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.
"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.
That's because, at first glance, it's easy to assume that the new album is about spirituality. But it's not. Like most of Allen's albums, it's about human folly. Only in this case, the songwriter uses religion as the stage on which the characters play out their complex, often down-on-their-luck dramas--whether they're burned-out, boozed-up scofflaw musicians staving off loneliness in a New Mexico dive ("Billy the Boy," a remake of the moody epic from Allen's Pedal Steal album) or force-fed American consumers bowing down to the savior, Jesus Cash ("The Doll").
Although Allen obviously uses religion as a platform to investigate the deeper convolutions of the psyche, in Salivation he's really talking about avoidance and blame-placing and guilt, and how difficult it is for the Average Joe just to be who he is.
"I don't think this album is about religion or Jesus or Buddha," he says. "I really think it's the way, as humans, when we get backed into a corner or we're just being dumb, how we take those things and use them for our own means. Anything can be turned into its absolute opposite and used against it. And we sort of dance through that mine field all the time."
One instance where he addresses the mine field is at the end of the first song, when he reverts to, well, Donald Duck talk. Only, the method and the message are oblique; you have to read the words in the liner notes, then read between the lines: "Meanwhile, Duck talking to the sky / Hello, Daddy / Hello, Momma/Hello, old friends / Angels of 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."
Allen says that in some ways, the Duck refers to an inside joke with Butch Hancock. "Butch and I sit around and have long conversations in Duck talk," he says with a laugh. "But I think the duck is like the way we speak to ourselves and the way we speak to a higher power. It turns into such gibberish in a way--like these voices in our heads, I suppose. The thing I like about it is that it starts out kind of goofy, then it turns."
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It's a poignant, eerie moment that links the rowdiness of Salivation to the hauntingly ironic admonitions of "The Doll." But what's most fascinating about the album, aside from its many musical moods (we hear accordion, mandolin, djembi, cello, bass clarinet, bazouki, harmonium, Jell-O bowl, and other instruments), is that it really is one long piece. With maybe two exceptions, the album has few pauses. It flows, in movements, from one song or ballad to another, using the piece "Red Leg Boy" as its nucleus.
A Louisiana sort of ditty with accordion, triangle, fiddle, and piano, "Red Leg Boy" is the happy, serene calm in the midst of a powerful, chattering-voices storm. Using the song as a focal point of sorts is an appropriate device, considering that the song is dedicated to Allen's father, Sled, and has a brief intro by Allen's grandson, also named Sled. And it says a lot about what matters to the renegade sculptor-musician, who has never given much of a damn about "selling" any of his creative endeavors.
"I tried to structure [the album] where everything would pretty much flow into a center and out of the center, and the center is 'Red Leg Boy,' which I think is about anybody making a choice and going after what they are. And some people are lucky enough to find that out and go at it. My dad lived to be in his 70s, and he was a baseball player till he died. He was dying of cancer, but he waited until the World Series was over. And the day of the last game, when it was over, he went into a coma and died." And the way Terry Allen tells it, it's not a sad ending at all, but a satisfying one. In his world, the "end" is only the middle.
Songwriters Concert, honoring C.B. Stubblefield and featuring Lucinda Williams, David Byrne, and Terry Allen, takes place March 23 at the Red Jacket.