How Alejandro Escovedo became the founding father of Americana

by Garth Cartwright / 15 March, 2019
Escovedo back stage at Bush Hall in London in 2017. Photo/Alamy

Escovedo back stage at Bush Hall in London in 2017. Photo/Alamy

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Touring Texan Alejandro Escovedo blazed a trail from punk to Americana founding father.

Ground zero punk rock dude, Americana godfather and singer-songwriter extraordinaire: Alejandro Escovedo has existed in the shadows of the US music industry for 42 years. The Texan artist has always gone his own way and, though never enjoying mainstream success, commands an international following, critical accolades and endorsements from the likes of Willie Nelson and Bruce Springsteen. When Escovedo finally reaches New Zealand next month, it will be an opportunity to experience a true musical maverick.

The 68-year-old possesses the rugged features of a Latino matinee idol alongside a résumé you might associate with characters from Cormac McCarthy novels. Born to Mexican migrant parents in Texas, Escovedo moved with his family to California to pick oranges when he was an adolescent. Yes, he says, his childhood was not dissimilar to that chronicled by John Steinbeck in The Grapes Of Wrath. Arriving in Los Angeles, young Alejandro found a promised land of sorts, so different was the City of Angels from San Antonio. Here he learnt to surf and love rock music. He’s quite an Anglophile and still speaks about the British bands (Mott The Hoople, T Rex and The Faces) he embraced as a youth with all the passion one has when falling for a culture so different from the one you were raised in.

Escovedo’s extended family includes older brothers Pete and Coke – both played in Santana, then went on to build reputations on the Californian Latin jazz-funk scene – and his niece is former Prince consort and noted percussionist Sheila E.

Bucking his family’s funky forays, Escovedo formed The Nuns, one of California’s first punk bands. The Nuns never recorded, and their career high point was supporting The Sex Pistols at their last gig in San Francisco in January 1978. While Johnny Rotten and co imploded, Escovedo set about engaging with American music on a very personal level.

“I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been in the right place/right time,” he told me, “a little ahead of the curve. As far as not getting rich, well, the good stuff, the real deal, never gets recognised in its lifetime. The stuff that smooths things out, those who know how to sell it, they always make the money.”

After moving to Austin, Texas, in 1980, Escovedo cofounded Rank & File, a pioneering band of what would later be labelled “alt-country”. Their three albums made little commercial impact but helped establish Escovedo’s reputation: he wrote memorable songs, burnt up every stage he set foot on and sang with a yearning beauty that made audiences listen. With younger brother Javier – yes, the Escovedo clan is a large one – he formed True Believers, and the band won a reputation for ferocious live shows and hard partying. Great things were expected of True Believers, but after record-company shenanigans cancelled the band’s second album, Escovedo went solo and has never looked back.

To date, he’s released 14 studio albums and several live recordings – these vary from reflective acoustic works through raucous rock to experimental art-rock forays. Escovedo refuses to repeat himself or play safe and the intelligence and lyricism of his song writing are like few other contemporary artists’.

In seventies punk band The Nuns. Photo/Getty Images

“I largely write songs for myself, so it always surprises me when people say they relate to them,” he says. “My father was a great storyteller and it’s something that is strong in my culture, so I try to tell a good story in a song.”

In concert, Escovedo is known for eloquently reflecting on his life’s experiences, drawing the audience into a US far removed from the white-bread suburbs of many a rock or country musician. Appropriately, he’s written a theatre piece, By the Hand of the Father, exploring the immigrant experience of a group of Mexican-Americans and their struggle to survive while maintaining a cultural identity. “It always gets a really strong response,” he says. “When we take it out on the road, it’s two actors, seven musicians and a screen to project images of our families and stuff that relates to us.”

Escovedo’s lyricism touched me personally: his song Last to Know has a chorus, “More miles than money, look at our lives and it’s so funny”, as he reflects on the working musician’s lot – giving me the title for my 2009 book More Miles Than Money: Journeys through American music. It was while researching this tome that I met Escovedo in Austin, Texas.

Back then he was extremely ill with hepatitis C – a legacy of youthful intravenous drug use – yet cheered by how a community of musicians had rallied to help pay his medical bills: the 2004 double CD release, Por Vida: A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo, found Steve Earle, Ian Hunter, Lucinda Williams and John Cale among many others paying homage. Escovedo healed and has never looked back – 2018’s The Crossing was his most ambitious effort yet, the 17 songs forming a concept album of sorts as they chronicle the experiences of two migrants, a Mexican and an Italian, who meet in a Texan punk club.

Living in Texas allows Escovedo to reflect on how he represents a meeting point of old and new West, Anglo and Hispanic cultures. Yet he still finds barriers are erected to stop Latino musicians who don’t fit the Enrique Iglesias mould.

“Radio programmers have rung my record company and said, ‘We can’t even pronounce his name – how do you expect us to play him?’ That kind of everyday racism does hold people back and I notice it even now, how I never get filed under ‘rock’; instead I’m put in ‘salsa’ or ‘world beat’. But it can be the same coming from my community – Mexicans shout out at concerts, ‘Why don’t you sing in Spanish?’ Well, I do sing in Spanish, but never just to appease those who expect me to.”

Garth Cartwright is a UK-based NZ writer whose music books include More Miles Than Money: Journeys through American Music, Going for a Song: A Chronicle of the UK Record Shop and Princes Among Men.

This article was first published in the February 9, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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