American Songwriter / Lynne Margolis / December 20, 2016
Like most artists, Alejandro Escovedo has a long list of influences and esteemed contemporaries. But unlike most artists, he also calls several of them “collaborators.”
Velvet Underground hero John Cale produced Escovedo’s 2006 album, The Boxing Mirror; Tony Visconti, whose credits include T. Rex, Iggy Pop and David Bowie, helmed three in a row after that. Chuck Prophet co-wrote all three; Bruce Springsteen harmonized on Street Songs’ “Always A Friend.” When Escovedo’s label didn’t hear an album’s worth of songs for Real Animal, he asked Ian Hunter for help.
“I have a tape of Ian singing all my songs back to me, and they sound just like Mott the Hoople,” Escovedo recalls while sitting outside an Austin coffee shop one sunny afternoon. Despite his own accomplishments, which, at the time, included sharing management with Springsteen, Escovedo remembers feeling like a fan boy. He still doesn’t regard himself as a peer to those artists (except for Prophet).
Which is why “legend” status confounds him as much as it did when No Depression, the one-time alt-country/Americana bible, anointed him in 1998 as its first Artist of the Decade — two years early. In 2006, he also earned the Americana Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance. But he regards legends as posthumous entities, and hasn’t yet reconciled his mother’s disapproval of his career choice, or the fact that he stumbled into it. Escovedo didn’t even play guitar until he was 24, when a college film project about a band that couldn’t play spawned reality-imitates-art (pre-Spinal-Tap) punkers the Nuns. The San Francisco band opened for the Ramones and the Sex Pistols before dissolving.
“It wasn’t like I was this ambitious guy who was driven to be that. It kind of grew around me,” he says. But he rose to the challenge, shaping his influences into his own sound.
“You steal from genius, you become genius,” he jokes, paraphrasing Salvador Dali. But Escovedo’s latest release, Burn Something Beautiful, includes theft-free references to glam-rock, punk, grunge and vintage pop, plus plenty of feedback-filled rawk. And the occasional chiming Rickenbacker chord that could only come from Peter Buck, who co-produced with R.E.M. sideman Scott McCaughey. All three share songwriting credits.
They also maintain faith in the ethos of rock as rebellion. “We were into the soul and the spirit of rock and roll,” Escovedo says of the Nuns. “That meant everything. How well you played meant nothing.
“But we loved Jerry Lee Lewis,” he adds. “We loved George Jones, Hank Williams, James Brown — all the rebels of rock and roll. And soul music, and blues. Lightnin’ Hopkins, Blind Willie Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf. We loved all those people because they were outside the norm.”
His early-80s band Rank & File played cowpunk, well before alt-country was a term or future Bloodshot Records labelmates Old 97’s or Whiskeytown — or even the label — existed. Launched in New York City, the band moved in 1980 to Escovedo’s home state, Texas, seeking a country-music education in Austin. They found Lucinda Williams, Blaze Foley, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Nanci Griffith. Joe Ely and Doug Sahm made the deepest impressions.
“Doug was so musical, and he loved all the things I loved: cowboys, baseball, marijuana, the Giants. And I looked up to him because he was from my hometown, San Antonio. And Joe, because he was a rocker, and also a brilliant songwriter. And what a performer … It was a golden time for songwriters, and I learned more through them than I have from anyone.”