Back in 1998, Austin-based singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo was trumpeted as the "Artist of the Decade" by No Depression magazine, the self-styled oracle of the then-ascendant "alt-country" scene.
Press that glowing is rarely a bad thing, especially for an indie cult artist like Escovedo, who had been a key member in a succession of bands — the Nuns, Rank and File, the True Believers — since the mid-'70s before finally going solo with 1992's Gravity. But, for Escovedo, the rave came with a downside.
"Sometimes it's a little disturbing that people think of me as alt-country. If you listen to my records, they're really nothing like that," Escovedo says.
If you want to hear Escovedo's real roots, check out "Man of the World," the opening track of his forthcoming album, Big Station, due June 5th on Fantasy Records.
"Man of the world/It ain't no thing/I could take a punch/I could take a swing," Escovedo, now 61, howls on a track that filters '50s rock (think: Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran) through first-generation punk that echos the New York Dolls or Richard Hell.
"It's always been funny that I get tagged with the cowboy thing or the alt-country thing," Escovedo says. "Because really, I began in a band that wanted to be the Stooges and the MC5, the Velvet Underground, Mott the Hoople, Bowie, T.Rex — those kinds of bands."
After growing up in California, Escovedo first began playing music in the mid-'70s in the San Francisco punk band the Nuns, via which he ended up opening the very last Sex Pistols concert. He reemerged in the '80s, playing guitar for California post-punk band Rank and File and then founding the True Believers in his adopted home of Austin.
After beginning his solo career with quieter, more introspective material, Escovedo has returned to his guitar-rock roots, first with 2008's Real Animal, then with 2010's Street Songs of Love, and now with Big Station — a series of albums Escovedo views as a trilogy of sorts.
"Ten, 15 years ago, I was experimenting a lot with strings with guitars. Then, beginning with Real Animal, I wanted to get back to two guitars, bass, and drum format," he says. "I think we made two great albums that way, with Real Animal and Street Songs of Love. And then, with this one, it's a little more varied, I think. But it still has kind of that attitude to it."
For Escovedo, this "back to basics" evolution has been invigorating.
"It's where I began, and it's where I feel most comfortable," he says. "I love electric guitars and the kind of excitement we can create with that type of band, so it is very inspiring for me. The live show has a little more energy, a little more drive. We've got a great amount of material to choose from, but we draw mostly from the last three albums."
In between the opening punk of "Man of the World" and the moody roots-rock of "Sally Was a Cop" or "Can't Make Me Run," Big Station has several propulsive, poppier tracks, such as the title song and especially "Headstrong Crazy Fools" and "Party People."
"We wanted to make that kind of record," Escovedo says. "We wanted it to have some bounce and rhythm to it. We wanted people to move a little more."
Escovedo wrote 10 of the album's 12 songs with San Francisco musician Chuck Prophet, whose old band Green on Red shared stages with Escovedo's '80s bands.
"There weren't as many bands then that traveled across the country, and we did, so we'd meet up in unusual places," Escovedo says. "I always thought Chuck was very brilliant. I've always been aware of his presence."
The collaboration between Escovedo and Prophet manifests itself in the album's strong sense of place, with references to Austin, San Antonio, California, and Mexico on the drug-trade report "Sally Was a Cop," which cites some real-world cartel violence in its otherwise fictional depiction of a public servant forced to be more of a soldier.
"Chuck and I travel around a lot to write together," Escovedo says. "I go to California. He comes to Texas. We'll drive down to San Antonio to check it out. We'll go to Mexico and meet up to go surfing down in Baja."
Escovedo's '80s indie past also led to another connection of particular resonance as the veteran rock-and-roller returns to Memphis this week: Jim Dickinson, the late Memphis musician/producer who helmed the True Believers' first and last studio album, back in 1986.
"We were the ones that brought him out of retirement, basically," Escovedo remembers. "He produced the True Believers before he did the Replacements." [Dickinson famously produced the Replacements' 1987 album Pleased To Meet Me at Ardent.]
"He came out to Austin to do it," Escovedo says. "I loved him. He was a hero to begin with, but I just adored him as a person. He was like an uncle to us."
1884 Lounge at Minglewood Hall
Tuesday, May 29th
8 p.m.; $16