The King of California
When the last firecracker fades and the light grows dim, there’s no better way to close out the Fourth of July than with a Dave Alvin trilogy. This isn’t “Americana”; this is America. The three songs below are from Alvin’s 1994 acoustic showcase, King of California, which includes then-new material and earthy reworkings of a few Alvin songs from his tenure as lead guitarist for the Blasters, and briefly for X. X turned “Fourth of July” into an anthem, but Alvin’s less explosive version gets under your skin with its portrait of a weary lover on the stairs, smoking a cigarette alone. These songs aren’t exactly free of melodrama–the title track sounds like a lost Marty Robbins gunfighter ballad, down to the last bullet in the chest–but they’re unsentimental in their refusal to treat their subjects simply as heroes or villains. Alvin knows there’s “an evil in this land” as well as any protest singer, but his metaphors creep up on you instead of hitting you over the head:
There’s a barn burning, baby
No I can’t say who’s to blame
No one knows who did it, baby
And you’d best not ask my name.
I can’t listen to Dave Alvin’s King of California without thinking about the fascinating book of the same name by Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman. The King of California explains how a family of relocated cotton farmers from Georgia maneuvered to build one of the world’s largest agriculture enterprises in the world in California’s Central Valley. Often operating under the radar, the Boswells wielded such power that they were able to make rivers run backward and drain to dust Tulare Lake, which had been the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi. The “king” of the book’s title, J.G. Boswell, who passed away earlier this year, was a study in contradictions: a rugged individualist who grew his empire with government subsidies; an agricultural visionary who displaced scores of family farmers; a Stanford man who lost two fingers in a cattle roping accident. He’d make a great subject for a Dave Alvin song.
Dave Alvin, “Fourth of July”
Dave Alvin, “Barn Burning”
Dave Alvin, “King of California”