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Photo courtesy of Dave Alvin

Americana rocker Dave Alvin is a student and fan of California music, including the Bakersfield Sound. "In the 1950s and '60s you could make a record in Bakersfield or Texas that would get on country radio. But that was the last gasp of regional sound in country music."

Some details of the plot are fuzzy -- it was "a million years ago" that he read the book -- but Grammy-winning Americana rocker Dave Alvin has total recall of what he felt when he finished "The Grapes of Wrath": compassion.

"I had great empathy with the characters and was fascinated by the historical aspect of it," said Alvin, who was born 58 years ago in the Southern California city of Downey and has spent decades writing vividly and movingly about what it means to be a Californian.

"When I read it, I was formulating my identity, so it's one of those books that encapsulates and shapes the way I viewed the world."

Alvin will pull from his estimable songbook and array of genres -- rock, blues, folk, alt-country -- when he performs in Bakersfield on Feb. 7, the concert the official kickoff to a yearlong celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Pultizer Prize-winning novel. Most of the activities, including Alvin's concert and a pre-show meet-and-greet with the performer, are being coordinated by Cal State Bakersfield and the university's dean of the school of arts and humanities, Richard Collins.

In an email to The Californian, Collins explained why Alvin, a poet himself, was an obvious choice to headline the kickoff event.

"Dave has deep roots in both music and literature, and that's what this celebration of 'The Grapes of Wrath' is all about: the cultural legacy of a time that Steinbeck captures in his great novel."

Though the themes of the story are universal -- the struggle to maintain dignity and hope in the face of social injustice and degradation -- the book holds even greater power for Central Valley readers, many of whom traveled Route 66 in broken-down rattletraps crammed with their every earthly possession, staked only by their own gumption, much like the novel's fictional Joad family.

Though Alvin's people were not part of the Okie exodus, he understands from personal experience California's unique power to attract dreamers and seekers. His father was one.

"My dad was from Indiana and literally rode the rails out here," Alvin said. "He stopped and worked along the way. My mom's family goes back in the state to 1860s and 1870s."

Alvin remembers his own awakening to the wider world coming as a young boy, when he'd sometimes accompany his father to work.

"My dad was a union organizer for the Steel Workers Union, so I was already sort of aware of economic injustice. 'The Grapes of Wrath' helped me get a grasp on what California means.

"Steinbeck was always sort of a hero in our house."

In addition to the influence of Steinbeck and his father, Alvin got a visceral education in the plight of the working man, first through the songs of folk great Woody Guthrie and later from Merle Haggard.

"Merle's got a couple of really great songs that talk about that experience: 'Tulare Dust,' 'They're Tearing the Labor Camps Down.' And then there are his more famous songs, like 'Kern River' and 'Mama Tried.'"

Alvin has recorded and performs in concert a haunting rendition of "Kern River," a song that manages to stand out, he said, even in a body of work as colossal and revered as Haggard's.

"'Kern River' is a great song on so many friggin' levels. It's one of my favorite songs, period. The first time I heard that song was in Maryland and I was on tour. It was one of those pull-over-to-the-side-of-the-road moments."

But, surprisingly, Haggard's song was not Alvin's introduction to the mighty river that inspired it.

"We would do our vacations in Lake Isabella," Alvin recalled. "In 1970, my dad, brother and I and another couple of kids and men, we hiked up to the headwaters of the Kern in Johnsondale. It was one of the great adventures of my life, so I always felt connected to the river.

"When you'd get into Bakersfield proper, the river was the dividing line with Oildale; the proper people of Bakersfield and the dispossessed of Oildale. (The song) is personal, it's geographical and it's sociological."

Alvin promises the song will be on his set list Feb. 7, as will a number of songs he's written about California, going back to his days in The Blasters, a roots rock act he founded with his older brother, Phil.

Since then, the singer -- whose protean tastes have stamped him as an individualist in a music industry that demands conformity -- has enjoyed solo success as well as inspired collaborations.

He was featured on one of the most interesting soundtracks of last year, "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County," a Southern gothic musical written by novelist Stephen King, with music by John Mellencamp.

"I'm a barroom blues guitar player with a low, froggy voice," said Alvin, in one of many self-deprecatory remarks peppered throughout the conversation. "I like to put myself in different situations with different musicians. It's my way of learning. Being a professional musician is a learn-on-the-job kind of thing."