TERRY ALLEN INTERVIEW
by Jason Gross (May 1998)'I don't know why Terry's records aren't more popular because I think they're the greatest. Terry writes really good lyrics, very direct and funny and moving, but his songs fall between the cracks of all established formats. His music isn't quite country and it's not quite rock, but the themes he deals with-- family, love, religion, violence-- are so universal it seems like anybody could relate to them.'
I really wish I could have thought that up but it's so damn eloquent and to-the-point that I'll let David Byrne have that one. I'd just add that Terry's work is multi-media with a captial M- besides being a singer/songwriter/pianist, this Texas native's work has included sculpture, painting, installations, dance scores, stage plays, radio plays and movie soundtracks. If there's some medium that's been used with art, Terry's been there. As wise souls marvel at the amazing expanse of his work (many of his albums, like the soundtrack to the play he co-wrote Chippy, are the fruits of these projects), we can also settle with his back catalog of albums being reissued by Sugar Hill (P.O. Box 55300 Durham, NC 27717-5300, USA, 1-800-996-4455), including the recent Human Remain as well as old favorites like Lubbock (On Everything) and the pairing of Smokin' The Dummy and Blood Lines.
PSF: What made you interested in working in the arts when you were growing up in Lubbock?
My father was an old baseball player and when he got too old to play, he rented a gospel church that had gone belly up and started putting on wrestling matches and boxing matches and on the weekends, they had big dances with live music. He became the local entrepreneur/promoter in the town. He brought in some of the very first rock and roll shows. On Friday nights, because it was segregated in that part of the country, they had all-black dances. T-Bone Walker, B.B. King (he was called 'Blues Boy' then), Jimmy Reed would all play. Saturday night was the country jamboree where they had the white equivalent- Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Little Jimmy Dickens, Minnie Pearl, people like that.
From the time I was about six years old, I worked out there and sold 'set up's.' Lubbock was dry so people brought their own bottles and I would sell ice with lemons and Cokes so they could mix drinks under the table. That had a huge influence on my life but of course at the time, I didn't realize it. Also, my mother was a professional piano player up to the time that she married my father. She gave me the only lessons I ever had. She taught me "St Louis Blues" and then she said 'you're on your own.'
I grew up in kind of a musical environment in that sense. I don't think that ANYBODY grew up in Lubbock in a visual environment because there was barely one tree in town and it was especially flat in every direction. In retrospect, I think that was a huge influence because there was something about the absence of everything that made story-telling, music and any kind of imagery have a double impact. Plus, just the seduction of a horizon in a conservative, straight-laced place that Lubbock was and pretty much still is.
I think probably what had the biggest impact on me and most of my peers was rock and roll. It was the first thing that kind of addressed you as a human and not some institution that you cuddled up to, like school or family or church. It was the first big open door that I smelled that there might be something else in life besides Lubbock.
That and also my first automobile. A lot of times I do the song "Wolfman of Del Rio" (from Lubbock (On Everything)) and introduce the song by saying 'the first memory that anybody has growing up in that part of the country is when you get your first car because there's absolutely no reason to have a memory up until that point.' A car really became the ultimate vehicle of every first-thing that ever happened to you in your life and the outside world and music-wise. It was also the early days of television and those funky black and white shows. It all just kind of jumbles together. Years away from it, it's pretty rich. At the time, it seemed barren.
I didn't really find out how rich it was until I went back to record Lubbock (On Everything). Pretty much as soon as I got my driver's license, I got out of there and went to California. I went to art school and lived most of the '60's in L.A. but I went back constantly because my family and my wife's family was in Lubbock. Every time I went back, I convinced myself that I despised it more. I used it as a classic vehicle like any kid with an imagination who uses their home ground. I made myself hate it to propel myself out of there. It was kind of a pretense, which I really learned after going back. After really hating this place for so long, circumstances got me back to there to do a record that I ended up calling Lubbock (On Everything). Until we had completely recorded it and listening to the mixes, it didn't dawn on me that all this lip service dislike, all of the songs that I was writing at this time were about anything but disliking that country. It made fun of a lot of stuff but it really dawned on me how endearing it was to me and how much I cared about it. It made one of those funny circles that life makes where you kind of run back in on yourself but all different. That's how I came to terms with it and loved going back there ever since.
