An essay by Catherine Morton
Local folk musician Alex Colvin has been drawn to music since he was a young boy growing up in Montana in the 1960’s. I met Alex six years ago, in my small town of Fall River Mills, CA when he was performing at our local pub. From there, I was fortunate enough to be able to watch him perform several times, often late at night, after all the other patrons went home. He would pick up his guitar and start strumming before settling in for a variety show of folk music, blues, tin-pan alley, and my personal favorite, cowboy poetry. He is an unassuming, kindly looking gentleman with an easy smile. With just a guitar, harmonica, and a folksy-blues style of vocals, Alex’s music emanates a comfortable sincerity with every note. He is mostly self-taught but well-educated on his musical roots and a natural storyteller. John Alexander Colvin, 68, of Burney, CA is man with passion, soul, and depth. We sat down to talk about his musical background, influences, and philosophy.
Alex grew up listening to his mom’s favorite music which included her favorite jazz albums. “Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five as well as other jazz musicians from the hot jazz era have always been a favorite. That style of music (carried on through Louis Prima and Brian Seltzer) has a recurring timelessness. I also like the old tin-pan alley songwriters who, by the way, were also an influence on Paul McCartney and the Beatles. My mom and aunt’s also used to sing a lot of the songs from the thirties and forties kind of like the Andrews Sisters. It was a lot of fun and laid a foundation for me that music was fun.” (Colvin)
As a child, Alex discovered a love for singing through his mother’s example and through participating in church and school choirs. He particularly loved singing old hymns and began to study piano. The piano lessons gave him a brief introduction to reading sheet music and music theory. The piano lessons did not stick, but when he was 15 years old, Alex picked up a guitar so he could accompany himself singing. After briefly studying music theory at the University of Montana in the 1970’s, Alex became a lay missionary. “In my early 20’s I was writing a lot of songs and wanted to play to influence the world, convey a message of love and peace and make enough money to survive. When I was 23, I became a missionary and for years played primarily to accompany worship or uplift although I continued to write songs for self-expression.” (Colvin)
When asked about his musical favorites and inspirations, Alex can list such a wide range of artists that it is easy to understand why his musical talent has so much depth. Like, I suspect, most young people with a guitar, Alex challenged himself to learn and play as many songs as he could. He told me at one point, he knew over 300 cover songs. His goal was to learn songs he liked, try to make them his own, and play them from the heart.
The concept of playing from the heart has been a cornerstone of Alex’s musical philosophy all along. Almost 20 years ago, he experienced a type of rebirth as a musician and found that he still had a passion for performing. “About the age of 50, I began playing music publicly again as a singer-songwriter. I went through a new period of songwriting and interacting with other artists, poets, and songwriters. I hoped to make a living doing it and hoped that my songs would become known. I also wanted to help encourage and foster other musicians so I participated in and hosted open mics. Then I spent a period of time when I concentrated more on art and painting than music. Subsequently, I have focused on just gaining wisdom and using my talents to uplift, unify and edify people.” (Colvin)
Today, Alex can be found living a peaceful life in a rural mountain community where he routinely plays at the local senior center. He performs at small, local festivals, fundraisers, and hosts a monthly sing-along at a local mental health facility. Through his music, he embodies his philosophy of always trying to lift people up. However, he is not without wit or humor as can be found in his repertoire of music. His original songs include titles like; Traveling in the Mainstream of Love, Don’t Think About It, No Reason for this Conversation, Pink Underwear, and Sitting by the Lake, and he lists Get Together by Jesse Colin Young; Just Like A Woman by Dylan; Be My Baby by the Rondelles, Me and Bobby McGee by Kris Kristofferson as some of his favorite oldies to play. The rest of his selected playlist was broken down for me by genre. In jazz: St. James Infirmary by Cab Calloway; Blues: Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out by Eric Clapton, Stormy Monday by Allman Brothers; Western: Don’t Fence Me In and Back in the Saddle Again by Gene Autry; Rock: Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits; and Gospel: Just a Closer Walk With Thee, Sweet Sweet Spirit, and It is No Secret.
When he performs, Alex’s musical influence and eclectic tastes are apparent. He mainly plays guitar and will sometimes accompany himself on harmonica. In the past, he has played mandolin and a little slide guitar but not so much anymore. “Sometimes,” he says, “I like to play bongos for fun.” Alex’s performances can be described as simple in that he doesn’t have a big set up and requires very little introduction. A singer-songwriter Yamaha Stagepass 300 system for guitar and microphone is all he needs to fill a room with his music. I asked Alex about how he approaches his performances because, as I have seen firsthand, he moves so seamlessly from one song to the next that it feels like a conversation with a friend. The stories in between and the transitions feel organic and always fit the mood and event. On the subject of planning he said, “I usually have a prepared set list that I have worked on but I always go with the flow. I like to combine conversation, story-telling, and even philosophical speculation with the musical performance.” (Colvin)
The influences in Alex’s musical journey have blended together to give him what I would consider to be a unique style all his own. “The first songs I remember hearing on the radio were Travelling Man by Ricky Nelson and I’ve Told Every Little Star by Linda Scott. I also liked Hey Hey Paula by Paul and Paula. And then of course I was a baby boomer of the sixties so I was strongly influenced by surfer music, the Beatles and British Invasion, early Bee Gees, Donovan, Barry McGuire and folk music. Folk music lead me into Woody Guthrie and also into blues artists like John Lee Hooker, Leadbelly, and Mississippi John Hurt. Other primary influences were Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Jesse Colin Young, Neil Young, and Quicksilver Messenger Service. Early county influences were Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Buck Owens, and Kris Kristofferson. All of these musicians and singers have inspired me and shaped my own music.”(Colvin) Alex said he would label his style of music as American Folk, New Orleans Jazz, and Blues, so it’s a combination of music derived from European and African American sources (Titon, 2009).
Alex is passionate about spreading his message of love, peace, and hope in his community. He may lack formal musical education but has more than made up for that with his desire to fulfill himself and the lives of others with a positive message. He said that nowadays he loves to simply play with and for friends in homes and small get-togethers. He is a talented artist with no discernible hubris who believes in using gifts to serve. Our interview ended with me asking him about what impact he hopes his music has on the community. I will close with his answer because I honestly cannot sum up what this man and musician is about better than he does.
It was truly a pleasure to spend time with him for this project. ” I think that there has always been a meaningful aspect to my music that people have related to, combined with an element of humor and fun. Some of my songs are a bit goofy but there is always a message that has the potential to change people’s lives: to help them introspect, discover themselves, come closer to God, and live better lives. I hope that some of my songs live on and help to create a better world.”