Big Weird Texan Terry Allen Seeks Salvation in Salivation

On the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 13th Street, a giant Fiberglas iguana used to peer down from the roof of the Lone Star Cafe. What a joint! The barbecue was lousy and you couldn’t see the stage unless you leaned your back against the bar. But then, you’d be standing so close to Waylon or Willie that you could reach out and pass them a longneck bottle of Pearl or Lone Star beer. Where did that splendid ersatz Texas honky-tonk go? To Hell, probably. Poor lizard.

There’s something simultaneously rustic and cosmopolitan about Texas culture, which kind of explains why Texans have a thing for New York. Buddy Holly may have been born in Lubbock and died in Iowa, but his last address was the Brevoort on Eighth Street. Even Holly Golightly was from a little panhandle town called Tulip. Artist and musician Terry Allen sums up that psycho-geographical link perfectly when he tells how he first set foot in Manhattan in 1970 to see Waylon Jennings play Max’s Kansas City. “Most of Willie Nelson’s ‘Picnic people’ were in the audience,” Mr. Allen said, referring to an annual Texas songfest Willie hosts. “I came all this way to still be in Texas.”

Although the Lubbock-born Mr. Allen is as Texan as Lyndon Johnson, he’s spent much of his life rubbing shoulders with the “art mob” in Los Angeles, New Mexico and Washington, D.C. Indeed, the cover to one of his CDs features a photo taken in the National Gallery, where he had a video installation. There he is pontificating to Nancy Reagan, of all people. The former First Lady didn’t know who Mr. Allen was, but she graciously let him chew her ear off about “marriage and professional wrestling.”

If, like Nancy Reagan, you are unfamiliar with Mr. Allen, that’s because he’s one of the last wild geniuses left who hasn’t been commercialized by the media. But there’s a good reason for that. For 25 years, he’s sung neo-honky-tonk art songs in a thick-tongued Lubbockian drawl that makes Waylon Jennings sound as patrician as William F. Buckley Jr. He plays piano, too. With fingers as wide as pancakes, he bangs out neo-primitive boogie-woogie and Pentecostal ballads that tell of such seminal Texas experiences as speeding down the Amarillo Highway with a trunk full of beer, seeing it rain little prairie dog bones after a tornado or discussing the difficulty of drawing horses with a waitress (“I told her she was drawing sausages … not horses. She said no … they were horses”).

His first record, 1975’s Juarez (Fate), was a simple piano song cycle about two pairs of lovers caught in a trailer park shootout. It was recorded in San Francisco because his cousin was the Jefferson Airplane’s road manager and could pull strings to get him studio time at 3 in the morning. Mr. Allen returned to Lubbock at the end of the 70’s to record two more glorious albums, Lubbock (on Everything) and Smokin the Dummy (both on Sugar Hill). To call them “glorious” is not just hyperbole. The cusp between the 70’s and 80’s was honky-tonk’s last magnificent era, when Merle Haggard, George Jones and even dumb old Hank Williams Jr. released the best albums of their careers (respectively, Back to the Barrooms and Big City ; I Am What I Am and Still the Same Ole Me ; and Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound and The Pressure Is On ).

But Merle, George and Hank Jr. are undisputed country artists, and country music is essentially Southern. Mr. Allen’s music is avowedly Texan, as is the work of his longhorn peers Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Lyle Lovett and the late, great Townes Van Zandt. Is Texas music Southern? It’s a deep philosophical question. Mr. Allen provides an answer of sorts in his latest album, Salivation (Sugar Hill). In “Southern Comfort,” a song about the Second Coming, he ends each verse by listing pairs of Southern states, “Ah-um Mississippi/ Ah-um Alabama.” By the end, he’s listed all 12 states below the Mason-Dixon line, then finishes by mentioning Texas. The song implies that the Second Coming will only occur down South, with Christ making his final stop in the Lone Star State.

Salivation sounds like nothing coming out of Nashville or Memphis. There’s too much barrelhouse piano. And you haven’t heard such sweet slurs of pedal steel since George Jones was still riding his lawn mower to the liquor store. But Mr. Allen also dolls up his new songs with eclectic Arabic-sounding instruments. Who does he think he is, Tom Waits?

The narratives on Salivation sound like numbers in a demented Broadway musical. It was a mistake to put a painting of a doe-eyed Jesus on the cover; it implies the songs are linked by blasphemy. Mr. Allen tries to sanctify the American tradition of homicide. One song fantasizes that Billy the Kid was an angel of death who played steel guitar. On “Cortez Sail,” he revisits a few songs from his homicidal operetta, Juarez . “Ain’t No Top 40 Song,” the album’s “Sympathy for the Devil,” is a crunching electric stomp that begins with some dude beating his girl to death with a wrench and ends with a whore cutting some john’s heart out. “Ain’t no Top 40 song,” Mr. Allen sings. “It’s blood on the car seats/ Holes in the wall/ Wild horse screamin’/ Kickin’ slats from the stall/ Headlights burnin’/ Right out of her head/ When the world’s on fire/ And love is dead/ Ain’t no Top 40 song.” No surprise that Mr. Allen and Cormac McCarthy are buddies.

Mr. Allen seems determined to piss God off any way he can. The album’s title track, a terrific country rocker and yet another track about the Second Coming, ends on a sweet but peculiar note. Employing a weak Donald Duck imitation, he recites: “Hello daddy/ Hello mom/ Hello old friends/ Angels of the mystery/ Flying out, flying in/ There ain’t no way/ That’s the way it goes/ And heaven is just an adjustment/ That moves on down the road.” It’s hard to make anything of this unless you happen to know that Mr. Allen has a mild obsession with a Disney documentary from 1960 that made the bears at Yellowstone Park seem so cute, children were later mauled trying to pet them. Perhaps Mr. Allen is praying for all of us who have been chewed up by beauty.

Mr. Allen says he loves burned-out cars because “it means someone died trying to get somewhere.” That’s poetry for sure. But words only go so far. As Walter Pater said, “All art aspires to the condition of music.” For whatever reason, Texas has been the birthplace of a disproportionately large number of practitioners of the highest art, and Mr. Allen has always been in the thick of things. Jimmie Dale Gilmore, a musical Renaissance man in his own right, got inspired after seeing fellow high school student Allen bang out his originals on a piano while wearing a Dracula cape. Although Mr. Allen remains the most curious of the Texas troubadours, his songs can be as melodic as Lyle Lovett’s or as lyrical as Townes Van Zandt’s. His only shortcoming is his Donald Duck imitation. Pray for him.