By Ross Altman, PhD

Dave and Jimmie 300px
Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Dave Alvin

Lubbock, Texas is one of those towns that would feel right at home in Stephen Vincent Benet’s classic poem, “American Names”, that gave us the line, “Bury my heart at Wounded Knee.” It shimmers brightly in every music lover’s imagination and memory, resonating with the whirlwind life of one of Rock and Roll’s greatest artists—one of its glorious pioneers—known to us all by just his first name: Buddy.

And it’s not Buddy Brown’s Blues, the track Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore have put on their new album Downey to Lubbock to pay homage to Lightnin’ Hopkins—whom they first heard at Ed Pearl’s legendary folk club The Ash Grove in West Hollywood—and which is a noteworthy part of the visual landscape on the back cover for their album, far west of both Downey and Lubbock. They gave a great performance of it at The Grammy Museum, recreating Lightnin’ Hopkins incandescent blues guitar riffs and vocal intensity—to the point that Jimmie Dale Gilmore comments after the song, “I’m glad I don’t have to sing that again: once a night is enough. When I was young I could do it all night, but no longer.” And then he turns to Dave Alvin sitting across from him with his Fender Stratocaster and adds, “If I could play guitar like that, I would!” Jimmie sings lead and high harmony vocals, plays rhythm guitar on his beautiful, black Gibson Hummingbird, and plays harmonica on and off; Dave plays lead guitar and sings occasional lead vocals during the whole evening. He is so gifted a guitarist he can make a Strat sound like a magical folk instrument when he wants to, as in his late story song about Billy the Kid’s imaginary meeting with Geronimo: a duet, with Gilmore—who is part Native-American himself—taking Geronimo’s voice and Alvin the Kid’s. It’s a new old-west classic.

Jimmie Dale Gilmore was actually born in Amarillo and currently resides in Austin—as in Austin City Limits—so their album might well have been called “Downey to Amarillo” or “Downey to Austin”, but that would not have sold many records. Austin is a great American city, compared to which Lubbock is a hole in the ground. But Lubbock is a name to conjure with—the birthplace of the one and only Buddy Holly. That’s a name that sells records—and Gilmore and Alvin must both know that. So the title track pays homage to Lubbock—since no one knows or cares about the Downey side of the equation. And yet, look at the lyrics of the song and one is bedeviled and perplexed that a song purporting to portray the hometown of one of the artists on the record does not even mention its greatest native son.

Were it not for Buddy Holly, Lubbock would be just as worth mentioning as Downey, Dave Alvin’s birthplace. So make no mistake about it, it’s Buddy’s name—Holly not Brown—who carries this record. You pick it up and think Peggy Sue, not Los Gatos, you think Rave On, not Silverlake, you think Oh Boy, not K.C. Moan… and then, lo and behold, on an album with ten covers out of twelve songs—there is not one cover of Buddy—Holly, not Brown.

And yet, that is not to say there is no Buddy Holly connection to this album—but you had to be there to learn what it was, since it never came up in Randy Lewis’ feature story on the album in the prerelease Los Angeles Times story last June. It wasn’t until near the end of the evening’s interview/performance conducted by Grammy Museum Executive Director Scott Goldman that Jimmie Dale Gilmore knocked the socks off of his singing/recording partner Dave Alvin with an anecdote that Alvin had never heard before: it was Buddy Holly’s father who paid for Gilmore’s first album, and encouraged him to put a band together to record it. That was the album that launched his career, and not only his career, but one of his band mates, Joe Ely, who played bass on it and has gone on to become one of Gilmore’s on-going musical partners, with another Texas singer-songwriter, Butch Hancock. Buddy Holly’s father—who lost his son in the fated plane crash February 3, 1959, “The Day The Music Died”—reached out to Jimmie Dale Gilmore and helped him at a time when he was so poor that recording an album would have been out of the question. He put in $400, which in those days was a lot of money and enough to get the job done. The news also knocked Scott Goldman’s socks off and—needless to say—FolkWorks’ intrepid reviewer’s as well.

