How Cowpunk Hero Alejandro Escovedo’s New Album Defies Expectations

Now in his 70s, this titan of Texas music proves he still has the same renegade energy that made him a household name in the first place.

In January, Alejandro Escovedo turned 73, an age when most performers try to squeeze a few more accolades—and a few more dollars—out of their past achievements. Think of all the elderly stars who announce a grand “Farewell Tour” or maybe a “Comeback Tour” if they’ve already played the “Farewell” card. Or all the aging legends who release an album with a galaxy of under-rehearsed guest stars.

Escovedo could have done that. This native Texan has never had the big radio single that makes someone a household name, but he has a dozen studio albums that are revered by critics and musicians alike. In 1998, No Depression magazine named him “Artist of the Decade.” Artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Los Lobos and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck have joined him on stage and/or in the studio. Whether you preferred the folkoric, Tex-Mex lyricism of 2002’s By the Hand of the Father, the punk-rock abrasion of 2010’s Street Songs of Love or the mix of the two that defined most of his work, he justified all the praise heaped on him by music insiders.

But instead of recycling his signature sound for his newest album, Echo Dancing, as most veteran rockers would, Escovedo has struck out in an altogether new direction. Well into his Medicare years, he has opted for a dramatically different sound. The album revisits 14 of his older songs but transforms them with arrangements so unexpected that the material is barely recognizable. It’s as if he’s reminding us that restless experimentation is his true trademark.

Working with the Italian composer/producer Antonio Gramentieri, the songs are wrapped in sci-fi keys, treated guitars, percussion loops and vintage synths that bloom and fade with mystifying spontaneity. The result resembles not so much a conventional rock’n’roll album as the soundtrack for a late-night-TV, low-budget horror movie.

“Some people would say my life has been a low-budget horror film, so it makes sense,” Escovedo laughingly says when I suggest the comparison. “We didn’t use the traditional instruments people would expect us to use, like bass, drums and guitar. We used a lot of effects, a lot of reverb, so it sounds like a soundtrack in a way. Antonio has done a number of soundtracks, some for Netflix, so he’s experienced at that. That cinematic sound provides a great backdrop to a story. At this point in my life, what could be better than some new sounds?”

In its own way, this album is as surprising as Escovedo’s 1992 solo debut, Gravity. At that point, he was a veteran of revved-up guitar bands, whether it was the punk-rock Nuns, the cow-punk Rank and File or the roots-rock True Believers. But when he unveiled the Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra in Austin, he employed strings and horns to create a chamber-pop reverie. At the same time, he found an outlet for guitar rock in the side project, Buick MacKane, one of the loudest bands Austin has ever heard.

“For me it’s always fun to explore new things,” Escovedo says over the phone from his manager’s office in South Austin. “At first it was the strings. In Austin, it was fun to experiment with jazz players, classical players, conjunto musicians and even the Bad Livers. But the music that inspired this new album came from New York: John Cale and Judy Nylon.”

Cale was a co-founder with Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground, and Nylon was a pioneer in the art-punk corner of New York’s downtown scene who went on to collaborate with Cale and Brian Eno. The Velvets may seem a million miles away from the Tex-Mex and chamber-music flavors of his ‘90s work, but Escovedo sees the dissonance of the one and the dreaminess of the other as sharing an essential quality: the desire to capture something true without regard to trends or sales.

“When I got attached to the Velvet Underground and the Stooges,” he explains, “it was the same as my attachment to Townes Van Zandt and Leonard Cohen. They weren’t selling a lot of records; they weren’t famous, but their music hit me deep. That kind of career, that kind of aesthetic appealed to me. I don’t care about Grammies; that has nothing to do with music.”

In addition to No Depression’s “Artist of the Year” designation, Escovedo has won eight Austin Music Awards and has been inducted into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame. Outside Texas, he won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Americana Music Association in 2006. But even though many music insiders believe he’s made some of the finest pop music of the past 40 years, he has never broken into Billboard’s top-100 album chart and has never received a Grammy nomination.

