TRUE GRIT

Alejandro Escovedo arrived at his success the old-fashioned way: through hard work, patience, and a circuitous path that put him at the vanguard of several American art forms. Born in San Antonio, Escovedo moved to the Bay Area in the ’70s, where he attended film school at College of Marin. He and classmate Jeff Olener wanted to make a low-budget film about a terrible band with a screwed-up singer, so in 1975 they started The Nuns — which became the pioneering act in San Francisco’s legendary first-wave punk scene.

The Nuns gained fame as regulars at Mabuhay Gardens and as openers for The Ramones, Roxy Music, and Sex Pistols, but by 1980, Escovedo had left the band, moved to the cosmic country capital of Austin, and fallen in with Chip and Tony Kinman to form Rank and File, one of the first acts to combine the energy of punk with the swinging style of country & Western. After a seven-year run with Rank and File, Escovedo formed the True Believers and further honed his garage-rock-meets-Americana edge, perfecting such a rootsy approach long before “alt-country” became a thing. No Depression magazine even named Escovedo its artist of the decade for the 1990s.

But several personal tragedies — the death of his wife, a severe bout with Hepatitis C — led Escovedo to make a string of excellently introspective and mournful records. And because of his intelligence, his Springsteen-influenced sense of social justice, and his age — he was 41 when his first solo album, Gravity, came out in 1992 — he ended up in the serious NPR songwriter box. Which, as Escovedo tells Folio Weekly Magazine, is not where he wants to be, even at age 65.

Folio Weekly Magazine: Your current tour features a lot of unique musician lineups. What will your performance at Ponte Vedra Concert Hall look like?
Alejandro Escovedo: It’ll just be a trio. Since we’re limited in our presentation, we do a lot of songs on just guitar and piano. But having a cello is nice because it opens up possibilities. We also use a rhythm machine/beatbox thing on a couple of songs so I can play electric guitar and make a lot of noise and feedback. Like on [The Stooges’] “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” which we’ve been doing lately.

Which is exactly the kind of balance you’ve always struck, between harder rock and gentler singer/songwriter fare.
I just finished a great rock record in Portland, so I’m consciously spending the whole summer going out with smaller groups. Then, hopefully, when the record comes out, I’ll be able to tour with the band that plays on the record. Those guys were so good.

You’ve always been a more live-performance-oriented musician, so we’re guessing that means the recording process went well.
I love it so much. I love the collaboration working with my friends. And being in one place for an extended period of time, that’s a rarity for me. But I got to know Portland a little better, and I really love it a lot. It’s a place I would consider going to for a while if I had the time.

You still live in Austin, Texas, right?
My wife and I are living in Dallas now, at the Belmont Hotel. I think I’m going to start doing residencies in the lobby there. That allows you endless opportunities — you can come out and do a song with the piano, then bring the band out for the rock tunes, or call in a string quartet and do it that way. It allows you to experiment in any way you feel drawn to.

As a kid growing up with Mexican immigrant parents in San Antonio, did you ever think you’d reach such a level of artistic success and creative freedom?
When I was a kid, the last thing I wanted to be was a musician. I loved music, but I was more of a record collector. My dream was to be a filmmaker. That’s how I got into music; we were making a film about the worst band in the world. And we became that band — that’s how The Nuns formed. Then we discovered that being in a band was a lot more fun than making movies. But it wasn’t really until Rank and File and then True Believers that I realized I could have a career in music. It took a long time.

Did the stylistic shift toward roots rock and Americana give you the chance to build a long-lasting career?
That had a lot to do it. I was at the right place at the right time, even though the True Believers were a band that was kind of out of time. There weren’t a lot of rock bands like that until The Georgia Satellites and The Replacements. It was Guns  N’ Roses or nothing. And sure, to some kids, we sounded a little dated. But in Austin, there were all these phenomenal songwriters: Townes Van Zandt, Blaze Foley, Butch Hancock. Those guys couldn’t care less what you wanted to call them — they were songwriters. It really took younger people catching up to what was already there for the Americana movement to exist.

You’ve played in Florida quite a bit over the years.
I love Florida. My wife and I both love the beaches and the ocean — we try to get there as often as we can. And I’ve always had great gigs in Florida. Plus, it’s the home of Tom Petty — that always makes it cool.

About FOLIO