Dean Alexander writes about himself, spinning a rich (and, at times, tragic) backstory into raw, rugged roots music laced with dark humor, bright melodies, and instrumentation that splits the difference between 1970s folk-rock and modern-day Americana.
A singular character who’s as proudly left-of-center as his own songs, Alexander shines a light on his traumas and triumphs with his full-length debut, Devil Man’s Blues. Don’t mistake him for a rookie, though. He’s a time-tested survivor of Nashville’s music industry, having earned his stripes as a Gibson Guitar luthier, Lower Broadway performer, major-label artist, and A-list songwriter long before embracing his independence with Devil Man’s Blues. Released in October 2019, the album pairs Alexander with other singular solo artists of his generation — Todd Snider, Aaron Lee Tasjan, and Lillie Mae, all of whom make appearances on the album — while carving out the singer’s own signature corner of the roots-music world.
“You have to give up everything, or you get nothing,” says Alexander, who reaches deep into his own past for Devil Man’s Blues‘ inspiration. It’s a past that’s complexly checkered, involving everything from the loss of his parents — both of whom passed away when he was still a child — to his subsequent raising at the hands of his deeply-religious grandparents, who brought Alexander up in an environment that prized faith over freedom. The album’s title track, with its slide guitar swampiness and talking-blues delivery, tells the true-life story of Alexander’s nightly escapes from his grandparents’ window, guitar in hand, to play songs at the nearby Oscar’s Bar and Grill in rural West Virginia. Those were his first gigs, filled with Hank Williams covers and Jerry Jeff Walker classics. Other songs reach back even further; “Paint Chips,” with its slow-motion saunter and double-handed doses of black humor, finds Alexander wondering if his father fed him “chips dipped in paint” as a child, while the acoustic “A Breath Away” touches upon the last conversation the pair ever had. On “Death Angel Sympathy,” he even commiserates with the Grim Reaper, knowing that the scythe-carrying skeleton is just doing his job.
Although flecked with tough memories, Devil Man’s Blues finds Alexander facing his demons by looking at them, writing about them, and moving forward. “This record is the first flash of me moving on, and having some closure,” he explains. “It’s like a psychological jolt to the system, because I think it’s healing to say these things. Humor helps, too. That’s my muse. That’s how I get by. I’m not trying to make things feel so heavy, or so based in loss and death. Sometimes, the best kind of medicine is being able to laugh — at yourself and your past.”
A longtime songwriter whose work can be heard on Brent Cobb’s “Black Crow” (featuring Jason Isbell), Alexander wrote the bulk of Devil Man’s Blues 10 songs in four months. The album’s recording sessions were similarly speedy, with Alexander and his rhythm section — Brian Allen on bass, Wes Little on drums — capturing the songs’ basic tracks during a single, 10-hour day at Southern Ground Studio in Nashville. Engineered by Jake Burns and largely self-produced by Alexander, Devil Man’s Blues was finished during a single night of overdub at Curb Records’ Loud Studio. “One More For the Road,” with its anthemic, spontaneous outro, captures that final night of recording, with Aaron Lee Tasjan, Lillie Mae, and Todd Snider all contributing to the song’s final epic moments.
On an album filled with Americana star power, though, it’s Dean Alexander who shines the brightest. Singing with an unhurried voice and writing with a mix of humor and unfiltered honesty, he evokes icons of the past — Van Morrison, Randy Newman, Roger Miller, Nebraska-era Bruce Springsteen — with a sound that’s grounded in his own present. He’s an old soul for modern times, digging through the wreckage of a broken childhood and wild early-adulthood in order to heal longtime wounds. Vulnerable and vital, Devil Man’s Blues is the story of a man who’s learned to look back — and laugh — in order to move ahead.