“The lack of recognition doesn’t matter to me as much as it seems to matter to other people,” he insists. “When it started, rock’n’roll was a wild streak of rebellion against a system that was letting us down. For me, punk-rock wasn’t a rebellion against my parents, because I was too old for that; it was rebellion against an industry that wouldn’t give us the music we wanted to hear.”

One of Escovedo’s most ardent admirers is the 52-year-old Gramentieri—a guitarist, composer and producer, who grew up in Italy, entranced by American music. “The music from Texas interested me more than 95% of the touring bands coming from America,” he says over the phone from his home near Bologna in Italy.

“I thought Texas reflected all the best aspects of American music—that mixture of European with Mexican and African flavors. Los Lobos, which came from the same border region, was more important to me than the Beatles, because Los Lobos showed you could enter the American song world without trying to pretend you were a cowboy; you could just be yourself.”

Gramentieri started making annual pilgrimages to Texas and soon met up with Escovedo. The friendship blossomed over the years, and in 2016, Escovedo hired Gramentieri’s all-instrumental Italian band, Don Antonio, to be the Texan’s backing band for a European tour. The two men started writing songs together during the tour and soon hatched plans for a concept album.

“We don’t come from the same generation or the same place,” Gramentieri points out, “so we were trying to find some common ground. And we found it in our shared experience of trying to make a place as outsiders in the American music that means so much to us. It was hard for him as a Mexican-American to be accepted in punk-rock. And it was hard for me as an Italian to be accepted as a blues guitarist.

“Both Texas and Italy have a lot of immigrants coming across the border, surrounded by a lot of violent opposition. Both Texas and Italy have a lot of discussion about who belongs and who doesn’t. So, we invented these two characters, Diego and Salvatore, two kids from Mexico and Italy who go searching for American culture. Those songs were close to our lives, even if we didn’t go through those same exact things.”

The resulting album was 2018’s The Crossing, recorded in Italy with Escovedo’s vocal and guitar backed by the Don Antonio band. The narrative continuity from song to song was unlike anything Escovedo had ever done, and both the performers and attentive observers were excited by the achievement. They plotted to follow up the first tour with a bilingual version—English and Spanish—that they could be performed on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border. Two weeks before that tour was scheduled to start, Covid hit.

During the lockdown, Escovedo supervised a remix of The Crossing with Spanish vocals that was released as La Cruzada in 2020. As restrictions eased, Escovedo was itching to reunite with Gramentieri.

“Going to Italy is never a bad thing,” he says, “and I got on really well with those guys, so I wanted to go back again. If there’s any experimentation to do with my music anymore, those are the guys I want to do it with. That was a good place to start for my next record.”

Escovedo had a handful of half-finished songs and hoped to complete them and complement them in collaboration with his Italian pals. As he flew across the Atlantic, however, he was listening Por Vida, the 2004 album of other artists performing Escovedo’s compositions. He was especially struck by Calexico’s version of “Wave.”

The lyrics tell the story of Escovedo’s father watching his parents wave goodbye as they pulled away on a train from a Mexican town to the United States. The Tucson band gave the song a deliberate tempo, droning keyboards and lots of reverb that emphasized the ghostly quality of traumatic memories. Escovedo decided he wanted to give more of his old songs the same irreverent, redefining treatment.

Gramentieri remembers Escovedo arriving, unsure whether to work on the half-finished songs or to radically remake his older songs. They tried some of the older numbers in stripped-down, quiet, acoustic arrangements. They were effective, says Gramentieri, “but that was too obvious for someone in his seventies, so we went in the opposite direction. We decided to make a trance record, so we chose all the songs that had a trance feel.”

