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01/20/2017

Terry Allen's music shares a real view of Texas

By Andrew Dansby, Houston Chronicle 

Terry Allen was born ito a retired baseball player nicknamed Sled and a barrelhouse piano-playing mother named Pauline.

Sled and Pauline weren't typical Lubbock residents. After baseball, Sled worked as a wrestling promoter and later converted a church to a nightclub where rising stars of country, R&B and early rock 'n' roll would play. He was nearly 60 when his son was born into this carnivalesque oasis inside Lubbock, an oddtopia where high and low art, urbane and rural folks and repressed and rebellious cultures spun around the same sawdust covered dance floor on different nights.

"I wouldn't be whatever it is that I am without them," Allen says. Allen - an uncompromising yet successful visual artist and musician - dedicated his classic 1979 album "Lubbock (on everything)" to Sled and Pauline. Saturday night, he'll revisit that record and his "Juarez" in a performance at The Heights Theater.

Like many artists Allen had a love/hate relationship with his hometown. Though he studied architecture and became a teacher and visual artist in California in the 1960s, Allen had songs in his bones. His first recording, 1975's "Juarez," was a bloody concept album with accompanying visual art.

SHOWS

Terry Allen plays "Juarez" and "Lubbock (on everything)"

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: Heights Theater, 339 W. 19th

Tickets: $20-$32; theheightstheater.comAllen will play a short acoustic set followed by an album signing, with pieces of his art on display courtesy of Moody Gallery

When: 3 p.m. Saturday

Where: Vinal Edge, 239 W. 19th

Free

Then Allen looked home. His "Lubbock (on everything)" became the defining piece of music representing outsider songwriters from Texas, with apologies to Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. If they're codified figureheads of a '70s Texas singer-songwriter scene, Allen is the stranger in the basement typing alternative histories.

"Lubbock (on everything)" was an art object. It was an album, but a different kind of album, a piece of non-traditional, provocative music that didn't align neatly with other music of its era. It was a werewolf in an artist's smock, a feral collective of stories and meditations on place, home and movement. The album howled with energy, vivid imagery, some fanged jokes and a loner's sensibility that would cut a path into the woods for subsequent generations of songwriters from Texas.

Robert Earl Keen recalls hearing it at a party in Austin hosted by a woman named Slim Duck.

"Everybody else was swilling wine, but I kept getting closer and closer to the stereo equipment," he says. "One song after another. I made a copy of the cassette tape and ended up playing it for a year."

Keen made the album's opening song, "Amarillo Highway," a concert staple. It became Allen's best known tune, more so even than "New Delhi Freight Train," which Little Feat recorded.

"Of the people that I really truly admire," Keen says, "Terry would be No. 1 as an artist and human being."

***

Even with little spikes in renown "Lubbock (on everything)" has always followed a remote orbit. Still, it reached the right people, becoming an Anarchist's Cookbook for rootsy songwriters who wish to avoid conformity.

"I don't think I realized what it was when I was recording it, but only when I really listened to it later," Allen says. "This strange feeling where I had a great affection for the place, even though I'd been expressing real hostility toward it ever since I left. What was coming out of my mouth and what was inside of me were two different things."

The songs' characters and stories hold together in a structure less formal than a concept album, but more connected than a collection of songs.

"It was more a culmination of songs I'd written at different times," Allen says. "Many of them, I had no intention of making an album of them. But a continuity, and a history fell in line."

So Allen booked some time at Caldwell Studios in Lubbock in 1978. The night before he went into the studio he visited a club called Cold Water outside Lubbock to hear Joe Ely perform.

He met Ely's spitfire band, including Lloyd Maines, a pedal steel guitar player who could work magic on just about any stringed instrument.

The next morning Allen, nursing a hangover, played the 20 songs for Maines and studio owner Don Caldwell.

"He didn't seem hungover to me," Maines says. "I remember him barreling through the front door. He had on snakeskin boots and was carrying a nice tooled leather notebook filled with these songs. He was extremely organized, I remember that. He had all the songs in the notebook in the order he wanted to record them. He went to the piano, and I just sat and listened to him go through the songs. Up to that point, I'd done a record or two with Ely, so I was no stranger to good songs. But those songs just blew me away."

With those 20 songs Allen proved as intricately skilled with words as with the various media he used in his visual art.

