By Richard Skanse
Nearly two decades on from writing one of the most haunting songs of his career — 2001’s “Wave,” about the day his father, as a 12-year-old boy, departed his native Saltillo, Mexico by rail and headed north in search of his parents in Texas — Alejandro Escovedo still has a thing about trains. He says he prefers them to planes, at least, apparently even when it means taking a few days longer to get back home after a tour. No matter the destination, sometimes it really is all about the journey.
“I’m on a train right now, headed to Dallas,” he says when I reach him on the last Tuesday in August, after his wife Nancy hands him the phone. “We started out in Minneapolis, after our last show with Joe Ely. And then we went to Chicago on Sunday I guess it was, spent the night there, and then got back on the train yesterday about 3 in the afternoon. But we just passed Mineola, so we’re almost home …”
Escovedo, 67, and Nancy moved to Dallas from Austin in late 2015, just shy of a year after weathering the wrath of Hurricane Odile while honeymooning in Baja, Mexico. Both were diagnosed with PTSD in the aftermath of surviving the storm, with Escovedo’s leading to the costly cancellation of a six-week tour. But the battle-scarred punk rocker turned acclaimed singer-songwriter and Americana icon quickly rebounded and emerged once again in top form, buoyed by a clean bill of health after a decades-long fight with hepatitis C and charged with a fresh infusion of creative adrenaline resulting in 2016’s rip-roaring Burn Something Beautiful. Recorded in Portland, Oregon with co-writers and producers Peter Buck (R.E.M.) and Scott McCaughey (Minus 5), that was Escovedo’s first solo album in a decade (not counting the record he made in 2014 with the post-punk supergroup the Fauntleroys and a couple of new songs knocked out with the briefly reunited True Believers) teaming him with principal collaborators other than fellow troubadour Chuck Prophet and long-time David Bowie producer Tony Visconti.
As was readily apparent just from listening to the album, Escovedo had a blast making Burn Something Beautiful — so much so that he says he’s eager to work with Buck and McCaughey again. But a funny thing happened to him the same year it came out: On a trip overseas for a 32-date European tour, he ended up falling in love with his regional pick-up band, an eclectic crew of Italian mountain men led by one “Don” Antonio Gramentieri. By Escovedo’s admission, they didn’t “look” much like a typical rock ’n’ roll band, let alone one fluent in both Bowie trash and Stooges fury. But appearances can be deceiving, and Escovedo was so inspired by the beauty and versatility of their playing and the simpatico musical and even cultural chemistry he shared with Gramentieri that he invited the Italian back to Texas to write — and soon after returned to Italy not just for another tour with his new friends, but to record one of the finest albums of his storied career: The Crossing.
Escovedo co-wrote all but one of the songs with Gramentieri, the exception being a stunning cover of fellow Texas legend Joe Ely’s “Silver City” that serves as the album’s emotional lynchpin. Both thematically and musically, at times The Crossing suggests a hybrid mix of two of Escovedo’s other most acclaimed albums: 2001’s elegiac A Man Under the Influence and 2006’s ferocious Real Animal. Songs like “Footsteps in the Shadows” and “Texas is My Mother” echo the cinematic overture and border crossing backdrop of “Wave,” while strident rockers “Teenage Luggage,” “Outlaw for You” and “Sonica USA” at first rush sound as ripped from the pages of Escovedo’s own odyssey as Real Animal‘s “Nun’s Song” and “Chelsea Hotel ’78.” But as informed by his own experiences as each song is, Escovedo conceived The Crossing as the story of two kindred spirit, rock ’n’ roll-loving young immigrants — Diego from Coahuila, Mexico and Salvo from Calabria, Italy — who come to America dreaming of opportunity only to find a land of broken promises, bigotry, walls and menace. Along the way, they do catch glimpses of hope and even a fleeting sense of place in the underground, as best conveyed by the invigorating line “I saw the Zeros and they looked like me!” (Escovedo’s loving shout-out to the seminal California punk band founded by his brother, Javier Escovedo.) But ultimately, this is a real world cautionary tale, not a rock ’n’ roll fantasy with a happy ending. Indeed, as one of the two main characters puts it forbiddingly in the title track, “this story has no ending,” and — spoiler — only one of them lives to ask if “The Crossing” was even worth it. His verdict? “I don’t think so …”
Maybe not. But the story itself, so beautifully told on record through the words and music of Escovedo and his Italian brothers from across the ocean, well … that’s as rewarding a journey as any the True Believer has ever made.
