10 Minutes with the Alvin Brothers
How a near-death experience became a Big Bill Broonzy tribute
By Jim Caligiuri,
1:30PM, Thu. Aug. 7, 2014
In 2012, while touring with the Blasters in Spain, Phil Alvin died and was brought back to life. Dave Alvin co-fronted said L.A. roots-rock powerhouse with his brother until 1986 when he quit, their relationship having always been on the rocky side. That near-death incident led them to finally bury the hatchet.
The resulting collaboration, Common Ground, a tribute to the songs of bluesman Big Bill Broonzy (1893-1958), has drawn rave reviews, with many declaring it the best album of 2014. Here’s part of a long phoner I had with the brothers. They cram the Continental Club a week from today: Thursday, August 14.
Austin Chronicle: I remember seeing the Blasters in the Eighties with R&B saxophone legend Lee Allen. You’ve always tried to bring musicians like that to people’s attention, and you’ve done it again with Big Bill Broonzy.
Dave Alvin: We’ve always tried to expose our fans to things they should hear. That’s part of the mission statement – for roots musicians to pay tribute to their roots. When we put the band together that was our deal. We’d cover Junior Parker, Carl Perkins, Howlin’ Wolf, and whoever else. We were record collectors, and that music had an emotion we latched on to.
AC: It seems a lot of people have lost their way in terms of what they listen to and what’s considered listenable.
DA: There’s just so much music. It’s hard to cut through everything. Since we were little record collectors it always had an emotional ring to us. We figured we weren’t that strange – a little strange – but that the music would resonate with other people that hadn’t been exposed to it.
Someone like Big Bill, there’s several things going on there. People wouldn’t think of him when they think of prewar blues. They think of Robert Johnson. He’s gotten famous because of his genius level talent, but also for the mythology that goes along with it. But at the time, Big Bill was a star in the blues world and Robert Johnson was a relative unknown. One of the reasons we made the record is because he tends to be downplayed. In my opinion, there’s Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, the Carter Family, and Big Bill Broonzy: the four pillars of the Parthenon of American roots music.
AC: When you presented this record to the label were they skeptical about its appeal? I’m sure they trusted your instincts, but the concept sounds like a hard sell.
Phil Alvin: No, we had an EP and when they listened to it they wanted more.
DA: We recorded five songs, and that was the original idea. When they heard it they came back and said, “How about a full album?”
I think it touches on a few levels that they sensed instantly. On one hand, yes, it’s an homage to Bill Broonzy. On the other, it’s an homage to family and brotherly love. I get a lot of that at shows now. Guys have been coming up to me and saying, “I haven’t talked to my brother in 20 years. I got this record and I called my brother.” That kind of stuff.
AC: Are you surprised by the reaction you’re getting? Everyone I know that’s heard it raves about how good it is.
PA: I’m surprised, but apparently you can do what you want and do what you like and hope that it works out and it has. That’s good news.
AC: Phil, I understand that when you were young you took harmonica lessons from folk/blues great Sonny Terry. How did that come about?
PA: My mother was a great person. She’d drive us anywhere. Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee were playing at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles, so I asked her to drive me there. I go inside and see Big Joe Williams, who was sitting there drinking some wine. I asked him to introduce me to Sonny Terry. He did and Sonny was gracious. I asked him for a harmonica lesson and he said, “Yes, $10 a lesson.” This was maybe 1965 or 1966.
I paid him for lessons quite a few times. My mother would drive me to the Lido Hotel in Hollywood where they would stay. I did that seven or eight times. We stayed friends until he died. It was a great time, but I’ve forgotten everything that he taught me [laughs].
AC: What one record would you suggest to people who are interested in finding out about Big Bill Broonzy? Where do you start?
DA: It’s in and out of print, but there’s a record called Big Bill’s Blues on Epic. I think it came out in the late Sixties, but it’s a lot of his stuff from the late Thirties, early Forties, and – this is important for a lot of people – it’s not too scratchy.