Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin‘s Common Ground celebrates legendary early bluesman Big Bill Broonzy with classic after classic (“I Feel So Good,” “How Do You Want It Done?”). The excellent collection recently earned the reunited duo a Grammy nomination for best blues album.
“The title is just a play on the ‘battlin’ Alvin brothers’ mythology,” Dave Alvin explains. “If you can’t agree on things, what can you agree on? Well, we never disagree on certain heroes of ours. We never argue over Big Bill Broonzy and what he means to us.”
Common Ground marks the brothers’ first studio recording together in three decades. Remember: The Alvins earned their combustible reputation as leaders of the groundbreaking 1980s Los Angeles alt-country outfit the Blasters, but haven’t played together since the band’s implosion.
“David called me in November last year and said, ‘Do you want to make a Big Bill Broonzy CD?’” Phil Alvin says. “I said, ‘Sure.’”
CMT Edge: Were you surprised by the Grammy nomination?
Phil Alvin: I was, but I don’t know if David was.
Dave Alvin: Yes and no. … When I won a Grammy in 2000 for a record called Public Domain, all traditional American folk songs, it was nominated in traditional American folk. Sometimes when you do more eclectic music — like on my regular albums — a lot is blues, some is country, other is whatever. You tend not to fit into any category. This is all Big Bill Broonzy songs. It’s pretty much a blues album. (laughs) I thought maybe we’d get nominated but it’s always a surprise.
So, how did you discover Big Bill?
Dave Alvin: We’ve been listening to music all our lives. We were surrounded by music as little kids and we had eclectic tastes and we were shaped by that, but there are certain artists that really hit it out of the ballpark for us. Big Bill Broonzy was one of those from a fairly early age. I think my brother was 13 years old when he brought home the first Big Bill Broonzy record we heard. It’s been a lifelong thing.
Describe what sets him apart from the other bluesmen.
Dave Alvin: Well, he was older. We had a bunch of records by what would be considered post-World War II artists like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Sonny Boy Williamson and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, but we hadn’t really heard the pre-war music. The first record Phil brought home was an album of Big Bill Broonzy’s late 1930s recordings.
It was a combination of a lot of things. His voice. It was gregarious and friendly even when the lyrics were violent. His voice was welcoming you in. Then it was his guitar playing and then the songs, which were solid songwriting. “Wow, this guy’s great.”
Explain what drew you to “I Feel So Good” in particular.
Phil Alvin: Well, again, Big Bill Broonzy’s voice and “I Feel So Good” is a great title.
Dave Alvin: Yeah, it’s pretty self-explanatory. (laughs)
Phil Alvin: Also, as we were saying, we hadn’t heard pre-war blues, and to hear the piano and guitar together like that for the first time was impressive. Big Bill’s voice — you can tell he feels so good. (laughs) That was one of the first songs that I remember singing.
Dave Alvin: Yeah, you know, it’s pre-rock ‘n’ roll rock ‘n’ roll.
Explain how you approach putting your own stamp on these songs.
Dave Alvin: Well, some are close to the original, but when my brother and I get together and play music, it tends to sound a certain way. They’re not going to sound like Bill Broonzy. He had a 30-year recording career and if people want to discover Big Bill Broonzy, they want Big Bill Broonzy records. My idea was that I wanted it to sound like the Alvin brothers playing his music.
Which songs does that apply most to?
Dave Alvin: Well, certain songs like “Truckin’ Little Woman.” Some people say, “That sounds a lot like the Blasters.” Well, duh. (laughs) My brother and I are the Blasters! It’s just personalizing them. It’s a tribute to the spirit as well as the music.
Certain songs you had to use the riffs that Big Bill had like “How Do You Want It Done?” You had to do the Big Bill riff because, really, that’s the song. On other songs the lyrics are the song. So, we could take something like “Southern Flood Blues” and I could rearrange it drastically so it sounds more like something I might’ve written.
What did you discover about yourselves as musicians while interpreting these songs?
Phil Alvin: I discovered that David has become a really exquisite guitarist and a good producer. So, I tip my hat to him there. Other than that, it was pretty straightforward.
Dave Alvin: I always knew that my brother could sing the hell out of these songs. It was really easy to work together. We’ve grown in maturity and … what’s the other word I want?
Phil Alvin: Perspective.
Dave Alvin: Perspective. That’s a good one.
Will you do something else together after this record?
Dave Alvin: Oh, we’ll do something else, yeah.
Phil Alvin: Yeah, I think so.
Dave Alvin: We haven’t killed each other yet. That’s a big deal. (laughs)