The last time I interviewed you was for 2012’s Big Station. As much as I loved that album and the one that came after it, Burn Something Beautiful, this new one, The Crossing, really strikes me as sort of a landmark record for you. So I’ve been looking forward to talking to you about it.
Thank you! Let’s do it.
Would you agree with that assessment, though? During the creation process, do some albums for you feel like they’re charged with more of a sense of purpose than others? Like, looking back a few years, did Real Animal feel like more of “mission statement” record to you when you were making it than maybe Street Songs of Love did just a couple of years later?
Yeah, I would agree with that. I would say that some records seem to take on a life of their own; they seem to walk a little taller than some of the other ones, and they seem to carry a little more weight. Real Animal for sure was that way. And then in a very subconscious or unconscious way, I guess, the first two, Gravity and Thirteen Years, did, too, although I didn’t have any idea what they were about because I was just learning how to make records with (Stephen) Bruton. But we were on a mission, for sure, you know — to create those kind of beautiful sounds to go with those songs about what I had been up to and been through up to that point. And I’d say also that A Man Under the Influence had that sense about it, too. But this record in particular, The Crossing, really kind of took on a life of it’s own. And I think it’s because of the fact that I made it in another country; I made it in Italy, with Italian musicians. Before that, Antonio Gramentieri, who is the co-writer on this record, flew over to Dallas, and we hung out here, we wrote, then we drove to Austin and we took 67, 281 on the way back, so we visited a lot of little Texas towns and got a feel … And suddenly we were aware that we were onto something. So I think the combination of his music, my lyrics, and just the sense of what those two countries kind of possess is what made this record so important.
Throughout your career you’ve had a handful of successful, multi-year, multi-album runs working with different bands or collaborators — from the True Believers to Bruton to those three you albums you made with Chuck Prophet and Tony Visconti. Then you made made Burn Something Beautiful with Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey, and now you’ve got this all-Italian crew. How essential to your creative process is it for you to change things up like that every few years?
It’s certainly important for me. You know, I’ve enjoyed working with everyone that I’ve ever worked with on these records. Beginning with Bruton and (Chris) Stamey and John Cale and Chuck and Visconti and, you know, now this record, here. And Scott and Peter of course were a delight to work with, too — in fact those were some of my favorite times, making that Burn Something Beautiful record with them. But this one, you know … like I said earlier, because of the distance, for some reason I felt very liberated in Italy. Making a record in a completely different country. And the record company (Yep Roc) was totally supportive; they never once pryed into what we were doing. The only way they knew what was going on with the record was that I called them, which was a real different kind of vibe. But it’s always been important that, whoever I work with, understands that what I’m trying to do is tell this story. So with Antonio and I, I think the two characters, Salvo and Diego, as much as they’re individulal characters in their own mind, they carry a lot of our history with them.
I understand you first started working with Antonio when you were in Italy, looking for a backup band. But prior to meeting and actually playing with him, was there even the seed of an idea to find a band over there not just to tour with, but to make a record with?
No. I just sort of fell into a situation where the band that I chose, luckily, was a band that was really kind of simpatico with what I feel about music, and had the kind of sound that they make. You know they really had that kind of soundtrack quality to them, where they were atmospheric. But they certainly didn’t come from the same sort of punk rock thing that I come from; they’re younger, for one thing. But they had a real interest in American and especially Texas music, that was important. So they understood a lot of the same influences.
I was going to ask how old they are. For some reason I assumed they’d be older than you.
No, they’re younger. I would say they’re in their early to mid 40s.
You’ve said that they didn’t look like a rock ‘n’ roll band. At the risk of perpetuating stereotypes, that made me imagine them looking either like a band of gypsies or a white tuxedoed wedding band from The Godfather.
[Laughs] Yeah. They’re not your typical looking rock ‘n’ roll band. But they pride themselves on that because they’re from the mountains, and they see themselves as just these boys from the mountains, men from the mountains. They’re not trying to look like, you know, the ’60s or the ’70s; they’re not into that in the best sense. They just kind of do this thing of their own, which I admire. I mean I really admire it now, whereas maybe when I was 24, I wasn’t such a fan of that. But you grow up. And what overwhelms everything is their ability to make the music so beautiful. That’s the most important thing.
