Dave Alvin’s King of California, first issued in 1994, marked a pivotal point in Alvin’s career. Known primarily as a rocker from his days with X, The Blasters, and even his own solo material up until this point, the singer-guitarist found himself in an acoustic folk-like setting with multi-instrumentalist Greg Leisz at the helm as producer. He discovered that he could use his deep baritone, albeit limited range, voice well in this setting, especially with Leisz literally and figuratively pushing all the right buttons. Alvin reflects, “It was ironic that a guy who was known as a loud guitar player and questionable singer, his best seller was his acoustic album.” So, to mark the 25th anniversary the album is remastered and issued with three previously unreleased tracks. It’s also being issued on vinyl for the first time.
The album was recorded in Los Angeles the day after the historic 1994 Northridge earthquake. The album was a mix of new songs, covers, and new versions of previous Alvin songs. The familiarity with tunes like “Fourth of July” and others helped. In fact, songs written and performed during the ‘80s included “Barn Burning” from American Music, “Bus Station,” and “(I Won’t Be) Leaving” from The Blasters Non-Fiction (1983), “Little Honey,” written with John Doe, and feature on the Blasters’ Hard Line (1985), and “The Fourth of July” which appeared on both X’s See How We Are (1987) and Alvin’s solo Romeo’s Escape (1987). “Every Night About This Time” also appeared on the latter album. “Border Radio” came from The Blasters debut in 1981.
The title track is a readymade folk ballad, written for his mother, in which an aspiring suitor heads west to make his fortune in the wild, early days of the Golden State. It, like everything else was basically recorded old school style, with the five musicians or so in a circle. Other covers on the album include Tom Russell’s terrific “Blue Wing,” one of the best story songs ever written in this genre; Dallas singer-pianist Whistlin’ Alex Moore’s “West Texas Blues,” retitled “East Texas Blues,” Memphis Slim’s “Mother Earth,” and a George Jones song, “What Am I Worth” rendered as a duet with the inimitable Syd Straw. There’s also a co-write with Rosie Flores, the touching “Goodbye Again.” This album holds up remarkably well and would skyrocket to the top of the roots charts if it were released today. It’s just packed with gems.
To mark its anniversary though, it now includes some new material that was previously never released. “Riverbed Rag” has already been issued as a single and is an instrumental featuring Alvin’s acoustic guitar and Leisz’s awesome dobro. Also here is the best version of “Kern River” this writer has ever heard, Yes, it’s the same one from the Tom Russell- Dave Alvin tribute to Merle Haggard, Tulare Dust. Also included is one of the better songs, “The Cuckoo,”from the Alvin-produced Katy Moffatt album Loose Diamond.
From here Alvin went on to record several other highly acclaimed acoustic albums like Blackjack David, Public Domain, West of the West as well as many others with his various “Guilty” bands that blended both acoustic and electric. To say this marked a turning point for Alvin is a vast understatement. In effect, it rebooted his solo career.