By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
The Texas in Terry Allen shoots across the fiber-optic miles from New Mexico with the force of a West Texas rainstorm. Casually stirring up the dust-dervishes of good and God and beauty and pain, the renegade sculptor-painter-musician is talking about truth. Actually, truth and dualities, the two qualities that so perfectly describe the Lubbock-to-Santa Fe transplant: Reluctant darling of art's haute monde and cult-hero songwriter of the Panhandle plains, the 55-year-old is a study in contrasts. He is equal parts cowboy poet and art-school philosopher, but his voice--that flat, scratchy cactus-flower voice--blurs the lines between the poles, washing it all together with a dreamy matter-of-factness.
In Allen's mind, it seems, nothing's heavy and nothing's light. It's all just out there. He is merely an observer.
And at the moment, he is observing the principles of salivation.
"Take salvation and put 'I'--or me--in the middle, and you get salivation," Allen says.
Salivation is the tongue-in-cheek title of his forthcoming Sugar Hill release, which hits stores March 23--the day he performs at the Red Jacket with David Byrne and Lucinda Williams. A seamless commentary on hypocrisy, spirituality, society, family, and individuality, Salivation is neither heavy nor light. It's a quirky telling of truths as the artist sees them. And as always, he sees them with a deadpan eagle's eye that sets him apart from his longtime collaborators out of Lubbock. On all of his albums, Allen's storylines and characters are more overtly surreal than those of such comrades as Butch Hancock or Joe Ely or Jimmie Dale Gilmore or Jo Carol Pierce. His themes are a bit more philosophical, more subtle in their exploration of humanity. He doesn't always rock, but the man certainly rolls.
"I don't know," Allen says on the phone from his Santa Fe studio. "I just feel like [the album] kind of gets at that collision between human needs and desires colliding up against spiritual needs and desires--and kind of the rabid nature of how this culture seems to deal with those things." A pause, the sound of a cigarette being lit. "And also, just that kind of meanness that seems to accompany a lot of spiritual verbiage--that kind of hypocrisy, that Jerry Falwell kind of meanness."
Right off the bat, Allen goes for the Religious Right's jugular, starting the disc with a swampy roadhouse rhythm that creates a backdrop for a caricature of the Apocalypse. On the title track, he sings of "spaceships and monkeys / Evolution and booze / Barmaids and pistols / Salivation and fools," insisting that "everything's over / Like it all just begun." Allen describes Jesus as "The Big Boy," comin' to wipe clean the slate.
The phrasing, the language, the irreverence--it's pure Allen. Lubbock on everything. Or more specifically, Texas on everything. Because even though Salivation is stamped with the social-observational qualities that have made him an important national figure in the museum-gallery scene, the album has a simple-men-and-women quality. It's about Allen's roots and where his heart lies. Those things bare themselves in the fact that, as usual, he employs Lone Star cronies on his album (Charlie Sexton, Bad Liver Mark Rubin, Ian Moore, Guy Clark, Marcia Ball, Davis McLarty, and Lloyd Maines in this case--plus his sons, Bukka and Bale). And they bare themselves in the particular sense of place that informs most Southern and Texas writers, as they gravitate toward the stark realities of the trailer park, the murder trial, the barroom brawl, and the broken heart. Something about rural, out-back culture makes it impossible for natives to ignore life's injustices; outlaw cultures, such as those of West Texas, are products of a certain harshness, whether it's the climate or the isolation or the provincialism.
"I think there's always been an undertow to that--you either buckle under or you bust out," says Jo Carol Pierce, the Lubbock singer-songwriter who has collaborated with Allen on previous albums, as well as in the musical stage narrative, Chippy--a play based on a Panhandle prostitute's diaries, featuring Ely, Hancock, Gilmore, Robert Earl Keen, and Allen's wife, Jo Harvey. (The play was performed at the American Music Festival in Philadelphia in 1993 and at the Lincoln Center the following year.)
"I wonder what music and literature out of Lubbock would have been without Terry," Pierce muses. "He was one of the first ones to do that story-cycle thing, like Juarez," she says, referring to Allen's first album, released in 1975. "It was more than just a record. It had story and characters and dialogue and place. Even then, he was integrating several different strains of creativity...And he was a huge influence on all of us. He was like somebody that we looked up to. We saw him take off and get out of that mean little town."
In high school, Pierce says, Allen was focusing mostly on his artwork. She recalls that he and Jo Harvey headed to Los Angeles after graduation, and not long after Pierce got out of school, she and her then-husband Jimmie Dale Gilmore went west for a while as well. But like the rest of the Lubbock gang, she eventually made her way back to Texas.