The three musicians set up in a 15th-century stone mill in Modigliana, Italy. Escovedo had his electric guitar and vocal mic; Gramentieri had his electric guitar, electric bass, Mellotron and laptop, and Don Antonio keyboardist Nicola Peruch surrounded himself with a piano plus vintage organs and synths. Gramentieri would get a percussion loop going, and they would play each song, with the Italians jumping from instrument to instrument, adding colors to fit the emotions of each verse—just like film scorers adapting to each scene in a movie.

“It wasn’t a technological record,” insists Gramentieri. “All the equipment was old, and we used it in an old way, a folk way. We didn’t layer them one by one; we were playing together in the room. Ninety per cent of what you’re hearing was played live, like we were around a campfire with acoustic guitars, but with these electric instruments instead. Nicola and I like electronics with a human sound, so we know how to use delays and gates and effects in real time. We never played more than three or four takes of a song, because we wanted it to sound fresh and surprise ourselves.”

For example, Escovedo’s 1999 song “Sacramento & Polk” is about life in a San Francisco transient hotel where many of the residents “spend their day washing their socks and staring out the windows in a Thorazine haze.” On this version—with its ping-pong beat, off-kilter chords and fuzzy distortion—you can finally hear what a Thorazine haze sounds like.

On 1982’s “Last To Know,” the nightmare hours after the party’s over materialize in a heart-pump throb and a funeral-parlor organ. “We play the jokers in this minstrel show,” Escovedo laments over the slow-crawl beat, “’cause no one cares in this showbiz crowd.”

“I felt confident with every turn we took with each song,” Escovedo says. “The atmosphere lent itself to coming up with new ideas. I’d recorded ‘Sacramento & Polk’ twice before, but I’d always wanted that song to stand out more. I said, ‘Let’s have the lyrics out in front and present them in a way they weren’t in the past.’ When I listened to these old songs, sometimes I changed some lyrics I didn’t enjoy. On ‘Outside This Door,’ for example, that whole part about lying in bed listening to Smokey Robinson is new.”

The singer has always thought of himself primarily as a writer. He collaborated with an Austin theater company to turn the songs from By the Hands of the Father into a stage piece, and he’s now working with a Vancouver group to develop a one-man theater piece based on the memoir he’s currently writing with fellow San Antonio native John Phillip Santos. Escovedo’s lyrics have always had a literary quality, though they tend toward the minimalism of a John Prine or a Bob Mould rather than the maximalism of a Bob Dylan or a Joni Mitchell.

“The short lines are intentional,” he says. “Hemingway and his succinct sentences were very appealing to me, Raymond Carver the same way. It’s important to get to the point quickly. Iggy Pop said some blues guy told him there should only be nine words in a song. I don’t know about that, but I like to be concise. At the same time, I’ll dig into things that are way over my head in terms of vocabulary and style, things I shouldn’t have in my possession.”

When some people get old, they start to slow down and refine their signature style. Escovedo, though, is speeding up as he gets older, trying to get to all the new projects and new approaches he’s interested in.

“Ronnie Lane used to tell me, ‘Life is a short movie,’” Escovedo says, referencing the Faces’ bassist. “And life does seem shorter as you get older. Things accelerate at this time, but I don’t feel like the doors are closing on me, I feel like I still have a lot to learn and a lot to do.

When he put out his first two solo albums in 1992 and 1993, Escovedo was still working at Waterloo Records to pay his rent. People would come in and tell him those records had helped them endure a situation where a spouse had committed suicide or something equally traumatic.

“I realized that now I was giving something to the world that was helping others the way songs had helped me,” he recalls. “Everything I’ve gone through in life, music has helped me to get through: depression from illness, the state of the world, my wife’s suicide, all those things. Music has always been there for me, when school wasn’t, when the government wasn’t, when even my friends and family weren’t. When I’d go hear Townes Van Zandt at the Cactus Café in Austin or even earlier when I’d listen to the Beach Boys in my bedroom at home, they let me know I wasn’t alone in how I felt.”