Like a croupier, he dealt handfuls of proper names and lingo from the panhandle. Delivering that language in his sneering twang, he sounded like a man singing in code. "She weren't no Maid of Cotton," referred to an old beauty pageant. "Gonna hop outta bed, pop a pill in my head, yeah, bust the Hub for the Golden Spread," told of a red-eyed drive from Lubbock to Amarillo.

"That language is part of what makes it so powerful," says Lyle Lovett. "It's an imaginative way of looking at one's reality. Real life is what connects us, it connects anybody who's listening. Of course, Terry's imagination is amazing, but everything he's talking about is real. It's like when a story in a book is so good and so well told you hope it's real. That's the way his songs are."

 As deliberate as Allen was with his music, the same care wasn't always applied to the way his albums were presented to consumers.

Allen's first two recordings faded in and out of print, never quite presented the way he envisioned them back in the '70s. But last summer a boutique North Carolina record label called Paradise of Bachelors reissued "Juarez" on vinyl with its full visual art restored. Last fall "Lubbock (on everything)" followed with art, photos and essays.

"I liked how LPs had two sides, which allowed you to build a work a certain way, the way you want people to listen to it," Allen says. "But when things became compact discs, that was lost. So it's great to have it reestablished."

After years, his masterpieces were finally in good hands, which has been heartening because Allen's best musical works are as good as any in this state's almost mythical discography of left-field roots music.

Allen hasn't committed the entirety of his creative energy to music. He's still probably better known for his visual art, which has allowed him to make music when the mood strikes. He creates without a particular care about how the works are received.

"I'm always mystified by what sticks and what doesn't," he says, chuckling. "I guess ultimately there's nothing new, just different costumes."

If you discount soundtracks, collections and theater recordings, he's released just seven albums of different costumes over the past 40 years. But those records have been admired and studied by younger songwriters.

"As a kid from a small town who hadn't traveled much, he gave me a glimpse into what the future could be," says Ryan Bingham, the young award-winning singer-songwriter who grew up in West Texas and attended Houston's Westfield High. He calls Allen a mentor. "I couldn't believe guys like Terry were saying what they were saying in songs and getting away with it. It gave me hope."

Younger songwriters see the craft in Allen's work, but they also can feel the struggle. Amid the theatrical tragedies told on "Lubbock (on everything)" is recurring commentary on the mongoose and cobra relationship between art and money.

"He taught me to take care of your art, and your art will take care of you," Bingham says. "I've had songs where I'd be dealing with people on the business side of labels. They'd be critical and want me to develop them more toward the commercial side of things. I'd send the same song to Terry and he'd say, '(Expletive) it, put it on the (expletive) record.' It's nice to have that voice there over your shoulder."

***

Allen ends his song "The Beautiful Waitress" with a recitation: "A waitress asked me what I did. I told her I tried to make art. She asked me if I made any money. I said, 'No, I have to 'teach' to do that.' "

Allen taught while he and his wife, collaborator and co-conspirator Jo Harvey Allen lived in California, but it didn't stick. Since then the couple has stuck to the art. She's a writer and actor. He keeps writing songs and plays, making sculptures and other multimedia pieces and installations. The work pours out of him.

"His life and his art are so intertwined, it has all become one big thing," Bingham says. "It's just one big concept, and it's a great body of work. And you just want to keep digging deeper into it all. It can feel endless."

Last year Allen unveiled "Road Angel," a sculpture piece with audio. Allen's bronze cast of a 1953 Chevrolet coupe sits in the woods outside of Austin and has been outfitted with an archive of original audio recordings made by various musicians, writers and artists.

He is in possession of the ashes of his old friend, songwriter Guy Clark, whose tasked Allen with incorporating his remains into a sculpture.

The reissues of "Juarez" and "Lubbock (on everything)" have allowed Allen a moment to look back, but he's more inclined to consider the next thing. And even Allen doesn't exactly know what that will be.

"One time I asked him, 'What do you do when you run out?' " Keen says. "He told me you just sit there. I said, 'What do you mean?' He told me you just sit in the chair. You don't get up, and you don't make a sandwich. You don't sharpen your pencil. Just sit and wait, and it'll come to you.

"You can find a million reasons to get up off your ass and blow off what you're supposed to do. He said to just sit there. That's been the most important lesson in my years of doing this."