I n an interview following the 2013 release Bottom of the World, Terry Allen told the Chronicle, "Visual art, theatre, and music are all pretty much one thing for me. Focusing on one can bring a whole clutch of the others. So I don't really make a lot of designations between the different groups. It's just one thing."
Allen grew up in Lubbock, son of a major league baseball player turned wrestling and concert promoter, and a mother who performed barrelhouse piano. A made member of the "Lubbock music mafia" that includes the Flatlanders, Maines brothers Lloyd and Kenny, and Tommy Hancock, he received a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles in 1966, and taught there afterward. In 1971, he moved on to UC Berkeley, stayed a year, then moved on to Cal State Fresno, where he remained until the end of the decade.
During that time, Allen built upon his reputation as a visual artist, a journey beginning straight out of college. He's since achieved worldwide renown with exhibits in New York, Paris, Sydney, and throughout California and Texas. His theatrical and radio work has distinguished him as well, most memorably 1993's Chippy: Diaries of a West Texas Hooker, a stage musical written with his wife Jo Harvey Allen and featuring a host of Texas musicians including Joe Ely, Robert Earl Keen, Wayne "The Train" Hancock, and Jo Carol Pierce.
As a songwriter, he's drawn comparisons to Randy Newman and, his good friend, the late, great Guy Clark. Allen's reputation as a musician began with 1975's Juarez and its follow-up four years later, double album Lubbock (On Everything). Differing in conception and construction, they cemented the now 73-year-old Allen as a talent to be observed and lauded.
As such, his influence stretches locally from Keen, who in turn influenced hundreds of so-called "Red Dirt" country artists, to New York with (famously) ex-Talking Heads frontman David Byrne. Like his visual art, Allen's music remains difficult to pigeonhole. As he's been famously quoted, "People tell me it's country music and I ask which country?"
North Carolina label Paradise of Bachelors has reissued Juarez and Lubbock (On Everything) in definitively deluxe packages on CD, and, for the first time, vinyl. Both collections were reissued by Sugar Hill Records in the Nineties, but Allen says the new versions have all been pitch corrected and digitally cleansed. Key are booklets accompanying both, rich with associated artwork, previously unseen photos, and detailed liner notes from Paradise of Bachelors partner Brendan Greaves and Allen himself, as well as essays from Byrne, Dave Alvin, Allen's friend Dave Hickey, and Lloyd Maines.
"Brendan dogged me for six or seven years to re-license Juarez," explains Allen from his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. "It was something that meant a whole lot to him. I'd met him before he was even in the record business. He was working in a gallery in Philadelphia when we did Chippy there. He was very persistent. Brendan was also interested in doing vinyl, which I hadn't thought much about, even though I was aware there had been a resurgence. I'd asked Sugar Hill if they would be interested in releasing them on vinyl and they said absolutely not.
"So when they came up for re-licensing, I thought it was a way to give both of these records a new life to a new audience. His interest was initially mainly on Juarez. I think they bit off more than they were expecting because it took them forever to find the original masters. They finally found them in London.
"Both were originally on Fate Records, which was just me and we didn't have any idea, really. Topic Records in England contacted me to do a tour over there and to license them. It was sometime in the Eighties. That's how they got over there. Listening back to the masters, it's like every one of them was recorded on a different planet. That all got corrected and they did the whole digital thing with them."
Greaves' attraction to Juarez isn't unusual. The album's been compared to Dylan's Blood on the Tracks and Newman's Good Old Boys in scope and originality and, in many ways, brings to mind the films of David Lynch. Allen calls it "a haunting," the story of four characters crossing borders from California to Colorado and Mexico, and a murder, all of it fluid and bothersome. It's had its share of transmutations beyond music: drawings, prints, texts, installations, a screenplay, a musical theatre piece (co-written with Byrne), a one-woman stage play, and an NPR radio play, both starring Jo Harvey.
"It came out of a whole body of visual work," explains Allen. "Lubbock, the album, is different in that it really hasn't gone through those kinds of changes. But Juarez has become a guide point for a lot of other pieces I've made, as far as the way I was writing at the time. Juarez was like making one thing, a story. Lubbock is a geographical story and the story of a particular time, but it's made up of very succinct parts."
A multimedia innovator, Allen originally recorded the songs on Juarez as part of an art exhibition. He attached reel tapes to the back of his drawings although the songs weren't meant to explicate the drawings in any way.
"The songs were recorded at home, just vocal and piano, then put in a box that I glued to the back of the art," reveals their author. "It was kind of a struggle because I was just learning how to do music with visual imagery. I wasn't interested in making films, especially, with Juarez. The characters, the drawings, and the songs were not illustrative of one another at all. Each was a separate world and told a separate story about the same thing. I never thought of characters as being anything other than atmospheres or climates.
