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Liner Notables #9: Dave Alvin – West of the West

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Not an old album this time. I dragged myself kicking and screaming into the CD age for a spell to share some new-fangled liner notes from a favorite recent release. Liner Notable #9:

“While California doesn’t quite have the deep indigenous folk music traditions of Mississippi, Texas, or Georgia, it does boast a rich history of jazz, blues, R&B, country, surf, and early rock and roll. California has also produced more than its share of damned good songwriters.”

Paying tribute and playing interpretive craftsman to the hilt, California native Dave Alvin’s West of the West is a beautifully realized collection of songs — with liner notes more than up to a systematic task — from California-born or raised artists who’ve "at least had their first kiss or broken heart here.” But Alvin brings an American roots element to many of the songs, not only bringing in an amalgam of that “rich history,” but altering some songs beyond recognition; I didn’t quite recognize Jackson Browne’s “Redneck Friend” until about halfway through the bluesy revision.

Which kind of tells you that this year's West of the West, with its infusion of blues, folk, R&B and country, is not your quintessential coastal car-cruise music, SoCal style. No, this has more of an inland intrigue, perfect musical accompaniment for driving through the Central Valley or along the Eastern Sierras to Bishop and beyond. Yes, Brian Wilson’s “Surfer Girl” is represented here — in an exquisite gospel-tinged cover — but so are songs by John Stewart (San Diego), Tom Waits (Pomona), Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo and Louis Perez (Los Angeles), and the Bay Area’s Robert Hunter and John Fogerty, among others not so expressly linked to an overarching fun-in-the-sun Golden State sensation. And how about Bakersfield's Merle Haggard and under-the-radar Fresno folkie Jim Ringer? Reason enough to pop in West in the CD player as you're driving through the farm communities and oil towns of Highway 99.

With such an array of talent and artistry, Alvin admits to an initial difficulty in “Considering who to choose for the CD, from the famous and obscure deserving songwriters.” As a prime example of modern-day liner note writing, wherein the artist — not the promo copywriter — is free to introduce and expand upon how they decided what they decided, West's commentary alludes to Alvin's painstaking and fascinating methodology to such free-rein musical madness, while at the same time touching upon his vast knowledge of musical Californiana and arcana.  

The choice of "California Bloodlines," the first song on West, was no-brainer, though: "One afternoon in 1969, my mother and I were eating lunch at the kitchen table and watching a local L.A. daytime talk show on our black and white TV,” Alvin begins. “The host introduced a young singer/songwriter named John Stewart…” Alvin, in his "infinite 13-year old wisdom," fakes indifference to the Monkees' Stewart-penned “Daydream Believer,” but he really takes notice in a couple other songs:

    But then he did 'July, you're a Woman' and he sang the line, 'I have not been known as the Saint of San Joaquin.' My mother smiled and said, 'He's singing about where I'm from, the San Joaquin Valley. Then I paid closer attention. The TV host asked Stewart questions about songwriting, his time in The Kingston Trio and about growing up in California. I don't remember his answers but when he sang 'California Bloodlines' at the end of the show, I do remember my mother telling me, 'That's what you have, just like him, you've got California bloodlines.' Maybe that was when the idea for this CD first entered my mind."

Most of the other selections were filtered from a lifetime of diverse musical saturation and the encyclopedic knowledge garnered throughout his career with the roots and rockabilly-centered Blasters, a brief stint with punk upstarts X and Alvin's solo work. Indeed, the writers he’d been drawn to have “helped me define myself as a songwriter and as a Californian. I first heard their songs on jukeboxes and Top 40 AM Radio when I was a kid and on folk and underground radio as a teenager while others I heard sung live in smoky bars as an adult.”

The net result for the recording of West is compilation of songs by writers "shaped by California’s mix of cultures, beliefs, and attitudes, as well as by the oaks and redwoods, the cities and farmlands, the highways and barrooms, the ocean, mountains and deserts and the eternal hopes and disappointments of growing up in a mythical promised land.”

But it doesn’t stop there. One of the benefits of modern-day liner notes is that, in an effort to fully communicate from the heart as well as with cold hard facts, they so often come in the form of personal ruminations from the artist. Alvin writes with passion and inspiration about the road taken to get him to the recording of West of the West, but he also acknowledges the evolved and ever-developing nature of society and, by extension, music.

“The landscape,” Alvin notes, “that shaped these songwriters have vanished or changed drastically.” But whatever the outcome in forms or genres, he is optimistic about the range of possibilities that stem from such variegated potential:

    Right now, whether on a guitar or with a computer, on a cattle ranch near Alturus or in a garage in Orange County, in a shack in the Mendocino woods or a one room Hollywood apartment, or sitting somewhere at a kitchen table, somebody is writing the next generation of songs with California bloodlines.

And so that "California heartbeat in my soul" John Steward wrote about keeps beating on…

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