By Peter Blackstock
May 30, 2018
Alvin rose up with roots-rock group the Blasters, with whom he wrote the now-classic tune “American Music.” Gilmore first got noticed as a member of country-folk outfit the Flatlanders, with whom he wrote the now-standard song “Dallas.” Both ventured out on their own in the late 1980s and soon built impressive catalogs that received multiple Grammy nominations (Alvin won one, for 2000’s “Public Domain”).
So when Gilmore’s booking agent suggested a couple of years ago that they do a tour together, it seemed a natural fit. They’d become good friends over the years, meeting around 1990 as part of a songwriters’ tour and staying in touch ever since.
What they didn’t expect was the inspiration that struck almost immediately when they began touring. The eventual result was “Downey to Lubbock,” a collaborative album out this week on Yep Roc. They celebrate its release with a show on Saturday at Antone’s.
Their previous duo appearance here, in January 2017 at Stateside at the Paramount, was just a couple of nights into that fateful run. Even then, they’d already been struck by the depth of their bond as musicians.
“We said, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ll do some gigs, that’ll be fun,’” Alvin recalled over lunch with Gilmore at an Austin barbecue joint this spring. “But after one or two gigs it was like, ‘Oh, this is REALLY fun.’”
“We had this common interest in the history” of American music, Gilmore picks up the story. “We like knowing the progression of it — how did this style lead to this style, you know. Kind of the musicology of it.”
They also had a tendency to surprise each other, in ways that were creatively reinvigorating for both of them. They had a loose idea going in about how the shows would go, but they bypassed formal structure in favor of allowing each other to act on a whim.
“Each show was different. Each show was like a discovery,” Alvin recalled. “We quickly discovered that we had a common bond of music we both knew.”
Exhibit A was “Silverlake,” a gorgeous ballad that California songwriter Steve Young recorded on his 1993 album “Switchblades of Love.” It was almost contentious at first, as both Alvin and Gilmore had stories about how the late Young had “given” them the song.
Young wrote it for Alvin, as it turned out, but he’d specifically suggested to Gilmore a little later that Gilmore should sing the song. It was a signal that perhaps this collaboration should involve more than just a tour.
The dozen tracks on “Downey to Lubbock” — naturally, including “Silverlake” — range from gritty old-school blues to new material written for the album and even a revival of the 1960s touchstone “Get Together.” Collectively, the record is like a road map to the common ground where Alvin’s southern California and Gilmore’s West Texas intersect.
The title track serves as a mission statement upfront. Written specifically to define this partnership, it’s poetic geographical autobiography, with Alvin and Gilmore trading verses that tell their respective stories. “I’m a wild blues blaster from a sunburnt California town,” Alvin begins the first verse, leading into Gilmore’s flip side in the second verse: “I’m an old flatlander from the great high plains.” By the end, they’re singing to each other: “I know someday this old highway’s gonna come to an end/I know when it does you’re going to be my friend.”
What these friends didn’t know until they dug deeper was that they had ties reaching back well beyond their first meeting. On the title track of his 2004 album “Ashgrove,” Alvin sang of sneaking off at age 13 to the Ashgrove, a Hollywood blues club where legends such as Lightnin’ Hopkins regularly performed. As it turns out, Gilmore was at some of those same shows.
Ten years apart in age — Gilmore was born in 1945, Alvin in 1955 — they overlapped in Los Angeles in the late 1960s. Alvin was growing up in suburban Downey; Gilmore had moved out there from Lubbock with his first wife, Jo Carol Pierce. Vivid memories of those nights at the Ashgrove shows still linger for both of them.
That’s part of the reason “Downey to Lubbock” is grounded deeply in blues music. Alvin won his Grammy for a folk record, and Gilmore generally has been associated more with country. But they’re both plenty tuned in to the blues, and Alvin especially wanted to draw out that color in Gilmore’s voice.
“I wanted to get the rawer, rocking side of Jimmie Dale,” he says. “He’s usually had a song or two on a record (in that vein), but I thought, let’s really make a bluesy record here. Let’s take advantage of the fact that Jimmie is a great white blues singer.”
They dig in deep on several tracks. “K.C. Moan,” a traditional tune that dates back to the early 20th century, features haunting slide guitar and leads into Lloyd Price’s piano-driven “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” a 1952 R&B gem that kicks Gilmore’s vocal heat up a notch. Even rawer and more central to the duo’s blues bond is Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Buddy Brown’s Blues,” which repays their debt to the Houston blues legend both of them first saw in California.
Elsewhere, they broaden the horizons with songs that one or the other has held dear for decades. The border-flavored accordion tune “The Gardens” comes from a 1989 album by Alvin’s late, beloved bandmate Chris Gaffney. “Get Together,” a 1960s Chet Powers anthem immortalized by the Youngbloods, was one Gilmore pulled out as an encore tune during their tour last year. And Alvin has a crystal-clear memory of the first time he heard “July, You’re a Woman,” from onetime Kingston Trio fixture John Stewart’s landmark 1969 album “California Bloodlines.”
“I was home sick from school, and we had this little black-and-white TV on the kitchen table,” he begins. “My mom was making lunch and there was a show on channel 9. They had this songwriter on, John Stewart. He did ‘California Bloodlines,’ and he did ‘Daydream Believer,’ and it’s just him and an acoustic guitar. And he did ‘July, You’re A Woman,’ and it was just like, ‘Oh, this is amazing.’ That moment with my mom at the kitchen table stuck with me through my whole life.”
On the album, the song rises up like water from a wellspring, Alvin’s weathered voice out front with Gilmore laying back on harmonies as mandolin runs propel the tune through a splendid backdrop of acoustic rhythm guitar.
Though the record is mostly about unearthing old songs on which the duo found common ground, Alvin’s “Billy the Kid and Geronimo” is a major new addition to his songbook. An imagined late-1800s meeting in New Mexico between the young outlaw and the Native American warrior unfolds into a character study of Wild West mythology.
“I was going to co-write it with him, but he finished it,” Gilmore says. “And it was so good, I thought there was nothing I could add to it.” His contribution came in the studio: They trade verses back and forth, with Gilmore voicing Geronimo’s reflections to counter Alvin’s assertions (as Billy the Kid) that the two legends were cut from the same cloth.
The song fits perfectly on “Downey to Lubbock,” which is at its heart “a Southwest kind of record,” Alvin suggests. “It’s one of those Interstate 10 records.” On the map, Downey to Lubbock is a journey of about 1,100 miles. On tour, they’ll take the long way around, starting in Texas this weekend and winding their way through the east in June before an extended California jaunt in July.
Along the way, they’ll probably surprise each other some more. Alvin hesitates for a moment at that characterization: “I don’t know if ‘surprise’ is the right word.” Then he remembers the night on tour when Gilmore pulled out a Blind Lemon Jefferson tune “and he nailed it, vocally. That was pretty amazing. Yeah, surprise is good.”
Gilmore chimes in to offer up a slightly different word. “It occurred to me that it’s ‘delight.’ Delighted by something new.”
Dave Alvin & Jimmie Dale Gilmore
When: 9 p.m. June 2 (Colin Gilmore opens)
Where: Antone’s, 305 E. Fifth St.