Austin
In the food world, there are certain pairings that go together naturally: Jack & Coke, pickles and ice cream (what, if it’s good enough for pregnant Lucy Ricardo, it’s good enough for you), champagne and caviar, lox and bagels. In the Record business that kind of symbiosis is few and far between. Obviously on the male-female side there’s Johnny & June, Sonny & Cher, Gram & Emmylou and Ike & Tina. If you want man-on-man action, it’s a much shorter list: Merle Haggard & Willie Nelson, Elvis Costello & Burt Bacharach, maybe Darrell Scott & Tim O’Brien. Sometimes these combinations feel organic and inspired, sometimes more like an arranged musical marriage, (Hey, Sting & Shaggy: pay attention). Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore land in the “inspired” column.
Born in 1955, Dave Alvin, along with his older brother Phil, grew up in the small bedroom community of Downey, California. A suburb of Los Angeles, Downey is best known as the birthplace of the Beach Boys and the Carpenters. Needless to say, Dave and Phil had different musical touchstones. Thanks to the influence of an early cousin the brothers became passionate about Blues, Folk, R&B and Rockabilly before they hit puberty.
By their early teens they had made myriad pilgrimages to the legendary Ash Grove club in L.A., meeting musical heroes like Muddy Waters and Big Joe Turner, watching legends like Rev. Gary Davis and Lightnin’ Hopkins perform. Although they both attended college, and Phil had begun teaching mathematics, their shared passion for music only increased. In 1979 the pair recruited drummer Bill Bateman and bassist John Bazz and formed the Blasters. Hitting the fertile L.A. club scene, the band began to make a name for themselves, pioneering a Roots Rock style that incorporated all their seminal influences. Although Phil was a natural lead singer, and became the very recognizable “voice” of the band, Dave emerged as a protean songwriter, kind of becoming the Blasters’ heart and soul.
Championed by Punk pioneers X, the Blasters secured a deal from the iconic indie label, Slash. All told, the band released four excellent studio albums and a live EP before calling it quits in 1985. Dave briefly played in the Knitters,
a Country Side project spearheaded by some of the members of X. When guitarist Billy Zoom left X, Dave stepped in on guitar and Vocals for their sixth album, See How We Are.
Since he embarked on a solo career in 1987, Dave has released 13 albums in 30 years. He’s also reconvened with the Blasters a few times and most recently collaborated with his brother Phil, on two records that feature their interpretations of favorite Blues Classics.
Although 10 years Dave’s senior, Jimmie Dale’s musical route has been more circuitous and less prolific. A product of the Texas Panhandle, Jimmie Dale was born in Amarillo in 1945 and raised in Lubbock. His influences included Hank Williams, Sr., Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, plus hometown heroes like Buddy Holly and Waylon Jennings. By the ‘60s, he had immersed himself in the sounds of Bob Dylan and the Beatles.
Along with fellow future Texas troubadours Joe Ely and Butch Hancock, he formed the Flatlanders in the early 1970s. A seminal Country-Rock hybrid, they released one well-received, but poorly distributed album in 1972. Available in one format, eight-track (Seriously!), like Big Star, it became a musical lodestar for future alt.country bands like Uncle Tupelo and the Jayhawks.
Following the dissolution of the band, Jimmie Dale began a spiritual quest. He wandered away from music, joining an Ashram in New Orleans and then relocated with them to Denver, where he worked as a janitor at a synagogue.
After a nearly 15 year absence, Jimmie Dale detoured off this devotional path and launched a solo career. In the last 30 years he has released eight records and periodically toured with the Flatlanders. Ironically, he is probably best known as “Smokey,” the pacifist bowler in Coen Brothers cult classic film, “The Big Lebowski.” A fellow bowler, he draws the ire of John Goodman’s character, Walter Sobchak, when his toe steps over the lane demarcation. (“Smokey, this is not ‘Nam. This is bowling. There are rules”).
