By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
"When I left Texas," Terry Allen says, "I used everything I could to scapegoat it. It took a long time to circle back and see my blood for that first time...When my dad died, basically everything kind of ended. I was 15. So I just focused on escape, got married, moved out to California. Then I went back to record there in the '70s--I'd had this hatred toward Texas and my upbringing--and when I started listening to my music, there was nothing about hatred in it."
Certainly, Allen didn't have a traditional upbringing. Born to a 60-year-old Texas Leaguer and a 40-year-old barrelhouse piano player, Allen grew up with "musicians and ball players banging on the door in the middle of the night, scratching on the screen. And then this whole party would ensue. And the stories were endless, and the bullshit was endless."
He says that because his parents were creative people who lived their dreams, they didn't put a lot of weight on him to be any particular thing. When he was a kid, his mom taught him to play "St. Louis Blues" and told him, "You're on your own," he says wryly, referring to his particular style of piano. (Allen admits no one's ever called him a virtuoso on the ivories.)
But it was art that provided him the escape hatch--and it's still what Allen is best known for. Although he's released 11 albums (including Salivation), his national reputation has come about through sculpting. For his visual art and performance work (which is as sardonic and poetic as his music--the new CD features a painting of Jesus with puppy-dog eyes, done by an unknown artist), he has received three National Endowment for the Arts fellowships and a Guggenheim fellowship. His sculpture graces San Francisco's Moscone Center, Denver International Airport, and Citicorp Plaza in Los Angeles, and has been featured in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
It's tempting, then, to view Allen as two people: as the gritty songwriter who often pairs up with Guy Clark (the two just completed a four-city tour, which took Allen to Nashville for the very first time), or as the black-jacket-and-jeans guy who erects huge gargoyles and builds bronze trees at international airports.
"I've always had to deal with that or ignore it," Allen says. "Art people saying, 'What's this music stuff all about?' and music people saying, 'What's all this art stuff about?' But the two things have always been so interconnected and have fed each other. I've kind of gotten around it by playing at my openings, and I've also used a lot of music in my installations and sculpture pieces. I think people always want to isolate things and ask you to do one thing. And 'one thing's always seem so plural to me--like all those big words like love and beauty and truth and hate. You're talking massive plurals. People have more than one sense: You hear things, you see things, you touch things. Most of us don't go into some apoplectic collapse because they're all working at once, and I just think you use your senses to inform you."
Allen is doing exactly that in an installation for the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. "Countree Music," a collaborative music-sculptural piece he created with Byrne and Ely, is a 3,600-square-foot installation whose foundation is a map of the world on the terminal floor, in which Houston sits at the center, and in the center of "Houston" is a 25-foot bronze oak tree. Stationed around the map are speakers that play indigenous music from various countries: didgeridoo from Australia, bagpipes from Scotland, sitar from India, whale sounds from Antarctica.
So once again, his collaborative tendencies surface in his work. He and Ely have a long history of writing and performing together, but Allen also has a 15-year connection with Byrne that began when the former Talking Head came to Texas to film True Stories. Byrne was familiar with Allen's early albums Lubbock (on Everything) and Juarez, and for the film, which featured Jo Harvey, he asked Allen to co-write a song; the result was "Cocktail Desperado." Another consequence was the blossoming of a friendship, which has grown over the years.
The latest by-product of that relationship is next week's show at the Red Jacket with Lucinda Williams, a memorial concert in honor of the late C.B. "Stubb" Stubblefield, the famous barbecue cook who started out in Lubbock and whose restaurant was the epicenter of the West Texas music scene. The event is the kind of show Allen likes best: a song swap, largely acoustic, in which the artists sit together on stage and play their favorite songs. It's the kind of thing Allen does with Guy Clark, the sort of thing he used to do with Townes Van Zandt before Van Zandt's death. It has that feeling of tailgate pickin', where mood and whim and intersecting energies determine the "set list"--which is nonexistent for the Red Jacket gig.
Allen says he has no idea what he and Williams and Byrne will play. But at his South by Southwest performance on March 19 at Liberty Lunch, he'll focus on songs from the new album, which is the sort of disc perhaps not suited for such a casual atmosphere. Salivation needs to be heard in its entirety, not broken up into a dozen little pieces.