A New Biography Becomes Part of the Art Vortex That Is Terry Allen

Allen was a nexus for collaboration, and part of the fun of this book is the eclectic profligacy of the name-dropping. 

Steve Earle 8th Annual John Henry's Friends Benefit
Terry Allen performs at Soundcheckin 2023. Photo by Al Pereira/Getty Images

Musician and artist Terry Allen’s semi-infamous song “A Truckload of Art” is a country music satire of New York art snobbery. It’s also, though, a vision of art going up in flames and smoke, gleefully disembodied so “no person were to see it.” The jaunty, sloppy piano waltz has you tapping your feet and imagining an art that isn’t there—a car crash of art scattered on the highway of your cerebellum.

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Yeah a Truckload of Art
Is burning near the highway
Precious objects are scattered
All over the ground
And it’s a terrible sight
If a person were to see it
But there weren’t nobody around.

Brendan Greaves’ authorized biography of Allen, A Truckload of Art, takes its name from the song. And sure enough, its 500 pages are stuffed with a convoy-worth of aesthetic objects—albums, installations, plays, performances, drawings, films. Allen’s art takes so many forms that its forms seem almost superfluous. It’s conceptual almost by default; there’s so much there there it keeps falling out of the truck and into a myth or idea of itself.

A collage of a book cover and a bald man with his arms crossed
The new biography of the singer and artist captures his spirit and the connections he made. Courtesy the publisher

Allen—whom Observer gushed over in 1999 and and interviewed in 2016—was born in 1943 and grew up in Lubbock, Texas; his father, Sled, was a baseball player and event promoter. His mother, Pauline, was a jazz and barrelhouse piano player. Young Terry had a ringside seat when performers like Elvis Presley and Bo Diddley came through Lubbock, and he took that inspiration and ran with it; he caused a minor scandal when he wrote and performed a raucously deranged song about orgies for a high school party. He somehow managed to graduate and went on to study at the Chouinard Art Institute in LA, earning his degree in 1966.

Allen’s early work was primarily colorful, absurdist, cartoonish drawings and collages on paper; the first image reproduced in the book’s generous art gallery is a 1969 illustration of a cowboy whose face is literally all teeth riding a bulbously suggestive hot dog. The artwork, though, quickly began to coalesce around more or less filled-in narrative concepts.

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The first of these, a cycle called Juarez, involved a pair of outlaws who murder (or possibly transform into) a sailor and a sex worker near the Mexican border. Allen turned this sort-of story into a stripped-down 1975 country concept album (also called Juarez) and a series of exhibitions and installations. One of the more striking objects in the latter is a triptych including a box with a radio; an image of a piano frame in flames; and a photo of an eleven-year-old Terry in a dress. The experimentation with gender identity nods to other blurred boundaries—music crossing the border to image, biography crossing the border to fiction.

A statue of a man with a tie draped over his eyes and a dress shoe in his mouth
Terry Allen’s controversial ‘Modern Communication’ statue. Photo: Chris Murphy, www.chrism70.com

Juarez was only the first of several projects that drew around them art, music, performance and biographical material—DUGOUT was more closely focused on Allen’s childhood; Youth in Asia was centered on the Vietnam War. Reading Greaves’ biography, though, each tends to blend into each, until there’s one continuous performance of art-making that is Allen’s life.

That art-making life in turn seems to take in the whole of the aesthetic endeavor of America from the 1950s through the 2020s. Allen was a nexus for collaboration, and part of the fun of this book is the eclectic profligacy of the name-dropping.

There are some obvious walk-ons: fellow Lubbock musicians like Joe Ely; outlaws and alt-country icons like Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams. And then you get further afield; David Byrne was a close friend and worked on film projects with Allen’s wife, actor/singer/performance artist Jo Harvey Allen. Lowell George was a close friend and his band Little Feat covered Allen’s Jesse James anthem “New Delhi Freight Train.” Sculptor H.C. Westermann was a mentor and friend. Art star critic Dave Hickey was a constant champion. Poet Philip Levine collaborated with Allen on one of his most famous pieces, Corporate Head, which shows a bronze statue of a businessman leaning forward so his head disappears into a bank (Levine’s poem is on the ground; to read the words “They said to get ahead/I had to lose my head” you are forced to lean forward like the businessman.) An 8-year-old Natalie Maines of the Chicks sings on one Allen track (her dad Lloyd Maines was the producer). Nancy Reagan, Martin Scorsese, Joan Tewkesbury, Laurie Anderson, Don Cheadle, Bruce Nauman, the Dixie Cups, W.S. Merwin, John Goodwin, Pops Staples—you never know who you’re going to find on the next page, schmoozing with Allen, collaborating with him, cheering him on or being cheered on by him.

Photo of 'Corporate Head' by Terry Allen at Seventh and Figueroa in Los Angeles. Weekend cover on s
‘Corporate Head’ by Terry Allen. Photo by Ken Hively/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

It’s fun to see familiar characters pop in and out of the narrative and to wonder who’s going to show up next. (Hey! It’s John Baldessari!) And that is itself, I think, part of Allen’s art. He’s a creator who revels in context collapse. Poets, artists, musicians, actors, high art, low art, pick-up trucks with avant-garde collectibles in the bed, performing “My Country Tis of Thee” with a Thai band—for Allen, divisions of genre and medium exist just to be stomped beneath his snakeskin boots or lit on fire by the side of the road. The title of his most famous album, 1979’s sprawling Lubbock (On Everything) captures an expansive aesthetic, as personal history and regional commitments get spread like jalapenos across the horizon, the gallery or whatever catches Allen’s eye. There are great songs and great art, but the joy is really in the way that the hot kick is pervasive and can go on, well, everything.

If the form is less important than the ability to fill every form, then Greaves’ Truckload of Art can be seen not just as documentation of Allen’s work but also as part of that work itself. “The Conceptual work of art only exists in the viewer’s mental participation,” critic Tony Godfrey argues. Allen’s songs, artwork and performances are meant to be experienced and seen, not just thought about. But they also are all meant to be experienced and seen in relationship to one another and to Allen’s own life, collaborations and sketchy narrative schematics.

In that sense, the biography—which it’s worth pointing out was written by Allen’s friend and professional associate (Greaves owns the label that currently releases Allen’s music) drawing on Terry and Jo Harvey Allen’s extensive notebooks and on hours of interviews—is a summation and exemplar of a collaborative art practice that is as much ethos as it is any single song or sculpture or image. Greaves’ prose can be overheated, and he tiptoes around some subjects (marital infidelity, most notably.) But the excesses and elisions seem appropriate for a creator like Allen who gets into everywhere because he won’t be tied down in any one honky-tonk. “I welcomed the run from what I done,” Allen sings on “New Delhi Freight Train.” Greaves hasn’t exactly caught Terry Allen in Truckload of Art. But he’s come as close as anyone is likely to.

A New Biography Becomes Part of the Art Vortex That Is Terry Allen