Conflicts and Contradictions

The Choices of Terry Allen

by Lee Nichols

"Yeah, I don't wear no Stetson/But I'm willin' to bet son/That I'm as big a Texan as you are/Cause there's a girl in her barefeet/'Sleep on the back seat/An' that trunk's full of Pearl... an' Lone Star"

-- Terry Allen, "Amarillo Highway"

Those words were among the first I ever heard Terry Allen sing. They're from "Amarillo Highway," off the album Lubbock (On Everything), generally regarded as Allen's masterpiece. They're also some of the most important words of my life.

I discovered the album at that time right after college when most people are trying to figure out who they are. The question was rather difficult for me. First and foremost, I am a Texan. That part's set in stone. Born in Dallas, raised in Rockdale (pop. 5,600, about an hour northeast of here), and having spent the last decade in Austin, I grew up going to rodeos, eating barbecue, and hearing country music. In fact, I've rarely even traveled outside the state -- most of my vacations have been to Big Bend.

But there's another side to me that doesn't jibe with all that. I came here to college, and for the first time in my life, was truly challenged to think. I heard music that had nothing to do with the Top 40. I met people who challenged authority, and had not the least bit of apology for it. I found myself joining them. Still, I couldn't renounce my past, and as a consequence, I suffered a real identity problem. Back home in Rockdale, people looked at my long hair and my peace-symbol T-shirt, and said I was a hippie. In Austin, my friends heard my Lone Star twang extolling the virtues of the Broken Spoke, and labeled me a redneck.

What, then, was I? Hippie or redneck? After much wondering, Terry Allen told me in that song. I was both.

Allen is well-qualified to advise on the subject. He's had more than one identity conflict to work out for himself. First off, like so many country-oriented musicians who didn't conform to industry standards, he's from Lubbock, so there's some things about him that fit -- the boots, the belt buckle, the twang, the steel guitar -- and some that don't, mostly songs: the one with the scathing critique of European/American imperialism ("Big Ol' White Boys"); the touching ode to a Vietnam War widow ("Blue Asian Reds"); and a tune with a protagonist who's either a car thief or Jesus Christ ("Gimme a Ride to Heaven"). All told, it always seemed that Allen was too hick for the coffeehouse, too esoteric for honky-tonks.

He also doesn't completely fit in with the Lubbock expatriates; unlike Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock et al., he didn't join the mass musician migration to Austin, choosing instead to head west for Los Angeles. He didn't pursue a music career as ardently as they did, either, which leads to the most profound contradiction in Allen's life -- his dual artistic identities. Despite the regard he enjoys as a songwriter, his work as a visual artist has brought him equal acclaim in a different creative world, and long provided him a living as an art teacher.

"Well I don't need no stinky Pinky/sing to me about the common man/Some cowboy fake who thinks all it takes/is a hat on his head and a Grammy in his hand"

-- Terry Allen, "Gone to Texas"

New words, but the same bundle of contradictions. They're found on the lead-off track from Allen's new album, Human Remains. He won't be claimed by the pretentious, but refuses to stoop to lowbrow, corporate psuedopopulism, either. And he walks this difficult path, mentally, through his home state. Funny thing about Allen, though; he's not tortured by the journey. He approaches it with relish rather than alienation. It seems to be an aimless, head-clearing drive through the country rather than a trip with a particular destination. In fact, that's exactly what it is.

"It's kind of a human paradox," Allen says of his path. "Whatever you do, there's probably some kind of force against you wanting you to be something else or do something else, however you are. I think that's a classic Texas thing, too. I was raised in Lubbock in a pretty rural kind of climate, and it was always in collision with something: It was in collision with rock & roll, it was in collision with long hair, pants dropped down to your ass, ducktails; it was an endless list of things that you shouldn't do, that, of course, provoked you to do it instantly just because they were telling you not to.

"I think what's happened to me is that I was in California for a long time, and my trips back to Texas were kind of like seeing for the first time where I grew up... I really respect those old hard-bark farmers and ranchers and people that have done all that classic cliché stuff of carving a life out for themselves in pretty harsh land. I respect those values and I was raised with those values. But at the same time, you don't want to knuckle under to anybody that's just telling you what to do because it's their job to tell you what to do. What they're telling to you do, it seems to me, is what's important, and you have to make your own decisions on that. It's a classic being-raised-in-Texas, and getting-out-of-town thing that everybody faces."

Today, Allen understands the importance of those trips back, as "Gone to Texas" would indicate. The lyrics find him and a nameless antogonist arguing about the elusive, magical quality of this land. Texas may have the same problems as anywhere else, but that doesn't matter: "All I need is the ride... It's the feel of the deal from behind the wheel/That'll make me need to go."

