Texas singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo may not be a household name, but he boasts one hell of a resumé. His very first band, San Francisco's the Nuns, were on the bill with the Sex Pistols at their final show, in 1978. Next, he served as lead guitarist in Rank and File, the seminal quartet that fused punk and country; dubbed "cowpunk" at the time, their 1982 Slash Records classic Sundown set the template for much of today's alternative or "insurgent" country. From there, with brother Javier, and equally formidable songwriter Jon Dee Graham, he formed EMI recording act True Believers. Five years after the Believers' breakup, he cut his first solo album, 1992's critically-lauded Gravity.

At Austin's recent 2005 SXSW music fest, Escovedo shared stages with Ian Hunter--who let him chime in on "All the Young Dudes"--and John Cale, and he's especially thrilled by the latter opportunity. "Other kids liked the Beatles, I liked the Velvet Underground," says Escovedo, 54. "John is so impressive. The more I work with him, the more I understand how valuable and inspiring he has been to me over the years."

With connections like that, it comes as little surprise that when Escovedo collapsed after a show in April 2003, and was diagnosed with Hepatitis C, a plethora of artists came to his aid. In addition to Cale and Hunter, over 30 acts participated in last year's Por Vida: A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo. That two-CD set not only helped offset Escovedo's medical bills, but also introduced his rich catalog to a host of new listeners, via covers by Lucinda Williams, Wilco, the Jayhawks, Son Volt, and Seattle's finest, the Minus 5.

Did any Por Vida cut in particular take Escovedo--who plays the Tractor this Friday and Saturday, April 8-9, accompanied by a six-piece band--aback? "They were all a surprise, to be quite honest," he admits. "Because I never could have imagined anyone else doing one of my songs. And yet there seemed to be so much effort, creatively and emotionally, put into every single one of them."

Some of the most moving moments among the double-disc's 32 selections are those by family members. His older brother, Santana percussionist Pete Escovedo, and his niece, one-time Prince protégé Sheila E. , joined forces on "Ballad of the Sun and the Moon." Younger sibling Javier's rendition of "The Rain Won't Help You When It's Over" also resonates powerfully. "That's the first song I ever wrote," remembers Escovedo. "His voice on it sounds so much like we did when we first started the True Believers, when we used to paint houses all day, then go play music all night long."

Family has been a strong recurring theme throughout Escovedo's work. Gravity dealt with the emotional aftermath of his second wife's suicide; in 2000, he collaborated with a Los Angeles theater company on By the Hand of the Father, a work documenting the socio-cultural experiences of Mexican-Americans in the 20th century. As the father of seven children, ranging in age from 2 to 33, in at least one regard Escovedo views his recent diagnosis as a boon: "I've become so much closer to my family, and I've been able to spend a lot of time with my kids."

"My youngest is almost two-and-a-half, and this is the first time I've ever watched one of my children grow up," he admits. "The year after my daughter Maya, who is now 22, was born, I was home two months out of that year. I was always on the road. Sometimes I'd come home and she wouldn't know who I was." (She does now; she even played in the string section for his 1996 album With These Hands.)

For better or worse, Escovedo's recent experiences gave him ample material to draw upon when he resumed writing. But don't expect to hear too many post-diagnosis compositions at this weekend's shows. Escovedo, who is hoping Cale might produce his next album, is still getting his sea legs back. "It's a slow process, but I feel so happy now," he concludes. "I've been doing this for quite a while, and there have been some big highs, but this is the best time I've ever had playing music."

kurt@thestranger.com

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