It sounds like you had this European tour booked before you had the band lined up. Have you ever done that before? Just go overseas, and wait until you get there to round up players?
No, not to that extent, no. I’ve done shows where there’s a show in like, Halifax, where you go and they find a band for you. But that’s only for a gig or two, or part of a festival. But I’ve never done anything quite like this.
How did that first meeting with them go? Or really, how did you end up finding them? I have this image of you going from village to village and knocking on doors, asking around, and being told, “Find this man, Antonio, in the mountains!”
Well, you know, they’d actually played with a lot of bands that we know, both of us. Antonio produced a record with Dan Stuart and JD Foster (the Slummers’ Love of the Amateur), and the band worked with Howe Gelb, Steve Wynn. And they have a festival called Strade Blu in the little town that they’re from, and I actually played it like five years ago and I’d forgotten all about it. But when I got to Modigliana, I recognized the town, the village, and remembered them. Actually, Antonio wasn’t at that show I’d played before, but a lot of his friends were. So when I was over here in the States, and I was telling Howe Gelb that I was going over to Italy and that I was going to use them as a band, he was very supportive, said “they’re great guys, really fine musicians.” And it turned out to be better than that, even; it turned out to be great.
Was the band familiar with your music?
Yeah, they were familiar with my music.
What’s the actual name of the band?
They’re called Don Antonio. But “Don Antonio” is actually Antonio Gramentieri, and whatever muscians he uses are under that moniker.
So sorta like you.
What kind of different colors did they bring to your music? You said they had a “soundtrack” quality to them. But was there something, for lack of a better term, just intrinsically “European” that felt new and exciting to you?
Well you know what was funny about this whole experience was, to me they brought out more of the Latino in my music than any band I’ve ever played with the past. And it’s because there’s this whole thing about how Italians and their music love to reach for melody, and they love the kind of … I won’t say melancholy, but they love the kind of blue part of music, you know what I mean? They love the blues. And they also love jazz a lot, which really fit in with some of the records I’ve made in the past, like all the guys I used on the early recordings with Bruton, and then the later work that I did with (Austin saxophonist) Elias Haslanger and his band, Church on Monday. So there were horns, there were keyboards, and the drummer also plays electronic stuff — I liked that a lot, because he kind of brought out the Brian Eno part that I love. So there were a lot of different colors and stuff at their fingertips, which I tried to use as often as possible. And they also love to improvise.
At what point did the story start to come together? The idea of having these two characters, Salvo from Italy and Diego from Mexico, finding each other after making “the crossing” to America, each on their own rock ’n’ roll journey?
It was the second part of the Italian tour, when we went to Southern Italy and toured for a couple of months down there, that suddenly it occurred to me the similarity between that culture and Mexican culture, and how Calabria is very similar to Mexico. The food is spicier, it’s where the desert meets the ocean … It just felt like Mexico to me. So on those long drives we started talking about the story, and I just started making up this story. And it all came to be.
Did all of the songs you wrote for the album start from scratch at that point? Or had any of them been kicking around before?
No, none of them … they all started from scratch from that idea. But it wasn’t until Antonio came back to Texas with us that we really sat down and started writing music. By the time Antonio left Texas, I’d say we had between 15 to 17 pieces of music; we didn’t have lyrics yet, but we had music. Some had ideas for melody, some did not, but we had a lot of pieces to work with. Then when I went back to Italy to record the album, I think we spent about two weeks, and that’s when I started to buckle down and write the story. But I wrote almost every lyric in the studio while we were making the record.
Did you collaborate on the lyrics, too, or just the music?
I would go to Antonio with the story, to make sure we were agreeing on the topic, with the way it was being presented. And he would help me with like, different parts of Italy; whenever a song pertained to different parts of Italy, he would tell me a little story about his parents or his family, some historical kind of lineage thing that I would draw into the story.
You’ve explored the theme of immigration in the past, most notably in the play By the Hand of the Father and songs like “Wave” the it shared with A Man Under the Influence. And I imagine a lot of listeners will hear elements or snapshots from your own rock ‘n’ roll origin story here, too, just like on Real Animal. But how did externalizing the story using these two fictional characters inform your writing? Did that free you up any?
