CHICAGO - The music of blues giant Big Bill Broonzy bonded Phil and Dave Alvin as kids growing up in California during the '60s. So it was only fitting that when the brothers came to Chicago recently, they got a chance to play the 1946 Martin guitar that Broonzy used when he christened the Old Town School of Folk Music's opening in 1957.
"Holding that guitar is like holding Billie Holiday's voice," Dave Alvin says. "You play that guitar, you sound remarkable. It's got a shorter scale neck and he had large hands. We have midsized hands, so it's easier for us to do. We both looked at each other, and our words were exactly this: 'Wow!' The Grand Canyon, the Mississippi River, Big Bill's guitar - what more is there?"
The brothers - who formed the core of the great American roots-rock band the Blasters three decades ago - recently reunited, and Broonzy's music has a lot to do with it. Their first full-length album together since Dave Alvin left the Blasters in the mid'-80s is a collection of Broonzy songs, "Common Ground" (Yep Roc).
As a teen, Phil Alvin stumbled across a life-changing album in a department store: "Big Bill's Blues," an anthology of how the Mississippi-born singer and guitarist bridged the acoustic country blues and electric urban blues styles. "What made me buy it was that title, and that famous picture of Bill on the cover holding a guitar and wearing a fedora with his cool suit and pimp socks," Phil recalls. "I fell in love with it even before I put it on. You had quite a few styles: small combo stuff, the boogie woogie piano was great, horns. And his voice was so captivating, so natural."
The brothers began scouring garage sales and flea markets for Big Bill 78-rpm records and tried to learn everything they could about the singer from the blues men who got to know him before he died in 1958.
"Bill had personality - it was as big as he was," Dave Alvin says. "It jumped off the record, and we got sucked in by the big gregarious voice. He also was an excellent guitar player. He was the gateway drug into the prewar blues. One of the reasons he was a star in the blues world is that he had this friendly quality, like he was somebody you already knew when you met him."
Though their relationship was shaped by their passion for Broonzy and other American roots music artists, it also could be volatile, turning into a fistfight over something that might seem inconsequential to anyone else.
Their old Blasters bandmate Steve Berlin once told the Chicago Tribune that the Alvins "made great music together, and they fought about everything. We'd be in the van talking about where to stop for lunch, an argument would start and the next thing you know Phil and Dave are rolling around on the ground trying to kill each other."
That goes a long way toward explaining why the brothers had essentially been working separately for more than 25 years except for a brief Blasters reunion a decade ago.
But then a near-tragedy in 2012 thawed their relationship. A tooth infection spread into Phil's blood system, and he nearly died. "Around that time, some of our other close friends had died," Phil Alvin says. "That and my own brush with death sort of softened up the fence that had been built up between us. It's tough facing your own mortality, and it has changed me a great deal. I think more so for David than for me, my near death may have sparked this collaboration."
Dave Alvin agrees. "It got me thinking about a lot of things, and one of those was the thought that we should make a record, because why wait anymore? We made records as the Blasters, but we never made a record for the two little kids who collected 78s. Before we check out of the big motel, we should do that."
The studio sessions for "Common Ground" went quickly and smoothly, not always the case with previous Alvin collaborations. Part of the reason was the breadth of Broonzy's material. "There are other blues guys we loved that we could've covered on an album," Phil Alvin says. "But Big Bill went through so many styles - blues, ragtime, jump blues, swing - that it made it a lot easier for us to pick favorites and interpret them."
As for the relative calm that prevailed during the recording process, Phil Alvin notes: "We were a lot less hard-headed and argumentative. I think it had to do with less beer."
"Less scotch for Phil, less beer for me," Dave chimes in with a laugh. "I think we had one discussion over an F sharp note in one song. Maybe 30 years ago it would've turned into a brouhaha, and then I realized, 'Dammit, Phil's right!'"