Fearless Texas Singer-Songwriter and Playwright Jo Carol Pierce Has Died

Known for honky-tonk manifesto Bad Girls Upset by the Truth

Jo Carol Pierce in 2007 (Photo by Todd V. Wolfson)

Firebrand singer-songwriter and playwright Jo Carol Pierce, a Lubbock native who launched her career in Austin, has died at 78 years old.

As confirmed to the Chronicle by family member Amanda Garber, Pierce passed away on Friday, Dec. 2 at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. She was beginning treatment for lung cancer, which she had been diagnosed with less than two months ago. Pierce lived in South Austin with her husband Guy Juke. Alongside Juke, she is survived by her daughter Elyse Yates, son-in-law Dan Yates, and granddaughters Riane and Ellery Yates.

Among her many impressive achievements as an artist, Pierce may have pulled off her most unlikely one at the 1992 Austin Music Awards, where she won Best Album and Best Songwriter without having ever officially recorded a single song.

Jo Carol Pierce on a Guy Juke-created cover of the Chronicle from Dec. 4, 1992, based on photos by Todd V. Wolfson

The album, Across the Great Divide: The Songs of Jo Carol Pierce, featured a who’s who of early Nineties Austin. A diverse cast ranging from punks and troubadours to rockers and folkies came together to manifest the remarkable songs, previously only passed around on tapes recorded in her living room apartment or heard at her weekly residency at Chicago House. The popularity of the album validated Pierce’s unique art, a mix of the poetically poignant and autobiographically absurd that led the Chronicle to dub her “a Patti Smith with West Texas roots” in a 2008 review.

Pierce was an unconventional and iconoclastic artist, best known for her stage show and subsequent 1996 album Bad Girls Upset By the Truth. The mixture of monologues and music spun a picaresque narrative of escaping a small town with big questions, at turns hilarious, heartbreaking, bawdy, and blasphemous. Her fiercely frank storytelling rallied for women’s independence.

“Texas women who tell the truth are either labeled bitches or prophets (sometimes both),” noted the Chronicle upon the album’s release. “Jo Carol Pierce's stunning honky-tonk manifesto Bad Girls Upset by the Truth makes it clear she's no stranger to the first option, but with disarming honesty and some pure West Texas sonorous songwriting, she winds up a lot closer to the second.”

Pierce was born in Wellington, Texas in 1944. After her father was killed in training exercises in the Navy, her mother settled the family in Lubbock. There, Pierce joined a ragtag group of young panhandle artists and songwriters anchored by Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, and Butch Hancock – later dubbed the Lubbock Mafia – that emerged to reshape Texas culture.

Pierce wouldn’t truly begin performing her work until her late forties, after having raised her daughter, gone through three marriages, and settled in Austin, where she served as a social worker. The artist also worked for Texas Child Protective Services for 30 years, in recent decades on the Texas Abuse Hotline.

“This woman should be a legend,” wrote Michael Ventura in his “Letters @ 3AM” Chronicle column upon the 2008 release of Piece’s second album, Dog of Love. “Among some of us, she is – and has been for years. There was a ‘Jo Carol’ in my mind before I ever met her, instilled in me by many a story told by mutual friends.

“Her rhythms, timbres, and shadings are pure Americana, especially when delivered in her breathy, sexy Texas accent. Melodically, however, Jo Carol takes big risks (like she does in most things): She'll sing long lines of many syllables, or short lines of clipped syllables, which don't always scan but always work. Melodically, in many songs her closest equivalents are European art and cabaret music, as in Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill or Jacques Brel or even (amazingly) Noël Coward.”

Among her other artistic endeavors, Pierce was a playwright and screenwriter, and performed in a number of shows including Jo Harvey and Terry Allen’s Chippy. In the past few years, she was working on a follow-up to the groundbreaking Bad Girls Upset by the Truth, called Bad Girls Get Old. Fearless in her art and life, Pierce will remain an essential voice of West Texas’ artistic legacy.

After a small memorial service for family and friends, plans for a larger public tribute will be announced soon. In a Facebook post on Saturday, Pierce’s daughter Elyse wrote:

“She had been busy gathering her writing in one place, willing the US Senate to a 51 seat democratic majority, and making lists of people she wanted to visit, call or write. If you think you might have been on that list, you almost certainly were. She just ran out of time.

"She loved Juke, and me, Dan, Riane and Ellery huge. So huge. And she loved all her people. Deeply and mostly unconditionally. It was one of the best things she taught me. How to love huge.”

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More Jo Carol Pierce
Jo Carol Pierce’s <i>Bad Girls Upset by the Truth</i>
Jo Carol Pierce’s Bad Girls Upset by the Truth
This revival of Jo Carol Pierce’s one-woman show from the Eighties pays loving tribute to the author without really coming into its own

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Jo Carol Pierce
Dog of Love (Record Review)

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