In a big way. It really did. You know, I’ve told people this before, but it’s funny how I seem to have said more in this record than … like if this was the last record I ever made, and I hope it’s not, but if it were to be, I think that I’ve said everything that I’ve ever wanted to say on this record — about what I’ve been through, following dreams that my parents couldn’t undersand, that I was told I couldn’t be part of because of my race, because of my color, because of my background. I also talk about the racism that I experienced in music, especially in “Teenage Luggage,” where the guy goes, “You’re just another bigot with a bad guitar.” There’s always been those situations where you think that we’re all in this kind of cultural crusade together, and they’re all going to be cool with each other, and you find that a lot of the same racism and bigotry and kind of evil sense of who can be and who can’t be exists in rock ‘n’ roll just as much as it does in the real world. And it’s funny because rock ‘n’ roll has become the “real” world for me after all these years. It’s the only world I live in. And so is that disppoinment that radio stations, back when we put out (1996’s) With These Hands, would say, “We already play one Mexican band, Los Lobos. We don’t need another one.” Radio programmers would say “We can’t even pronounce his name, how do you expect us to play his music?” Or being asked to go through the kitchen door instead of being allowed to come through the front door when it was my gig a the Hollywood Palace with Rank & File, things like that. So there’s been a lot of it. And in a lot of ways, because of the way I was taught as a kid, I’ve been kind of quiet about it. I’ve written about it, but never pointedly. But with this record, I think the characters really tell it like it is.
When I interviewed you for Big Station six years ago, I remember you talking about how you were aiming for a bigger picture kind of view of the world around you in those songs than you had in the past. “Sally Was a Cop” was inspired by a particular gruesome news account you’d seen about cartel murders in Mexico, but you said your angle by design was more observational than explicitly political. But on The Crossing, you definitely don’t shy away from the that, especially on songs like “Fury and Fire,” which feel not only urgent and timely but angry and alarmed in an unmistakably very personal way. And although you don’t mention him by name, it’s pretty clear where a lot of that anger is directed. At what point did you feel compelled as an artist and songwriter to take up arms and address not just those incidents of racism you’ve experienced in your life, but the state of America under Trump?
You know, it’s always been there. Songs like “Wave,” songs like “Sally Was a Cop” — and the play, of course, By the Hand of the Father. But as soon as Trump made his opening salvo on that day that he announced his candidacy, I knew that we were going to be in for something, that it was going to open up the gates to all of this just horrendous reaction to minoriies and Muslims and Mexicans. And I knew that he had singled us out as the enemy, and I knew that there was going to have to be something done in some way. My only weapon is the guitar and the pen, so I chose to write about it.
I want to come back to that in a minute, but I think it’s worth noting that as foreboding as a lot of the songs are, there’s a lot of beauty on this record, too — and even a little light and elements of fun, at least musically speaking. I love that Augie Meyers Tex-Mex bounce in “I’ll Be an Outlaw for You.”
As a San Antonio-born Mexican American who came of age in California in the ’60s, did the Sir Douglas Quintet blow your mind in their heyday? Or were they even on your radar back then?
Oh no, I loved them, immediately. And, you know, I loved them for many reasons. That they were integrated was a big thing. That’s why I have that line (in “Sonica USA”) “I saw the Zeros and they looked like me …” Bands like the Sir Douglas Quintet and Sam the Sham were really important, and the Midniters and Question Mark and the Mysterians, because you saw people that were from the same place you were from, with the same stories. So it made it even more interesting to me. But I just loved the music, too. Because it seemed to kind of cross over to that thing where, it reminded me of where I was born, and yet it was on the same pop charts as much as anything from the British Invasion. So it was really cool.
Later on, when you came back to Texas, were you ever close to Doug Sahm?
Oh yeah, I was close to Doug. Talked to him all the time when I could. He was a San Francisco Giants, fan, too. And he knew my brothers, Pete and Coke, from the San Francisco scene.
You mentioned just finishing some dates with Joe Ely. First off, I gotta tell you, his “Silver City” is honestly my all time favorite song of his. And the version you did with him on this record is now my favorite. When did that piece fall into place? What made that song fit into this story you were already working on?