"At one point, I even thought of like a jukebox, where you'd put a coin in and a drawing popped up and the song that went with it would play. I did one show where I had a piano on a platform on rollers and people would wheel me around to a drawing, and I would sing the song to the drawing. But none of it made real sense."
At an exhibit in Normal, Illinois, he met Jack Lemon of Landfall Press, a print workshop that agreed to manufacture 50 box sets containing nine lithographs and the accompanying Juarez LP, recorded at the famed Wally Heider Studio in San Francisco. Allen pressed 1,000 albums to be given away or sold during appearances. Very few of the originals remain.
While a truly underground musical endeavor, it made Allen connections at that time that served him well. He befriended Dave Hickey, an arts journalist who was also working with Waylon Jennings and Tompall Glaser at a publishing company in Nashville. Hickey played demos of Allen's songs for country star Bobby Bare, who recorded "Amarillo Highway" and "High Plains Jamboree" on 1975's Cowboys and Daddys. A chance meeting with Lowell George at a party in L.A. led to a jam session and a recording of "New Delhi Freight Train" on the last Little Feat album before George passed away, Time Loves a Hero, also 1977.
"I can tell you that Lubbock (On Everything) was my The Wall or the White Album or Blonde on Blonde," emails Robert Earl Keen. "I think I listened to it exclusively for a year, in the Eighties when I lived in Austin.
"When we made A Bigger Piece of Sky, I had the incredible good fortune to have Garry Tallent from the E Street Band playing bass on the record," continues Keen. "Jonathan Yudkin played the fiddle, and George Marinelli played guitar. Like out of some music biz movie, Garry started playing the descending riff that starts [Allen's 'Amarillo Highway'] and everybody fell in. 'Piece of cake,' as Jonathan was fond of saying. That was 1993.
"I've played 'Amarillo Highway' at almost every show since."
"It's a great compliment, but you know it's a lie," retorts Allen, who credits Keen with introducing him to the folks at Sugar Hill Records.
As spare and uneasy as Juarez is, Lubbock (On Everything) sprawls, laughs at, and laughs with the city that spawned it. Written on the West Coast and recorded in the Panhandle, it presages the moodier aspects of latter day alt.country acts like Uncle Tupelo and Richard Buckner. Its recording, with Joe Ely, Ponty Bone, Richard Bowden, Jesse Taylor, the Maines Brothers, and even the Monterey High School Marching Band, preserves a moment in time when lifelong friendships were made.
"Serendipity is a good word," agrees Allen. "I had spent very little time playing with other musicians. It was just one of those encounters where everything fell in place. The possibilities of music went both ways; we opened each other's ears. It was pure joy that was going in there and it came out of nowhere and it was unanimous. It was an incident with a record at the end of it."
Lloyd Maines, renowned for his work as a producer and sideman, remembers the sessions well.
"Terry Allen stomped into the front door of Caldwell Studio, in Lubbock, wearing snakeskin boots and carrying a heavy leather book of 22 songs," he writes. "He had already named the record Lubbock (On Everything). That was my first meeting with Terry. I had talked to him once by phone.
"We walked straight back to the piano in the studio and he played through every song. I was stunned. His lyrics, his melodies, his honest and straightforward delivery absolutely blew me away. And I might add that by that time, I was pretty hard to impress, because I had been playing music in the Joe Ely Band for about four-plus years.
"The sessions were simple and no frills. We brought in a drummer and bass player to do the tracking with me on guitar and Terry on piano. We tracked 22 songs in two days. All Terry's performances were live. We did add a few color instruments and some harmonies, then we mixed it and shipped it off for pressing.
"I had no idea that, almost 40 years later, it would still have strong legs. It goes to show that Terry's songwriting is so strong that his songs will be studied for generations. I've always thought that some copies of Terry's albums should be sealed in a time capsule and opened 50 or 100 years from now, just to show and share what originality sounded like in the 'old days.'"
The album's odd sense of humor stands apart even now. Allen wasn't writing love songs, especially about the city of Lubbock or as the joke goes, a land so flat that on a clear day – if you look hard enough – you can see the back of your own head.
"It's almost a journal of the period [when] it was written," claims Allen. "It was written during a time that I had a very distinct hostility toward Lubbock. Every time we'd go, I'd be waiting for the time when we could go back to California. I'd get on the loop that circles the city and try to find a reason to never get off. It was mean in a way. It was a hangover from what propelled me out of there.
"It's about leaving one thing and going to somewhere else, on a lot of different levels."
Terry Allen performs Juarez and Lubbock (On Everything) at the Paramount Theatre on Saturday, Jan. 14, with some of the musicians who performed on the albums as well as special guests.
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