[21 June 2011]
There are a lot of stories about the death of Johnny Ace, the handsome and charismatic R&B singer who shot himself at the height of his career back in 1954. Some say it was Russian roulette; others, including Big Mama Thornton, who was allegedly present, say it was a gun accident. Elvis recorded Ace’s posthumous hit, “Pledging My Love”, and Paul Simon wrote a wonderful tribute to the man via the view of a young fan in the song “The Late Great Johnny Ace”. But Dave Alvin has just written and recorded the best damn Johnny Ace song one could ever imagine, “Johnny Ace Is Dead”. Alvin recreates a ‘50s honkytonk atmosphere, propulsive rhythms, country roots, and urban blues, as he notes everything from record company honcho Don Robey’s publicity schemes to evoking Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” in reference to Big Mama. It’s an impressive achievement, and Alvin does so in a frantic four-and-a-half minutes, leaving the listener exhausted and begging for more.
Songs like “Johnny Ace Is Dead” have made Alvin somewhat of a saint in the Americana community. His recordings inspire great reverence. That has stood in the way sometimes of just having fun. Alvin knows how to rock out, but sometimes he puts this secondary to some larger theme. Not here on Eleven Eleven. These songs range from the serious to the silly, and come off as an assortment rather than a collection of what he has been up to lately. And like most musicians, he makes his money playing live. These songs also bear the hallmarks of being tried and tested.
That doesn’t mean Alvin is selling out or looking to be popular in the reductive sense. I mean, on at least two songs, he praises labor unions in strong terms, a controversial position these days. Alvin sings about African American women, illegal Mexican immigrants, and other outsiders with an emphatic understanding and passionate embrace of all people as distinctly human and unique. Plus, these individuals on the edge have more compelling stories than most others. And Alvin loves to tell stories.
He even turns personal stories into songs on the two cuts that feature guest male vocalists. He and his brother Phil, who used to be bandmates in the neo-rockabilly band the Blasters, poke gentle fun at each other and those fans who ask when they are going to get back together in the mocking “What’s Up With Your Brother?”. And Alvin and his good friend Chris Gaffney, now deceased, do an acoustic duet about taking life as it comes on “Two Lucky Bums”. The sweetness of these songs is cut by the sour edge of other material on the record, such as the haunting “No Worries Mija” or the harsh world of “Harlan County Line”.
The diversity of the material reveals that Alvin is engaged with the roots and branches of country, folk, rock, and the blues in fundamental ways. The melodies resemble old ones, but have been updated, while the lyrics tell of past tales heard, but are conveyed in a fresh manner. And best of all, Alvin sounds like he is having fun, even when he’s singing a sad song. He’s a true troubadour, in the best sense of the word.