Texas Country Legend Terry Allen Finally Gets the Attention He Deserves

Terry Allen.

Terry Allen. Jo Harvey Allen

More often than not, album reissues serve as a means of cashing in on an artist’s legacy, reminding listeners that they churned out a classic or two and giving said classic a fresh coat of paint. But when that classic never received proper attention the first time around, the reissue exists as something more deliberate, more relevant—it wises us up to music that otherwise may have remained buried.

The music of Texas songwriter Terry Allen falls into the latter category, as so much great music does, because it transcends genre.

The most apropos label, Country Music, negates Allen’s knack for an acute, near-literary sense of character development and subtext. These aren’t just songs about drinkin’, fuckin’ and fightin’—even though all of that goes down in his stories. Allen’s often concerned with the larger implications of the decisions his subjects make and how those decisions come back around, more as an observer than a witting participant. Narratively, he’s always a bit existentially removed, whether singing about a football star or an aging, hometown woman who makes love like the best of ’em.

North Carolina label Paradise of Bachelors lovingly reissued Allen’s debut, the  great border-town morality play Juarez, earlier this year in a gatefold that featured Allen’s gorgeous lithographs depicting characters and scenes from the album. And today they release 1979’s Lubbock (on everything), Allen’s sophomore LP. Written upon returning back to his hometown after art school, the record finds Allen unleashing his surreal, conceptual genius on a place he never quite cared for all that much the first time around. POB is calling Allen’s music art-country, and that may be a little closer to the truth.

“Most of my feelings about going back there were always negative. I’d get on the loop and just drive around and around tryin’ to figure out where the hell I should even get off, or why.”

“My words can’t convince you to buy the album,” David Byrne writes in Lubbock’s liner notes. “But maybe I can convince you that appreciation for Terry’s art, and this is surely art, is widespread. It goes well beyond Texas. In my opinion it’s art that uses a popular form, hijacks that accessibility and familiarity, and says things you’d never expect those forms to say. This is not regional music or regional art—it touches folks cutting onions (now sautéed) here in NYC and wherever folks’ ears and hearts aren’t stuck in a rut.”

While my following conversation with Allen confirmed Byrne’s read on the universality of this music, it also reminded me that no one else could have made this record with the same wit, veracity and removed perspective as Allen. That’s what makes the stories Allen told me, and Lubbock as a whole, so vital—these are the songs of a man returning home with new eyes, which is something we can all relate to.

Super cool to be talking to you, and congrats on these reissues, too.

Well, thanks, Justin.

You’ve always been doing your own thing, but this umbrella term of “outlaw country” is kind of chic now, it’s coming back, maybe in small part due to these sort of reissues. And along with dudes like Townes Van Zandt  and Guy Clark, a lot of city kids are listening to your music for the first time. Does it feel like retribution after all these years of working on the fringes?

No, because I guess I don’t think that way. I’m really glad that they’re reissued and that they still have a life, they’ve kind of had an under-the-radar life for a long time, but it’s great that the Paradise of Bachelors guys put this out. I’m glad that other people get to hear ‘em, that there’s a whole new kind of audience. I love what you say about young people listening to it, but I don’t even know what that means, “young people.” [Laughs]

Well I just think that people are getting cynical about “modern country” very fast.

Yeah, I think the terminologies, the labels and all that, are ultimately just a lotta hot air, because people come up with these terminologies to keep them from having to think about something. So they just label it. “Outlaw Country,” “Alternative Country,” “Americana,” it’s music, you know? There’s different people making music, some of it kind of maybe fits within some kind of similar sound or similar curiosity, but it still doesn’t mean anything. I’ve been called so many types of musician and so many types of artist, if I believed any of it I’d be in a fucking mental institution. [Laughs]

Terry Allen's "Lubbock (on everything)" artowrk

Terry Allen’s Lubbock (on everything) artwork Paradise of Bachelors

When you say it’s about the music and about how people don’t wanna think about things, I can’t help but drift to Lubbock. Where was your head at when you made this record? Juarez is very story driven , very anecdotal, and there’s a lot of scenes. A composition not just musically, but with respect to the narrative. And I get the sense that with this record you keep all that, there are still characters like Joe Bob, but you blend it in and pull back a little. It’s almost like a morality play in a lot of ways. How did you approach that? Did it happen accidentally or were you going into it that way?

Well, I don’t think I had a plan. A lot of those songs were written in a lot of different circumstances at different periods of time, and my life was changing. When I got the idea to put another album together after Juarez because I had a lot of songs I’d written sporadically, I looked back at ‘em and felt a loose thematic sameness going on through ‘em. It’s really that simple. I tried to put ‘em together in a way that was coherent as one thing. But it wasn’t like I had a real locked-in plan, I’ve never had a real locked-in plan. Well, I take that back, I have had a few locked-in plans, but they really never did me no good at all. [Laughs]

Right on. I guess I’m even just responding to the full title of the record, “on everything”, you know? You use it in a literary way, to say that this is about everything.