Dave and Jimmie Dale first became acquainted when they toured together as part of a singer-songwriter caravan that included Katy Moffat, Joe Ely, Steve Young and Lucinda Williams. Bonding over their shared affinity for the Blues they realized that, unbeknownst to them, their paths had crossed at some of those seminal Ash Grove shows. In 2017 the pair teamed up for a series of shows. Pleased with the response, they decided to collaborate on a record together. The result is Downey To Lubbock.
The title track opens the album and alone is worth the price of admission. Rattlesnake percussion shakes and stutters beneath coiled guitar riffs, tensile bass, and shards of bottleneck and sidewinder harmonica. Splitting the difference between a standard origin story and a shaggy dog saga, Dave and Jimmie Dale trade verses sharing details from their years making music And cris-crossing the country. Dave starts the conversation.
“I’m a wild blue Blaster from a sunburnt California town, and I got a loud Stratocaster that can blow any roadhouse down/You know I’ve been up to the mountain and I’ve looked for the promised land, I’ve been to the Ash Grove and shook Lightnin’s hand, now I’m leavin’ tonight Downey to Lubbock bound.” Jimmie counters “I’m an old flatlander from the great high plains, I like wanderlust and wonder, West Texas wind blows through my veins, but it seemed like California was the place to be for a Hippie Country singer that was me/But I’m leaving tonight, man, I’m Lubbock to Downey bound.”
Rather than write an album of new music together, the pair pared down a list of favorites down to 12 essential tracks. Accordingly, four songs mine the rich Blues tradition that inspired each man to become a musician.
It’s safe to assume that when the B-52’s first entered the Love Shack, Lightnin’ Hopkins “Buddy Brown’s Blues” was blasting out of the jukebox. Opening with brittle bottleneck acoustic licks and Jimmie Dale’s warbly Texas twang, it feels like the very definition of Country Blues, before the tempo accelerates wildly locking into a Roadhouse groove. Rollicking piano chords, scorching electric guitar and a 12-bar beat underscore honking tenor and baritone saxophones. Jimmie Dale sounds suitably salacious as he boasts “I got somethin’ to tell you baby make the hair rise on your head, I got a new way of lovin’ baby makes the springs strain on your bed.”
“KC Moan” is appropriately swampy and foreboding, powered by scratchy acoustic riffs, roiling bass, a kick-drum rhythm and high lonesome lap steel. Jimmie Dale’s mournful mien is lifted by Dave’s electric solos which pivot from barbed to rumbling to fiercely pyrotechnic.
The duo soup up Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy, supplanting it’s (Big) Easy-going groove with a barn-burner big beat, barrelhouse piano, fluttery accordion and a blistering guitar solo that the heat positively melts the turntable. A seminal R&B hit from 1952, prurient lyrics like “…I give you all of my money, but you just won’t treat me right/You like to ball every morning, don’t come home ‘til late at night,” advance a double standard between the sexes that still exists today.
Finally, “Stealin, Stealin,” the old Jug Band classic that dates back to the ‘20s is recast as a rollicking Bluegrass number, replete with cascading mandolin notes, bee-stung harmonica and an acoustic resonator guitar. Here the boys split the vocal duties and unite on the chorus of this cheerful ode to infidelity.
Dave and Jimmie Dale put their imprimatur on a couple of fairly famous songs, “Get Together” and “Deportee (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos).” The former is the late ‘60s chestnut that served as a gentle protest song during the Vietnam War. A plaintive plea for peace, it was recorded by The Byrds and Jefferson Airplane before the Youngbloods took it to #5 on the Billboard charts in 1969.
The song opens slowly as tentative electric guitar envelopes plangent acoustic riffs and a propulsive beat. Sadly, the lyrics’ entreaty for love and understanding; “You hold the key to love and fear all in your trembling hand/Just one key unlocks them both, it’s there at Your command,” don’t feel like a quaint relic from the past, but an urgent message that should be heeded right now. Jimmie Dale’s hopeful tone is shaded by Cindy Wasserman’s sympathetic harmonies and the song’s inherent syrupiness is undercut by Dave’s acid wash guitar solo.
