Alejandro Escovedo has had what, by anyone's standard, is a breakout year. The Austin-based singer-songwriter began 2008 by stepping on stage with Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, playing one of his originals to a fevered arena audience. This spring, he released his ninth album, Real Animal, and turned heads with a series of exhilarating late-night and early-morning TV show performances. In the summer he appeared at the Democratic National Convention, warming up the crowd for Hillary Clinton, and palling around with Jimmy Carter (Escovedo also helped score the recent Jonathan
Demme-directed Carter documentary, "Man from Plains").
For a man who's fast approaching age 58, and has spent four decades laboring in the musical underground, the sudden rash of opportunities and offers feels like a hard-earned victory. "Everyone's just been really happy for us," says Escovedo, who will perform at the Hi-Tone Café on Monday as part of a benefit for community radio station WEVL-FM 89.9. "They're proud that they get to see us on TV. They're excited that we're able to do these things."
Springsteen, Carter and Demme aside, Escovedo has never had a shortage of high-profile fans. Some 40 musicians -- from Lucinda Williams to Steve Earle to Calexico -- covered his songs on the 2004 tribute album Por Vida, in an effort to help Escovedo, who'd been sidelined following a nearly fatal battle with hepatitis-C.
After recovering from his illness, Escovedo got together with Velvet Underground legend John Cale to produce 2006's highly praised comeback effort, The Boxing Mirror. For a followup, Escovedo wanted to return to conceptual territory -- he'd done it before with 2002's family study, By The Hand of The Father -- creating an album about his life in music.
Real Animal is a stirring and highly personal song cycle; it's a sonic autobiography of sorts that begins with Escovedo's childhood in San Antonio, his musical coming of age as a teen in California -- where his family moved him at age 6 -- and then his adventures with a series of wild, colorful bands throughout the '70s and '80s. His remarkable career has included runs with shambolic punk outfit The Nuns, who opened the Sex Pistols' final show in 1978. He moved into New York City's infamous Chelsea Hotel (Escovedo was living there when notorious punk icon Sid Vicious killed his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen), before heading back to his Texas roots with cow-punk combo Rank and File and later, The True Believers.
"I decided I wanted to make a record of the story of my musical journey," says Escovedo. "Immediately, I knew I wanted to chronicle the life of the bands I was in and the people that I had met along the way."
"Also, I felt like it was time for me to collaborate with someone on this project," says Escovedo who tapped fellow roots-rock traveler Chuck Prophet to co-write the album. "First of all he's a brilliant songwriter, we get on very well, and we've known each other for a long time."
The wry, laconic Prophet was up for the challenge. "(Al) said he wanted to make a record that named names," Prophet says. "It became autobiographical -- not that we ever let the truth get in the way of a good song."
Escovedo and Prophet spent time in Texas and France (doing preproduction with noted Stones/Beatles engineer Glyn Johns) and touring together acoustically. "We had a great time hanging out," says Escovedo. "I would tell stories of the people in the bands I had been in and that would inspire an idea, and then we'd just kind of start riffing together on certain ideas or phrases or characters and stuff. Whenever we'd get stuck, we'd go back and listen to a lot of the records that were big influences: David Bowie, Mott the Hoople and T-Rex."
Escovedo says he found sustenance in the old vinyl favorites from his youth. "It was a real lesson, not just in songwriting, but in the history of the music, the lineage of the music," he says.
When it came time to choose a producer for the album, Escovedo decided to bring the project full circle, calling on Tony Visconti -- the American sound wiz who'd helmed some of the seminal British LPs of the '70s, by Bowie and T-Rex.
"We wanted to get that same sound and feel, and so we had to go back to a guy who was one of the masters of the craft," says Escovedo.
Working with Visconti, his longtime backing band and Prophet, Escovedo set about creating a rich musical landscape that mirrored the breadth of his career -- from the punk fury of his early years to the string-drenched balladry of his more recent work.
"We embraced the grandiosity of all that," says Prophet. "There's really no middle brow about what Al does. He's got his $400 shoes from Paris, and at the same time he's a guy that knows everything about the Stooges. It's always about the regal and the street with Al, and there's nothing in the middle. So the music is kinda like Stooges with strings."
Released in the spring the album has garnered the strongest praise of Escovdeo's career -- and that's saying a lot for someone who's long been a critics darling and was once named Artist of the Decade by alt-country bible No Depression.
Although he's put a big chunk of his past behind him with Real Animal, Escovedo says his musical journey remains a constant process of growth and evolution. "I am older; I'm not 20 years old and I don't sing songs for kids. But I do feel like every aspect of my craft or career -- and I hate that word -- in this rock-and-roll life I do better than I ever did before. So I feel lucky," he says.
"If you're a musician, that's what you are -- as well as Duke Ellington was, as Count Basie was. It's silly to think of rock and roll as just a young man's game -- because I don't believe that to be the truth."
Alejandro Escovedo, with the Satin Peaches
9 p.m. Monday at the Hi-Tone Cafe, 1913 Poplar Ave.
Advance tickets are $18 (standing) and $25 (seated). Day-of-show prices are $20 (standing), $28 (seated). Go to hitonememphis.com or call (800) 594-TIXX.