That song just kind of presented itself as … it’s almost like it just knocked on the front door and crashed the party, you know? It’s just that powerful a song. Joe and I have been doing these little summer tours where we sit onstage together and trade songs for three summers now. And ever since we started doing them, I, like you, always thought that was his greatest song. I was just always really attracted to that tune. And so I would always request it when we were playing together. And then when they asked me to present him with the Townes Van Zandt Award (at the 2018 Ausitn Music Awards), I did this version that was a little slowed down with Charlie Sexton and his band, at the award show. And I remember that Sharon Ely leaned over to my wife Nancy and said, “He needs to record that song!” And it just felt right, it just fit like a glove perfectly with this story line. And Joe wanted me to do it, and he was kind enough to sing on it. Also he’s got the final word on the record, too (with a spoken word segment at end of “The Crossing.”)
I love having him on it, because to me, there’s been — you know, we were talking about Doug Sahm, and Townes of course was hugely influential … there’s been a lot of guys like that for me. But for some reason I always just really related to Joe, just because of that rock ‘n’ roll cowboy kind of vibe that he had. And the other thing that I love so much is, he’s a person who has done all the things that a lot of people write about. He’s hopped trains. He’s joined the circus. He’s taken off on an airplane with Jerry Jeff Walker and flown to casino after casino. You know, crazy shit like that — he’s actually done them! And he’s still, to me, at this point in Texas music history, he seems to be the greatest diplomat of all, to represent what is Texas music.
I saw Ely with Terry Allen a couple months back at Hogg Auditorium in Austin, and they did this fantastic string of songs beginning with Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee” to Terry Allen’s “Big Ol’ White Boys” that really honed in on the topic of immigration. And Joe did the Flatlanders’ “Borderless Love,” which I’m sure you’ve heard him do, and when he sang that line “There’s no need for a wall,” that Austin audience went nuts. But he told me later that he doesn’t always get that kind of supportive reaction to the line in other parts of the country. Have you encountered any of that kind of friction when you get poliical?
You know, it’s funny — when Joe and I do that song in the shows that we’ve done together, it always gets a great response at that moment. Although there was one show we did outside of Philadelphia where this guy came and kind of grabbed Joe around the neck and kept going, “Why do you have to be so political?” You know, just yelling stuff right in his face. It took a while to get him away from Joe …
He told me the same story! I didn’t know you were at that show with him, though.
Yeah. And it’s because we do this other song, “Blowin’ Down This Dusty Road” — you know that Woody Guthrie song? And we imporovise lyrics. And I improvise, “I’m going where there’s no Donald Trump.” And it gets a great response, but I also get a lot of feeback where people accuse me me of talking too much about politics and stuff. And it’s funny, with The Crossing, I’m already starting to get, not necessarily hate mail, but one of the letters was telling me to “go back to Mexico.” I was born in San Antonio, Texas, but, that’s fine with me — I’d love to go back to Mexico at this point! (Laughs)
Ely isn’t your only guest on the record. You’ve also got Wayne Kramer of the MC5 and James Williamson of the Stooges playing guitar on different songs (“Teenage Luggage” and “Sonica USA,” respectively), and Peter Perrett and John Perry of the Only Ones on “Waiting for Me.” I like that the MC5 and Stooges are actually mentioned in the songs that Wayne and James play on, while “Waiting for Me” has that line “She’s waiting for me/I’m the only one.” I imagine you thinking, “Hey, wouldn’t it be fun if …”
Well, yeah. And that last one, “Waiting on Me,” we actually called it “The Only One” for a long time, because I knew that those guys were going to be on it. And because we got Peter and John to agree to do it, I knew that we had to write a song that was something that Peter’s voice could be showcased on. I think he did a great job. But I also want to point out Freddy Trujillo and Willy Vlautin [of the Portland, Oregon rock band Richard Fontaine], who did a great job on “Rio Navidad” …
I was going to ask about that one! That’s a very key track on the record, even though you don’t sing on it. I know it’s Freddy doing the spoken word part as Diego, telling the story of this encounter with a racist Texas Ranger. But did Willy, who I understand is also a novelist, actually write that piece? He’s credited but it’s a little unclear in the liner notes.