Downey to Lubbock 300pxGilmore’s mother still lives in Lubbock. She is 91 years old, and, Gilmore informed us at the end, just fell and broke her hip yesterday and is having hip surgery today. Jimmie Dale Gilmore—good son that he is—is on his way back to Lubbock this morning to take care of his mother. So if you wonder—as I did—what his Buddy Holly connection might be, there you have it. And it certainly justifies naming their wonderful new album Downey to Lubbock.

Here is the track list:

  • Downey to Lubbock
  • Silverlake
  • Stealin' Stealin'
  • July, You're a Woman
  • Buddy Brown's Blues
  • The Gardens
  • Get Together
  • K.C. Moan
  • Lawdy Miss Clawdy
  • Billy the Kid and Geronimo
  • Deportee - Plane Wreck at Los Gatos
  • Walk On

You will also notice Woody Guthrie’s classic song for immigrant farm-workers, Deportee-“Plane Wreck at Los Gatos”—another American Name to conjure with—due to Woody’s song that kept this story alive for sixty years since he wrote it in 1948—with music by Martin Hoffman. Ten years ago, the names of these 28 farm-workers tragically killed in the plane crash were finally restored to their memory thanks to a surviving family descendant and an LA Times reporter who turned over every stone in their quest to uncover the real names for which Woody had substituted his own imagined chorus: Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita, Adios mi amigos Jesus y Maria/ You won’t have a name when you ride the big airplane/All they will call you will be Deportee. The names are now on a beautiful memorial for them, along with the two pilots who also died. Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore wanted this song to stand for the Nation of Immigrants now under fire and for the oppressive tactics that have separated children from their families in the border town of Brownsville, Texas. Woody’s old song is now as timely as ever.

To end the evening, however, Alvin and Gilmore leave the album behind and bring out the Youngbloods’ hit by Chet Powers from 1963: Let’s Get Together—with a small but meaningful lyric change by Gilmore for today: C’mon people now, smile on each other [replacing smile on your brother]/ Ev’rybody get together, try to love one another, right now!

Gilmore does not need to connect the dots: he celebrates the old values of loving your brother (and sister, he adds in a codicil to the song during live performance) as their answer to the astringent political climate we have lived in ever since the 2016 election—the hate-filled mongering against every marginalized class from immigrants to Muslims to the disabled to women to black people to the Jews of Charlottesville, Virginia, whom the president slandered as the moral equivalent of neo-Nazis. In the face of this massive intolerance, Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore stand out as among my “Gatekeepers of Freedom,” folk singers who represent what Lincoln so majestically called the “Better Angels of Our Nature.”

It is wonderful to see them at the Grammy Museum, and especially meaningful to hear their singular replies to Scott Goldman’s perfect final question of the night, “What are one or two of your most significant early musical memories that influenced you to become the kind of artists you became?”

For the second time Gilmore knocked Alvin’s socks off with his answer: “Well, the musical encounter that changed my life (before the Ash Grove) was seeing Elvis and Johnny Cash in Lubbock around 1957. That’s when I said, “That’s what I want to do.” It also changed Buddy Holly’s life—since up until then he was doing bluegrass and standard country. That put him on the course he followed to change rock and roll forever.” Alvin replied with, “Well, that’s a hard act to follow—Elvis and Johnny Cash! But I’ll try—it was seeing Jimi Hendrix for the first time ten years later in 1967. That’s when I said, ‘That’s what I want to do—to play guitar like that!’ But what I really learned from both Lightning and Jimi was to be yourself.”

And here they are, fifty and sixty years later—Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore are living their dreams-come-true on the fabled stage of the Grammy Museum. Each in their own way, and together now on the road, are carrying on the legacy of the place where they first met: Ed Pearl’s legendary folk club The Ash Grove in West Hollywood, somewhere west of Downey and Lubbock, where they first shook hands with another Texas bluesman, Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins. Standing ovation!

Thanks to Kimber Kristy of the Grammy Museum for press pass!

Ross Altman has a PhD in English from SUNY-Binghamton; Local 47 (AFM); This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.