Yeah, well I think for me it was. It was such a surprise to actually be doin’ it in Lubbock, and then with these Lubbock musicians, that return back to the place that I came from to do this record. But also, all of the different songs came from different climates in my life. I was living in L.A. in the ’60s and during the war, going to art school, and I was startin’ to show my work but also startin’ to get songs out. So there were a lot of things goin’ in a lot of different directions. But everything was apt at the time, because everything was up in the air but kinda happenin’ at once. That’s really where it came from.

(L-R) Terry Allen and Stubb at the album's release party

(L-R) Terry Allen and Stubb at the album’s release party. Paradise of Bachelors

What can you say about Lloyd Maines and his work on the record?

Well David Byrne wrote a little thing for Lubbock and wrote “God bless Lloyd Maines” when it comes to the music [laughs], and I have to say the same thing. Lloyd was the person who put the musicians together, because I didn’t know any musicians in Lubbock, and he was kinda always the anchor of the session. Sometimes he’s too much of an anchor so you have to cut the chain and move on, you know, but he’s an incredible mind when it comes to music.

He’s got an incredible sense of what a song should be, and I think that’s what’s most important about music—that it always goes to the song. You always play to the song, sing to the song, and make it about the thing that you’re doing, not some peripheral licks or peripheral attitude. Each song is about itself, and you go about that the best you can.

I think we’re very much on the same page with that attitude about what a song should do and how you should go about makin’ it, so we just kind of instantly became friends and instantly became smart-ass adversaries. We’ve always had a really good time, and I’ve always felt real close to his whole family because they kind of took my wife and I in just like we were one of them. It’s been very important to me, and to both of us.

So there was both a literal homecoming on this record, you going back to Lubbock, but also having that kind of communal vibe to some degree?

Yeah, it was a big surprise, because most of my feelings about going back there were always negative. I’d get on the loop and just drive around and around tryin’ to figure out where the hell I should even get off, or why. So going back there and meeting all these people, in the context of music and then becoming friends with ‘em, was a real added plus to the whole thing for me.

Texas goes to Europe

Texas goes to Europe. Paradise of Bachelors

That’s why I love your lyric about “that good ole American dream,” because it’s almost a literary trope in American writing, the idea that you can’t go home again. That’s the famous Thomas Wolf book.

Yeah!

The artist leaves home to make it, gets the money, gets the girl or whatever, then comes home and the home is different. They don’t remember all it taught them.

Well, I kinda think you don’t know it, you don’t know it until you leave it. You’re too busy looking at what your needs are and trying to get out of there, goin’ to wherever you feel like you need to be with your life. Then when you do go out in the world and come back, you really see it for the first time, with completely different eyes. So you can come home again, but it’s all different and so are you.

And you’ve gotta just go with it.

Yeah, I think you do, ‘cause it’s what it is.

Is that return where some of the more surrealist stuff comes in on the album? I guess I’m thinkin of “The Wolfman of Del Rio” in particular. Who’s he?

That’s Wolfman Jack, on the radio. And that was one of the first open doors of contemporary music that people my age had. You’d get in a car, drive it as fast as you’d go, turn on the radio as loud as it would go, and listen to Wolfman Jack, you know? He was a DJ out of Del Rio, but the transmitter was across the border in Acuña, so that’s “The Wolfman of Del Rio”. It’s not as surreal of a song as it was actually drivin’ down that highway and listening to him. He would always play a wolf howling at just the perfect spot in a song, and it would always make your greasy hair stick straight up. [Laughs]

Amazing. That’s one of a few on the album where the song has an extra bar or an extra meter to the verse that you kinda just hang on, and that sounds like a signature move of yours. How did that come about, just sort of letting the phrase hang before the song changes it up?

It came totally natural, nothing that I thought about consciously. I’ve always felt that the word and the sound of the word was supplemented by the music, y’know. I’ve focused so much on lyrics with what I’ve done and haven’t thought about how it’s supposed to be forced into some mathematical framework. If a word needs to be there and you feel it a certain way, you do that, and let whatever notes fall where they may. That’s just kind of the way I’ve always thought about language and thought about sound.

With regard to language, sound and the cultural dichotomy of growing up and living in Texas…it’s obviously stronger on Juarez, but there are a lot of Mexican-influenced compositional nods that bleed into your music. Beyond geography, how did that work its way into your songs?

Well, I’ve always loved border music and Conjunto music, yeah. When I was a little kid, the migrant cotton pickers would come from Mexico and have a big camp, usually out of the fairground, during cotton picking season. And I remember walking with my dad through some of these camps, it was the first time I remember people sitting out on the edge of a trailer or the back of a truck playin’ music, people singing, people eating and it being such a natural response to being alive.

Those images are still strong in my head—I remember the sounds, the smells. But that music’s ingrained in that part of the country, despite the significant amount of racism that’s always been there. That’s always seem to have driven musicians and artists in the opposite direction.

You’re saying the music and the art transcends the cultural divide as a unifier?

Well, I think it can be, for sure. I just think if you’re curious and you have a natural instinct toward tryin’a find out stuff that you don’t know, then you’re gonna find out pretty quick that we’re all pretty similar, unless you’re a complete dumbass. [Laughs]

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