The very first part of it was mine — “What kind of wetback name is that?” And I wrote the very last part, where Diego says “it’s the kind of name that you’ll never understand.” But we collaborated on that together. We had actually asked a couple of people to be kind of the adversary in this story, but I think that we made a mistake by asking them to be like a Trumpist character, so a lot of people got turned off and were like, “Nah, we don’t want to do that or be that.” But all we wanted was someone to kind of act out this character. So Willy ended up helping me flesh out that character, the Texas Ranger, and the exchange he has with Diego when they meet up in San Antonio. But that beginning line, or the beginning of the story, where the Ranger goes, “What kind of wetback name is that?” is from an actual experince that I had in South Texas once.
Wow. When and where exactly did that happen?
It was down in South Texas, around Eagle Pass. I was in the True Believers, so it was in the ’80s.
Although the songs all loosely follow the central narrative of Salvo and Diego’s journey, you leave a lot of the details of their story implied rather than explicitly spelled out for the listener. But as Diego alludes to at the end of the album, Salvo appears to have died at some point along the way. What happens to him?
Salvo is shot and killed. In a bar. And I think that line, “A blood stain in a honky tonk kill” (in “Teenage Luggage”) refers to that.
In the closing title track, you sing — as Diego — “It seems that times have changed, they’ve broken all the pretty things.” Salvo is dead, and Diego is questioning whether coming to America was worth it after all the blood and sacrifice. But the song also says “this story has no ending.” Do you, Alejandro, have any hope left at this point?
In these dark times, I think that’s all I have is hope. I have hope, and I’ve lived through a lot of this stuff that we thought was behind us, that we thought was just history, that was just the past. But traveling through the country, this new wave of nationalism and this close-minded sense that there’s only one way and one race — it’s pretty frightnening. But I believe in the youth of America, I believe that people will somehow overcome this. I hope that. But I think that it’s going to get weirder before it gets better.
I just turned 46, and I honestly can’t remember any other time in my adult life where I felt so attuned to the news. I like to think that’s a good thing, wanting to be aware and engaged, but it really does feel like an addiction, the way I obsessively seek it out even knowing how infuriating it can be, day after day.
Yeah. It’s pretty depressing. And as much as we travel, we feel and see a lot of it. And Nancy and I being an interacial couple, we have to tred lightly sometimes, we have to be careful. And we are.
On a more positive note, will Antonio Gramentieri and his band be touring with you here in the States much to support The Crossing?
Yeah. They’re coming in September and we’re touring the East Coast, then Europe. And then they come back to do the Moody (Theatre) show in Austin in January, and we’ll do another month and a half after that. That winter tour will be with all of Don Antonio.
Can you see doing another record with them?
I hope so! But I also have another record to make with Pete and Scott first, and then I’m going to make a duets record. I hope to make that with Mitch Easter and Eric Heywood and Hector Muños and Freddy Trujillo, and I want to sing with different people; bring in James Williamson, hopefully Lenny Kaye, maybe Lucinda, Ian Hunter …
That’s a pretty heady bunch.
Yeah. I’m making a wish list of people like that, male and female.
Well, I look forward to hearing that. Before leting you go, I want to circle back to a question I meant to ask you earlier that kind of got lost in the stream. We talked about how you’ve always enjoyed seeking out different people to work with and exploring different lineups and styles as you’ve evolved throughout your career. One of your heroes who was never afraid to continuously reinvent himself was David Bowie. I’m curious: As a fan of his from early on, were you ever thrown by any of his abrupt hard turns? Or were you along with him for the ride the whole time?
Well, you know, the ’80s were a little hard to take, like (1985’s) “Dancing in the Streets” and all that stuff. And I wasn’t a fan of the “Moonlight” tour [1983’s “Serious Moonlight” tour in support of Let’s Dance]. But he found his way back, and he made some pretty important records at the end there. I think Black Star stands as one of his greatest of all. So he left us with something really special. But Bowie was that kind of artist where, you know, if you’re along for the ride, you’ve got to put up with some bumpy roads along the way.
Did you ever get to meet him?
I did. I first met him when I was with the Nuns, and then a few times other times through the years. He was always really sweet, always really kind, intelligent, willing to talk about almost any subject. A true gentleman. I loved him very much.