The latter is a quintessential Folk/Protest song written by Woody Guthrie and popularized by Pete Seeger, (it has since been recorded by everyone from the Byrds to Dolly Parton to Bruce Springsteen). It is based on the true, tragic 1948 plane crash in Northern California that killed migrant farm workers.
Dave and Jimmie Dale’s version walks the tightrope between fragile heartbreak and bitter indignation. Mournful Spanish guitar, brushed percussion and tart organ colors unfurl in ¾ time. The lyrics give symbolic names to the unknown dead; “Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita, adios mis amigos, Jesus and Maria…,” thus highlighting America’s inhumane indifference. It’s a story that still resonates today.
The album’s best tracks display a quiet chemistry between Dave and Jimmie Dale that just can’t be faked. “Silverlake,” is a South of the border shuffle accented by courtly acoustic guitar, wistful organ notes and wheezy, conjunto-flavored accordion. Originally written and recorded by the late great Steve Young, (best known for the song “Seven Bridges Road, which the Eagles covered on their 1980 live record) it’s a bittersweet homage to The Los Angeles enclave that is currently a hipster haven, but was originally a multi-cultural neighborhood where many L.A. transplants found inexpensive lodgings as they pursued their musical dreams.
“July, You’re A Woman” is a sweet romantic ramble anchored by a triple time tattoo, twinkly mandolin runs and a sugar rush of acoustic guitar. Dave’s burnished baritone is warm and inviting as he attempts keep his ardor in check; “I can’t hold it on the road, when you’re sitting right beside me and I’m drunk out of my mind merely from the fact that you are here/And I have not been known as the Saint of San Joaquin, and I’d just as soon right now pull over to the side of the road and show you what I mean.” The song was originally written and recorded in the late ‘60s by John Stewart, best known for his tenure with Folk-Pop stalwarts the Kingston Trio and as the composer of the Monkees hit, “Daydream Believer.”
As a tribute to Dave’s nearly lifelong best friend Chris Gaffney, (who tragically passed away a decade ago after losing his valiant battle with liver cancer), they offer up a tender reading of his song “The Gardens.”
The lilting Latin melody is accented by Norteno-flavored accordion, resonator guitar and a thwoking rhythm. The opening couplet; “when the sun goes down and the heat stays on, young men fight and carry on, it’s just a way of life down here in the gardens,” sets the scene. Turf wars and gang rituals turn a neighborhood into a war zone. Dave takes the lead here, his gruff vocals suffused with heartbreak.
Finally, “Billy The Kid And Geronimo” is a new Dave Alvin composition that imagines a meeting between the teenage gunslinger/outlaw and the revered Apache warrior in a barroom in New Mexico. Honeyed acoustic riffs, plush organ fills, rustic harmonica, whoosh-y accordion ride roughshod over a clickity-clack rhythm. Each man shares his story and comes to the conclusion that “We’ll pay the same price for the blood on our hands.”
The album closes with the sanctified Soul of “Walk On.” Churchy piano notes collide with wily guitar riffs on this Blues standard originally performed by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Call and response gives way to robust testaments to the power of perseverance; “The night may be long, one thing I know, it’s always darkest before the dawn, walk on.” It’s a rambunctious end to a wonderful record.
Dave and Jimmie Dale were ably assisted on this record by David J. Carpenter and Brad Fordham on bass, Don Heffington and Lisa Pankrantz on drums, Nick Forrester on guitar, mandolin and lap steel, Jeff Tumes on tenor and baritone saxophone and Skip Edwards on keys. Special recognition should go to shapeshifting renaissance legend Van Dyke Parks on accordion and Cindy Wasserman on harmony vocals.
Dave and Jimmie Dale lay it all out on the title track; “40 years on the highway, livin’ on dreams and gasoline, somehow still surviving on Advil and Nyquill and nicotine/Every city and every heartbreak, every hopeful kiss, every road I’ve travelled has led me to this.” Hopefully this partnership will continue to add mileage. It’s definitely a ride worth taking.