PSF: On that record, art comes up a lot.
There's "Truckload of Art," "Oui" and "Art Mob." "Truckload of Art" was written around '68, maybe earlier.
PSF: Is the story behind that song true?
Well, it's GENERICALLY true. I've gotten tons of letters over the years of that actually happening to people. At the time, it was a made-up song. It was addressing L.A. and the art world at the time, where it was just beginning to make a presence of itself. Kind of paranoid and self-conscious against what was going on in New York at the same time. The song really more addressed the circumstance in L.A. at the time than it did New York particularly.
PSF: Even before Lubbock, you had your first album Juarez.
Juarez was both a body of visual works and an album. Most of those songs were written from '67 to '75 when it was recorded. It was just one of those things that happened to you where you start a work or start a song and it propels itself. The story just took off and these characters began to appear and these incidents started to happen. It all took place in the part of the country that I know the most. It's still hard for me to talk about. It was one of those weird things that just made itself and I felt like some kind of weird vehicle. I'm still involved with it. I wrote a radio show (Return To Juarez) which David Byrne and I developed into a full-scale staged musical.
It keeps coming back at me, these characters and that story. The nuts and bolts of recording it happened when I was invited to Chicago to do some lithographs. The printer, Jack Lemon at Landfall Press, had heard tapes of some of the songs and wanted to release some of the music. I did a series of prints, using general images from the story. So we cut an album in San Francisco with my cousin who was the road manager for Jefferson Airplane. He produced the thing for a set of prints and the engineers and the musicians also worked for a set of drawings. All done at 9 in the morning, a nightmare time to do it but it was the only time we had to record since everyone else recorded at night.
I did an edition of 50 prints and they were the same size as an LP so you got a box with the prints plus an album. Then we pressed another 1000 to sell just as regular records.
Then I formed a record company (Fate) with Jack Lemon. Lubbock was the first record and then we did Smokin' the Dummy and Bloodlines. I bought Jack out of the company so it's my own company now.
PSF: Since a lot of the songs for the first two albums were done in the '60's, why did it take so long to put them out?
I was involved in a record contract in 1970 where I had my publishing tied up. I signed a contract to basically live through the summer and then starve to death for the next five years. I really couldn't do anything and the record company didn't do anything so I just waited it out. But it was a learning situation for me. I decided pretty adamantly if I was going to do my music, then I was going to have to do it myself.
PSF: Could you talk about the other records for Fate that you did?
After I cut Lubbock (On Everything), we started to get invited to play live and I had never done anything other than solo gigs. It was the first time that I really worked with a band live. When Smokin' The Dummy came along, I was working a lot with the Maines Brothers, who were a Lubbock based band. They would open the show and then became the Panhandle Mystery Band when I came out. I was working with Jesse Taylor and Lloyd Maines who had been playing with Joe Ely. I wanted to do a real live band album. That's basically what we did- we cut the music pretty much as a band.
With Blood Lines, I had been doing the music for different theatre pieces at the time. There was this kind of a thread that started happening with the different songs I was doing for different pieces. Then I wrote this songs "Gimme A Ride To Heaven" which became one main piece and then "Bloodlines" kind of book-ended the whole thing. Everything else just seemed to fall into place with that record. It wasn't nearly much as a band record as Smokin' the Dummy.
I just did the music for a Showtime movie. An old friend of mine, Jane Anderson, had written a play called THE BABY DANCE. She used "Bloodlines" and a couple of my other songs in the play, about 12 years ago and always wanted to make a movie about it. Just last year, she got the opportunity from Jody Foster to do her first directing job. I got Lucinda Williams to come in and sing "Bloodlines" which is kind of the main song for the piece. I wrote the rest of the soundtrack for it also.
