A singer, songwriter, and guitarist with a keen eye for the details of American life and a powerful and passionate performing style, Dave Alvin helped to kick-start the American roots rock scene in the early '80s with the band the Blasters, and has since gone on to a career as a solo performer, songwriter, producer, and sideman that's been as well respected as it is eclectic. Born and raised in Downey, California, Dave Alvin and his brother Phil Alvin were avid music fans since childhood, immersing themselves in vintage blues, country, and rockabilly sounds. Their passion led to them founding the Blasters, who played roots-inspired rock & roll with the energy and fire of punk rock, in 1979. With Dave as guitarist and principal songwriter, the Blasters became stars in Los Angeles and earned a devoted fan following internationally after the release of their self-titled 1981 album for Slash. Dave left the Blasters after their 1985 album, Hard Line, and launched his solo career with 1987's Every Night About This Time. Health problems sidelined Alvin for a spell, but after Dwight Yoakam scored a hit with Alvin's song "Long White Cadillac," he returned to action with 1991's Blue Blvd. He made a compelling acoustic effort with 1994's King of California, while he doubled down on his interest in traditional folk and rural blues with a pair of critically acclaimed releases, 1998's Blackjack David and 2000's Public Domain: Songs from the Wild Land. Through the 2000s, Alvin moved back and forth between electric and acoustic projects, and in 2014 he reunited with his brother Phil for Common Ground: Dave & Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy. He documented another memorable collaboration with 2018's Downey to Lubbock, recorded with Jimmie Dale Gilmore.
Born in Downey, California in 1955, Alvin was raised by a family of music fans, and as teenagers Dave and his older brother Phil immersed themselves in blues, rockabilly, and vintage country sounds, collecting rare records and attending nightclub performances by the likes of T-Bone Walker, Big Joe Turner, and Lee Allen. Like many fans, the Alvin brothers wanted to play music influenced by the sounds they loved, and in 1979 they formed the Blasters with fellow Downey residents Bill Bateman and John Bazz. Combining the revved-up energy of punk rock with an enthusiastic embrace of classic American sounds, the Blasters became a sensation in Los Angeles and won an enthusiastic cult following across the United States and Europe. However, the Blasters were unable to translate their critical respect and enthusiastic fan base into mainstream success, and in 1986 Dave left the band. Phil Alvin continued to front various lineups of the Blasters, and in 2002 Dave joined forces with Phil, Bill Bateman, and John Bazz for a short series of Blasters reunion shows.
While playing with the Blasters, Alvin had already displayed a broad range of enthusiasms with two side projects, Chris D.'s literate goth-punk collective the Flesh Eaters and the Knitters, an acoustic ensemble in which Alvin performed vintage country and folk numbers with John Doe and Exene Cervenka of X. Shortly after leaving the Blasters, Alvin joined X as lead guitarist after the departure of Billy Zoom; however, Alvin amicably left the group to work on a solo project shortly after the recording sessions for their album See How We Are. Alvin's first solo album, entitled Romeo's Escape in the United States and Every Night About This Time in England, added a purer country influence along with a larger side portion of the blues; while the album was critically well received, it didn't fare well in the marketplace, and Alvin was dropped by his American record label, Columbia. Alvin suffered health problems that sidelined him for a while, except for a wild tour with friends Mojo Nixon and Country Dick Montana as the Pleasure Barons, which was described as "a Las Vegas revue from acts who aren't going to be asked to play Vegas." (A live album was released of a second Pleasure Barons tour in 1993.)
In 1989, Dwight Yoakam scored a hit on the country charts with Alvin's song "Long White Cadillac," and Alvin used the royalties to start work on his second solo set, Blue Blvd. Released by the California-based roots-music label Hightone Records, Blue Blvd received enthusiastic reviews and sold well enough to reestablish Alvin as a significant artist in the roots rock scene. After releasing Museum of Heart in 1993, Alvin began to turn his attention to acoustic music with 1994's King of California, and over the next several years Alvin moved back and forth between hard-edged roots rock and more introspective acoustic material that still honored his influences (and allowed him to display a greater range as a vocalist). In 2000, Alvin recorded a collection of traditional folk and blues classics, Public Domain: Songs from the Wild Land, which earned him a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album. In 2004, Alvin signed with the upstart roots rock label Yep Roc Records, which released his album Ashgrove, a low-key but hard-edged set of blues and rock. It was followed in 2006 by West of the West and a year later by Live from Austin TX (a performance on Austin City Limits from 1999).
He changed his approach a bit with Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women, which was issued by Yep Roc in 2009, by recording with five women, and it seemed to revitalize him. Eleven Eleven, Alvin's first solo studio album of original material in some seven years, appeared in 2011, again on Yep Roc. Eleven Eleven included a duet with Phil Alvin on the tune "What's Up with Your Brother?," and in 2014 Dave and Phil recorded a full album together for the first time since Dave left the Blasters; Common Ground: Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy was a celebration of one of their first and strongest musical influences that found them both in strong form. The Alvin brothers supported Common Ground with a concert tour, and in 2015 Dave and Phil returned with a lively set of electric blues, Lost Time. In 2017, Dave joined forces with another roots music favorite, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, for a concert tour. The two were pleased with the results and went into the studio to cut a duo album, 2018's Downey to Lubbock.
When not busy recording his own music, Alvin has also worked as a producer for several other roots-oriented acts, including Tom Russell, the Derailers, and Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys, and he has collaborated with rockabilly legend Sonny Burgess. As a sideman, Alvin has recorded sessions with the likes of Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Little Milton, Katy Moffatt, and Syd Straw. ~ Mark Deming & Steve Leggett, Rovi