If you ask the current crop of country-rock acts to name their most formative influences, before too long you’ll hear the name Alejandro Escovedo. Few folks this side of Neil Young or Gram Parsons are as cited as often as he is when it comes to artists vital to the melding of rock and twang. From his early days as a punk rocker in the Nuns, to his later forays into alt-country with the True Believers, to his more recent collaborations with songwriter Chuck Prophet, Escovedo, 62, has been and continues to be a critically influential figure in modern American rock and roots music. Or, as Rolling Stone puts it, “To call Alejandro Escovedo the godfather of modern country rock would sell him short.”
Escovedo will appear at the Flynn MainStage this Saturday, September 28, alongside country songwriter Shelby Lynne. In advance of that show, Seven Days spoke with him by phone.
SEVEN DAYS: You’re often called a “songwriter’s songwriter” and are frequently cited as an influence by younger writers. So who influenced you?
ALEJANDRO ESCOVEDO: I think with any songwriters, that stuff goes way back. It started for me with the books I read. My mother was an avid reader and loved film. So everything I got about cinema and books I got from my mom. She really pushed us to read from a young age. I remember having to read Gone With the Wind as a kid.
SD: Whoa. That’s a hefty book for a kid.
AE: Yeah. We read stuff like The Road and a lot of Mark Twain, Hemingway, Steinbeck. She loved those writers and because of her, I fell in love with them, too. Then we moved from Texas to California, and that has really informed what I write about. I write a lot about moving around and a sense that the world is home, as opposed to a particular spot on the planet. We moved all the time, and I continue to move around a lot as an adult. So all of those experiences come alive in my songs.
SD: How about specific songwriters who influenced you?
AE: I listen to everything. I love Duke Ellington. I love Leonard Cohen. I love Townes Van Zant. I love Ian Hunter. I love Iggy Pop. Smokey Robinson. Son House. There are so many influences. It’s crazy. But that’s the thing. You have to be open to everything and anything. Inspiration comes in so many ways that sometimes you don’t understand it. A lot of times I’ll write a song and be unaware of the meaning of it. Then something happens in the future that brings it into focus.
SD: How did you first start writing music?
AE: When I first started writing songs, I would just write words over Dylan songs. I’d play the chords to his songs and start riffing on my own words, just to learn how to phrase, how to place words. And at first you write really bad, copied versions of Dylan songs. But the hope is that you get better once you find your own voice.
SD: How long did it take you to find your own voice and graduate from mimicking Dylan?
AE: Oh, I don’t know. There is a song I wrote called “Five Hearts Breaking.” A friend of mine told me that if we were sitting around a campfire with just a guitar and I played that song, it would be as beautiful as if it were played with an orchestra. So that was a song that made me feel like I could write. And I had something to say, which is important.
SD: How would you say your style has changed over the years?
AE: I believe more in minimalism now than I ever have. Things have become simpler, I think. I have a songwriting partner now, too, which has changed the way I make records. Chuck Prophet and I have written my last three albums together, or most of them. So his influence has changed the way the songs sound.
SD: How so?
AE: He’s really good with catchy riffs. And lyrically, he’s great with details. I’m more of an emotional or atmospheric writer. I go for the heart of a song or a story, whereas he really gets into details. That makes for an interesting combination.
SD: Speaking of interesting combinations, how did you get together with Shelby Lynne?
AE: I’m not exactly sure. But I’ve been a big fan for a long time, so when the opportunity to tour together came up, I wanted to do it. She’s amazing.
SD: What is it about her music that you find so appealing?
AE: I love the way she writes. She writes very heartfelt songs that are very personally themed. I know that territory pretty well. So I really admire her stuff.
SD: What can audiences expect from the shows with Shelby Lynne?
AE: I think they can expect really beautiful songs. I sense that there is kind of a romantic thing about it. And hopefully by the time we get together, we’ll have thought out some songs we can do together.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Under the Influence"