Roots Inspired

Dave and Phil Alvin get back to where their heart is in Big Bill Broonzy

As Dave Alvin tells the story, it all started the day his older brother Phil brought home a Big Bill Broonzy record.

As kids, the brothers who would go on to form The Blasters, drawing together roots music and punk, found themselves entranced by Broonzy, a towering figure in blues from the '20s until his death in 1958.

In fact, Broonzy was the only thing the Alvins never argued about. So when a death scare pushed the brothers to make their first record together since 1985, a tribute to Big Bill Broonzy was in order.

"I decided if I was to write 10 or 12 songs for me and my brother to sing, it would take 10 years, so let's go back to square one," says Alvin from his home in California. "I told him 'Let's go back to the day you brought home that Big Bill Broonzy record.' He was someone who we'd admired since we were little kids. And he's someone who not only influenced us, but there's also the sentimental attachment."

The resulting album, "Common Ground: Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy," was released in June on Yep Roc and has earned a Grammy nomination for Best Blues Album.

"With a lot of our musical heroes, to do a tribute or homage record you would have to sound like them. Guys we knew growing up, Big Joe Turner, Lightning Hopkins and people like that, their sound was so personal. You'd basically have to imitate them to pay tribute," Alvin says. "With Big Bill, he certainly had his own way of playing and his own style, but he had the advantage of having great songs and great songs can be interpreted in a variety of ways. We had 30 years of great songs to choose from that we could reinterpret whatever way we wanted. On the record, there's a hodgepodge of styles and that's because in one way or another, Bill was involved in many different blues styles."

The impetus for "Common Ground" was a phone call Alvin got from Spain in June 2012. Phil had been rushed to the hospital after an infection from an abscessed tooth caused his throat to swell shut.

"My brother died two years ago. He was dead somewhere between 5 to 15 minutes, we don't know exactly," he says. "I got a phone call from Spain saying, 'Your brother's dead.' And then there was about an hour of 'No, he's in a coma,' 'No he's brain dead.' He had to be revived twice. In that hour of confusing phone calls, you sit there and think about regrets and one of my regrets was my brother and I never made this record.

"We grew up collecting records together, having all sorts of adventures finding old 78s and old 45s. When we were kids, that's how you found this music. You wanted to hear certain blues or country artists, especially people from the '20s, '30s and '40s, you had to find the old 78. We were extremely close doing that and we never made a record for those two kids, so I just wanted to make a record that's just me and Phil," he says.

Not long after Phil returned from Spain, the Alvins' adopted brother died out of the blue. Just a few years earlier, Alvin lost his best friend, the former Tucson musician and country-soul pioneer Chris Gaffney, to cancer.

"I never quite recovered from that," he says. "I said, 'You know, Phil, we may not be immortal. So we better do this and we better do this fast.'"

So the brothers, now 59 and 61, hit the studio for "Common Ground," recording in an old studio that had been used for movie sound effects in the 1930s. The Alvins set up in one small room and just hit record.

"Some of these songs my brother had been singing since the say he brought that record home. For him, he'll have always sung this, so it's no big deal," Alvin says. "He has a magnificent voice for this type of music and he's a great interpreter. Every night reinforces my admiration for Big Bill Broonzy and my admiration for my brother.

"We've both changed a lot since the Blaster days," he says. "Our taste in music hasn't changed. But let's put it this way: There's more mutual respect than there was in the Blaster days. That's when I was the little brother and he was the big brother – 'Shut up!' 'Don't tell me to shut up!' That doesn't exist any more."

"Making the album we only had one disagreement over just one note, an F-sharp," he says. "We argued nicely and then I went home and got the Big Bill Broonzy record from '29 and listened to it and damn it, Phil was right."

Alvin says that even in their younger days, the brothers thought of themselves as being part of a tradition.

"When we were little kids, my brother and I followed around the local blues guys who lived in LA. We literally followed guys like Big Joe Turner and T-Bone Walker around like we were Deadheads," he says. "That shaped us. They were our mentors and we were kind of apprentices."

And still getting together to play roots and blues music so long after those days just seems right. That's a big part of why the music is so enduring, generation to generation, Alvin says.

"Lets put it this way: 10 years ago, Britney Spears was the biggest thing on Earth. I couldn't name you one of her songs if you paid me and that's pop music. Contemporary pop is basically disposable, and philosophically, that may be a good thing. It's not like we're out there doing Katy Perry. You can play roots music pretty proudly no matter what your age is," Alvin says. "Roots music tends to have an inner core that is indestructible. It has good times and it has bad times, but it tends to survive."

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