PSF: Your next album was Pedal Steal. That was conceived as a theatre piece?
I was working very loosely on this piece called 'Billy the Boy,' based on a steel guitar player in New Mexico called Wayne Gayley. He OD'd in Reno around '77. He traveled all around Texas and New Mexico in the late '60's and early '70's and was a big influence on steel players in that part of the country. He was one of the first people I know who played steel in a rock and roll band. I started working on this story as a kick-off from Billy the Kid. I had put it on the shelf and then I got asked by Margaret Jenkins Dance Company to do the music, sets and costumes for a premier at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. So I just wrote this piece that was loosely and fictitiously based on Wayne Gayley's life. It was about a steel player that was out on the road. I designed a set, which was a big abandoned drive-in movie theatre that ghosted alive every once in a while. I told the costume designer 'imagine yourself in Clovis New Mexico in 1973 on a Saturday night at 3 in the morning. What everybody is wearing in there is what all these dancers ought to wear.' Most of these people weren't even born in 1973. So we had to go digging into old photographs of road bands, which was fun. That's how it came about. It's actually the soundtrack they played for the whole dance that Margaret and her company choreographed. It was performed quite a bit over the next two years.
Then I did a second piece for her, Rollback. That one, I just did the music for. Bruce Nauman did the sets which consisted of two films running side-by-side of a horseman riding in these horse maneuvers. One of the films was upside-down and the color was jicked up. When I got some money together, I wanted to get them out there as pieces on their own and that's how I put out Pedal Steal and Rollback together.
PSF: In Pedal Steal and a number of your other pieces, you incorporate Spanish culture and Native American culture.
I've grown up around the border. Mexico was kind of the ultimate romance, at least for me as a kid. That place where all you had to do was cross the line and you could have everything you wanted if you had the money. I thought of the U.S.-Mexico border as these two funhouse mirrors facing one another, with each an incredible distortion of the other. Some of the first music I've heard was Mexican music. In Texas, when the workers would come up to pick cotton, they'd always go out to the fair grounds. I remember walking through these big gypsy camps and in the evening, there was music coming at you from every direction. I think it's just always been something that's been a real magnet to me. I still love to go to Mexico and going to the border. And I love it in the way that you can hate it too.
PSF: During a lot of that time in the '80's, you were working on your YOUTH IN ASIA project.
At the time I did Pedal Steal and Rollback from about '82 to '92, I was working on that. It was a large body of work about the aftermath of the Vietnam War. I was invited by a German filmmaker to go to Thailand for six weeks and do the music for this film he was making called AMERASIA. It was kind of a documentary about Vietnam veterans who were expatriates living in Southeast Asia. It spiraled me back into that period of time. I didn't go to the war but I had numerous friends and relatives that were deeply trashed by that war. I think what happens is that you think of global events as big kind of generalities that are going on in the television and on the news. Even though it's happening in your home or your family, you never make the connection between these global events and these personal events. So I was over there and dealing with these guys and lived with a Thai band, going all over the country with them, cutting half the soundtrack in Bangkok. They gave me all these indigenous instruments from Laos and Cambodia and took them back to Lubbock and recorded the rest of it with the Panhandle Mystery Band.
It kicked off a whole series of work that ended up dealing a lot with the Southwest part of the United States paralleling Southeast Asia. The whole Hispanic culture and how it was received when they came back. The American Indians and how they were received when they came back. Part of the idea of the whole piece had to do with the Bering Strait, Asians crossing it thousands of years ago and settling in North and South American and becoming what we call Native Americans. And courtesy of Uncle Sam, they were invited back to visit their ancestors in that war.
When Pedal Steal and Rollback were written and everything else from that period, it all had to deal with the climate of the Southwest and the various cultures that are in collision out here all the time.