"I love driving those roads," says Allen. "I've always loved that from the time I was a kid. That was the first great release in my life was getting in the car and driving it. Mainly because it helped me get out of Lubbock. [Now] my family's there, my wife's family is there, my closest friends are there; it's always been home in my mind, I suppose, just the circumstances of my life have taken me to other places."

Allen, who now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, seems to be returning quite a bit lately, whether he's jumping on stage with Joe Ely or Robert Earl Keen (the latter having recently covered "Amarillo Highway" on A Bigger Piece of Sky), setting up an art exhibit at Butch Hancock's Lubbock or Leave It gallery, or recording Human Remains at Don Caldwell Studios in Lubbock and the Hit Shack in Austin.

The recording sessions found Allen working with many of the same people from previous albums (the familiar Lubbock mafia), but he added some new faces as well: Charlie Sexton does some guitar work; Will Sexton co-wrote and played on "Galleria dele Armi;" and David Byrne (yes, the former Talking Head), who isn't exactly a new Allen cohort, hovers in the background, lending his most extensive help on an Allen project to date. The most notable new face, however, is that of Lucinda Williams. Her duets with Allen on "Room to Room" and "Back to Black" are the most instantly striking pieces of the album, her voice laying a blue smoothness over Allen's smoldering gravel.

"I've known Lucinda since the late Seventies," explains Allen, "since right around [her album] Happy Woman Blues. She was playing some in Lubbock and around Texas, and I just kept track of her over the years. We had always talked about doing something, and these songs seemed really right for her to be on, so I just called her up."

As for Byrne, Allen's been associated with the eclectic musician (who's also shown a fascination with Gilmore and Hancock) for over 10 years. "I met David in 1985 when he was doing his movie True Stories. My wife [Jo Harvey Allen] was one of the actors in the movie, and he asked me to write lyrics to a melody he had. We kind of hit it off and have become friends and worked on a number of projects off and on."

It doesn't appear likely, however, that he'll be reuniting with another collection of friends: the cast of Chippy. To the chagrin of many Austinites, Allen doesn't think he and his wife, who collaborated on the play for a theatre in Philadelphia, can get the original cast (Ely, Keen, Jo Carol Pierce, Butch Hancock, and Wayne Hancock) back together for a local run. "It's so monumentally expensive," says Allen. "Mainly because of the people involved, everyone has to shut down the 15 different directions they're going in. When we were doing it, Wayne was getting his record together, Butch had just cut one, Robert Earl had just cut one, Joe was recording his, and that's just the way it's going to be with all those people. We were really lucky just to get under one roof and do that thing. We've talked about getting together a musical revue, where we'd have some of the narration delivered and get all the people together just to do the music. We actually just finished talking with some people in Houston about it in April, but they couldn't raise the money to do it.

"I know the Paramount is a good theatre to do it, but Butch and I did the Amarillo Highway thing there [another musical revue, with Austin Chronicle columnist and spoken-word artist Michael Ventura], which turned out great, but was a financial nightmare."

All this musical output could well be viewed as something of a revival of Allen's recording career, since -- other than the occasional soundtrack work with Byrne and others, and a collection of outtakes compiled in 1992 -- Human Remains is the first standard studio album he's done since Bloodlines in 1983. And it puts him in position to make a bigger musical splash than ever before -- well, in the United States, anyway. Like most of the Lubbock songwriters, he's always had his European following there, but here, his albums have oft been ignored, as most self-released albums are. Even the most ardent Flatlanders fan is liable to respond "Who?" at the drop of Allen's name.

Thanks to an admiring Robert Earl Keen, however, Human Remains (and the domestic reissue of Lubbock...) has found its way onto the North Carolina-based indie Sugar Hill, one of the most important labels in the country for the songwriter/folk/etc. vein, and one that gives Allen at least a fighting chance of seeing some respectable sales figures.

Surprisingly, however, Allen doesn't really see this moment in his career as having greater importance than any other. After all, he's been busy as an artist over the years. "I've always had a hard time thinking of [playing music] as a career," Allen says. "It's always been a necessity and choice of the way you live. I am on the road a whole lot with the visual artwork. The records were like, really, a necessity for me... playing music and writing songs is just something that I've always done. This opportunity is something that just came along. I don't feel like it's a turning point. I'm real proud of every record I've made. I'm really proud of this one. But I think it has to do with just having exposure."

As said, identity conflicts just aren't a problem for Allen.

"I don't usually draw much of a line there. I think it's all about choices -- whether you're writing a song, or making a drawing, or a sculpture, or whatever, it's about what choices you make. The two have fed off of each other for so long, that it's really like one thing to me. When people ask me what I do, I usually just say I'm an artist and a songwriter." n

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