Two Americana music veterans whose paths have crossed for nearly half a century — even before they knew one another — are teaming up for their first recording as a duo, a project that brings Southern California native Dave Alvin together with esteemed West Texas singer-songwriter Jimmie Dale Gilmore.
The pair recently joined forces to record the forthcoming album “Downey to Lubbock,” the title referring to their hometowns. The Times is premiering one of the new collection’s original songs, “Billy the Kid and Geronimo,” about an imagined meeting between the two 19th century outlaws whose lives became the stuff of legend in the American West.
“I thought Jimmie and I needed something to sing together,” Alvin, 62, said in an interview shortly after getting home from a recent round of tour dates with Gilmore, who is a decade older. “I’d had the song in pieces. Usually when I write the semi-historical mythical songs, there’s at least five other verses laying around — like old folks songs themselves.
“I write in a flurry, then go back and say, ‘We don’t need this, we don’t need that, we don’t need to know what color his socks were,” he said with a laugh. “I like it — of course, it’s historically inaccurate because it never happened. … I like dialogues about archetypes and guilt and all that.”
Alvin tackles the vocals for the lines expressing the imagined views of Billy the Kid, a.k.a. William Bonney a.k.a. William Henry McCarty Jr., the young gunslinger infamous for killing 21 people and who was famously shot to death at age 21 by Sheriff Pat Garrett.
Gilmore, who is part Native American, voices the thoughts Alvin wrote for Geronimo, the Chiricahua Apache chief who was one of the last Native American leaders to abandon his resistance against white colonization of the American Southwest:
Billy The Kid said, "We're just the same.
We're cursed and we're damned as they whisper our names…”
Geronimo said, “No, We’re not the same, for the harm I have done, I feel great shame
“But we’ll pay the same price for the blood on our hands”
Alvin sounded especially thrilled to have Gilmore sing the Geronimo part. “He’s got native blood on both sides, and I guess I was a kid at one time, so there you go.”
The album is due from Yep Roc Records on June 1, the same day they start a joint tour in Houston. The trek will occupy them for most of June and July — bringing them to Southern California July 25 at the Belly Up in Solana Beach and July 26 at the Troubadour in West Hollywood.
“I first met Jimmie probably 27 years ago — maybe more,” Alvin said. “Tom Russell [another former L.A.-based singer-songwriter] had put together a songwriter-traveling-circus kind of show with Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale” — who had played together with Joe Ely in the fabled 1970s West Texas trio the Flatlanders — “and Tom and me and Steve Young and Katy Moffatt. As we rolled along with picked up Lucinda Williams and some other folks.
“I’d heard of him, mentioned in a kind of whispered status, but when we met, I discovered he was a really nice guy and we kind of clicked,” Alvin said. “ There were certain complexities to him musically that took a while to figure out — like I knew he was influenced in many ways by blues stuff. A couple of years after that, I heard him pull out a Blind Lemon Jefferson number. There are not many people who do Blind Lemon.”
Alvin also discovered much later that the two of them had been hanging around the venerable 1960s L.A. folk-blues club the Ash Grove during the same period and likely attended some of the same shows, unbeknownst to each other.
“I probably came up to his belt buckle at that point,” Alvin said, acknowledging how he and his older brother, Phil, had started seeking out celebrated folk and blues musicians when they were still passionate teenage music fans from Downey.
“There’s a Lightnin’ Hopkins song on the album because Jimmie had heard Lightnin’ do it at the Ash Grove,” he said, referencing “Buddy Brown’s Blues.” “He dropped that one in one night on stage, and when I picked my jaw off the floor, we started talking and figured we might have been there at the same time.”
That would have occurred well before the Alvins formed their high-octane roots music band, the Blasters.
They also included “Seven Bridges Road” writer Young’s song “Silverlake” and found out each felt a sense of proprietary connection to the song, which Young wrote about the neighborhood adjacent to Echo Park, where Young and Alvin once lived. Young, who died in 2016, long ago told Alvin he wrote it for him but also told Gilmore that he yearned to hear him sing it.
“I cut it five years ago,” Alvin said, “but I never released it. That’s really worked out for the best. Steve may have written it for me, but he wrote it for Jimmie to sing, and he’s right. All these old songs, shared experiences, historical and sociological things come out of that space between our two hometowns.”
Alvin and Gilmore collaborated on the title track, which highlights those areas of commonality. They’ve also recorded “The Gardens,” a song written by Alvin’s best friend and former band mate, Orange County singer-songwriter Chris Gaffney, who died in 2008 of cancer.
“I had to do it,” he said. “It’s coming up on the 10th anniversary of Chris’ death, and as we all are about some passings, I’m still mourning that one. And it’s a great song. As the record was shaping up, it kinda captures the idea of Downey to Lubbock and what’s in between, which is where most of these songs reside in one way or another.”