PSF: During that time, you were also involved in David Byrne's TRUE STORIES.
I met David because my wife (Jo Harvey Allen) was in that movie. I met him after the movie actually. It takes place in Texas and David had been listening to a lot of my music. He called me and sent me a tape of a song that he'd written and asked me to write the lyrics to it. It became "Cocktail Desporado." We crossed tracks at that point and became good friends and we still are, working together off and on with things.
PSF: What kind of bond is there?
We're friends and we work very different from one another, the way we write songs, the nature of our curiosities. But the real common denominator is that neither of us particularly give a hang about high art, fine art, pop culture or popular art. I think it's about what inspires you, what moves you, what makes you laugh, whatever it is. The information is the same. I just think HOW we get it is very different and how it presents itself.
PSF: In the early '90's, you worked on Chippy with a lot of other musicians from the area. How did that come about?
All of us that came from Lubbock had talked for years about doing a piece together. It was really difficult because everyone was deeply into their own life and their own work. Jo Harvey (Allen) and I had been in a piece called PIONEER that we'd written with Rende Eckert for Paul Drescher and met Nigel (Redden, director of Spoletto Festival) who later was the acting director of the opera out here. We went to dinner with him one night and were talking about all these people from Texas and how we always had wanted to get together and do something with them. The big inhibitor was always money. The next day, he called us to say that he got the money for us to all get together under one roof and plan something. We called everybody up and told them that we had this money. We went to Ely's house in Austin for a week and tried to figure out what we would do.
So, we made these epic lists of what it had to have- Lubbock, growing up there, the geography, the weather. Jo Harvey had these diaries that an actor had given her- he was interested in it but didn't know how to use it so he sent it to her. It was the diaries of this hooker that traveled all through West Texas and hitchhiked through Amarillo and Lubbock. We started reading the diaries and everyone got really excited about the possibilities of songs and stories from this stuff. Jo Harvey and I put the text together from faxes and tapes that we'd get from people and tapes. It was a real collaborative effort though everyone was on the road doing other stuff.
I think the crucial thing about Chippy to us was that it was Depression era and we were raised hearing terrible horror stories about the Depression and the Dust Bowl from our folks. We were second generation Dust Bowl people. Her diaries listed every song on every jukebox, every movie playing, every band touring. At that time, it was the beginning of Western Swing- Bob Wills was just getting into it. Musically, all of our roots were there and it seemed like a natural for us to work with.
We did a workshop before the main production in '94. Jo Harvey and myself, Joe and Sharon Ely, Butch Hancock, Jo Carol Pierce and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. Jimmie got a big record deal right after the workshop. They liked the workshop and wanted us to do it the following year. When Jimmie pulled out, it left us with enough money to get a band. We got Robert Earl Keene and Wayne Hancock and Lloyd Maines, Richard Bowden, Davis McCarty, Dave Heath, Jill Parker-Jones and Barry Tubb to be in the piece. So that enriched the number of people we got to work in it. Then we did the performance the following year in New York and Philadelphia. Joe and I were desperately trying to get the record done at that time. We were writing and rewriting it.
PSF: You'd known and worked with Joe, Jimmie and Butch for a while and worked together before Chippy. What kind of things did all of you find in common to keep working together?
Well, I was in kind of a different situation than them because I was older. I'm two years older than Jimmie and Butch. Joe's two years younger than them. I didn't know them as musicians at all when I left for California. I didn't realize they played music until Jimmie came out to visit about three years after I moved to California. He was talking about how he'd picked up the guitar and was playing it around school. When I went back to record in '77 is when I met Joe for the first time. They had already gone through the Flatlanders (band with Ely, Hancock and Gilmore), which I didn't even know about.
Most of my music connections and interests had been in L.A., like with Lowell George who was a friend of mine. I was in a band called the Black Wall Blues Quintet all through art school. We were kind of the school band for all the parties. In the '60's, the way I experienced it, music was really the most volatile form of expression. A lot of musicians came out of art school. That still happens. There was always a close connection. Plus, there were so many things that were going on in the arts that were crossing lines at that time- painters working with dancers, musicians working with sculptors. It was a real exciting time just in terms of what was happening with the possibilities of expressing yourself. That was the zone that I came up in. I think the connection obviously that Jimmie, Joe, Butch and I have is, other than being from Lubbock, rock and roll. I know that Joe a lot of times will say that when he picked up a guitar the first time, it was more than just a way you could learn to pick up girls. It was a way to save your life. It was really like an open door to learn how to play an instrument and a way out of there. I think we all have that in common.
Plus, I think the fact that it's a tremendous story-telling culture and image-evoking culture back there. I think we all traveled out of there with that. I think everybody that makes work from out of that part of the country comes out with that. I know Jo Harvey is like that.
PSF: The last record that you came out with was Human Remains. How did that come together?
It's the first record that I did with another record company. When I was doing Chippy, Robert Earl introduced me to Barry (Poss), who's the president of Sugar Hill. He had expressed an interest in releasing Lubbock (On Everything). I also talked to him about the possibility of doing a new record. I had some material that I had been working on and got serious about it and started putting these songs together. After we put that out, he licensed Blood Lines and Smokin' The Dummy.
It was a fortunate situation for me. It was the first time with the licensing that those old records got recycled back into the gene pool and were available to people.
Human Remains was built out of this sticker that I saw at the airport. A sticker that they put on coffins when they're hauling a body through the air from one place to another. It said 'human remains- handle with extreme care. Destination- (blank).' I really liked the idea of those two words, 'human,' 'remains.' The idea that it's the end of a life, the debris left over but it can also mean that there's something left, a human that remains. I liked that double edge in the title. I started writing the songs that I was working on thinking about that.
Juarez was done very sparse. I always heard instruments there and always wanted more instrumentation on the songs. That's why "What Of Alicia" is on there, which is an old Juarez song. "Catina Carlotta" and "There Oughta Be A Law Against Sunny Southern California" were on Blood Lines (also from Juarez originally). I'll probably do Cortez Sail on the next record.
PSF: I thought the songs were a lot sweeter and gentler than your earlier material.
Well, I thought that. A lot of people said it was depressing. I felt it was some of the most upbeat stuff I'd done in a long time! (laughs) "Little Sandy" came from Chippy and was written after the record was already done. I actually performed that in the piece (Chippy) and I wanted to get that out. I wanted to do a version of "Back to Black" with a female voice and Wayne Hancock actually sang that on Chippy.
But "Crisis Site 13" has been real interesting in light of what's been on the news. I wrote that at the time as just a collision that all adolescents go through, that collision between being forced to be a child and an adult in this culture. The insanity that all of us have experienced as teenagers one way or another. I didn't anticipate it being prophetic.
PSF: A lot of characters in your songs are outcasts and eccentrics. What draws you to this in your work?
Well, I think that they're just people. Songs are really like climates. I know in Juarez I never thought of those characters as flesh and blood people. I thought of them as climates or atmospheres that were in motion. I think you try to write to sides that you can't see and the things that are not always just mapped. I don't believe that there isn't anybody that isn't kind of an outcast. We wear our masks and our costumes to pretend that we're certain things but I think we're all pretty scramble-headed when it comes right down to it. All of us are pretty desperate in certain ways. I'd much rather write a song that addresses some of those kind of things than to write another Hallmark card.
PSF: What kind of things are you working on now?
Last year, I worked on a soundtrack to a film. It's finished and some of those songs I definitely want to release at some point. I'm hoping to go back in the studio in August and start working on a new record. I'm also working with Guy Clark, the two of us have been playing a lot together, generating some songs. A lot of public sculpture pieces have been taking huge amounts of time. We've been talking about doing a full-band run on the East Coast also at some point. I'd really like to do it but it's just a matter of getting it together.
See some of Terry's favorite music
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