An outlaw of his own accord, Terry Allen’s output across a drove of mediums has remained open and engaging for over four decades. The Lubbock, TX native is a stalwart storyteller, oftentimes softening the lines of genre in both music and visual art. At age 72, Allen maintains a rigid work ethic, carrying with him the rich history from which he came.
Seminal 70s recordings Juarez and Lubbock (On Everything) are resolute, meant to be absorbed in their entirety. With humor and a gift for songwriting, each finds Allen subtly giving the middle finger to any and all expectations of what Country is or should be. Ahead of their reissue for Paradise of Bachelors, we spoke with Terry at home in Sante Fe, NM.
Aquarium Drunkard: What are you working on currently?
Terry Allen: I just put up a new piece I’m calling Memwars. It’s a sequence of about nine stories. Each of them kind of lead to the making of a song. How songs come about, stories of people I knew from childhood, relatives, incidents. Things that somehow ended up being a song and stories that talk about the idea that some songs don’t become what they really are until something happens after the song is written. Takes them a while to become what they are.
AD: You’ve worked across so many mediums over the years. When do you know a song should be a painting/drawing or vice versa?
Terry Allen: I don’t think in that way in terms of division. I figure there is an unlimited availability to just about anything you do. It kind of depends on what the idea is. What the circumstances are. I don’t think ‘oh well, I’m going to use this or that”, it just comes out of whatever the thinking concerning the work is. Like this piece is entirely a video installation (Memwars). There are three videos. Two of them are moving across a wall from one another. Constantly moving…the story videos. Just basically talking heads. My head and my wife, Jo Harvey, who I use a lot when there is acting involved. We’re just telling the stories. When they stop, it goes to a stationary wall. A song wall where the song is played. It’s just me playing a piano in front of a green screen with images that relate to the stories.
AD: You’re living in Santa Fe now. What drew you there?
Terry Allen: We lived in California for years. Lived in LA for all the 60s. Bay Area most of the 70s and then in the Central Valley. I taught at Fresno State for seven years and then quit, but we stayed on there and our kids grew up there. When they got out of high school and were ready to leave, we were ready to leave too. Deciding whether to come back to Texas or somewhere back in this part of the world. I booked a bunch of gigs in Texas. All over. We stopped in Santa Fe cause we had always traveled through here and really liked it and found a house just on a fluke that we really liked.
We changed our whole life overnight. Buying this house and selling the one in California. That’s how we got here. We lay pretty low when we are here. Low as snakes basically. We both travel a lot so when we are here we are in our studios. My mother did play her last professional job at the La Fonda hotel in in the lounge. We’d drive over from Lubbock to play the gig and I’d sleep in the booth. And we’d drive back after the gig. I had a history in Santa Fe.
AD: Speaking of family, can you tell me about the dance hall your folks ran when you were growing up, Jamboree Hall?
Terry Allen: My dad was a baseball player but he was nearly 60 when I was born. So he didn’t play anymore. He had a chance to get to get a hold of a defunct gospel church and he turned it into a dance hall on the weekends. He ended up getting a wrestling promotership and started throwing wrestling matches and would move to another building. He had moved out to an aircraft hangar. On Friday nights he would have these all black incredible dances with T-Bone Walker and Jimmy Reed. On Saturday nights he’d have all white country music. It was heavily segregated in Lubbock at the time. All these touring bands. Everyone was a touring band. People like Hank Williams or B.B. King. They were all traveling in one big station wagon with bass and drums on top.
AD: Did you know you were watching these ‘stars’?
Terry Allen: I worked out there. I sold what we called set ups. It was a bucket full of ice with lemon or limes and cokes because it was dry. So people brought their own bottle and kept them under the table. They would buy stuff to mix their drinks with. From the time I remember, I worked out there but as far as having a real sense of the history of what that was going to become…the people that were playing there, I didn’t. That is all in retrospect.
When I was a kid, when Hank Williams died in ’51, it was like Kennedy’s death. The entire town was shut down. Every radio was playing a litany of his songs. I thought as a kid that this was a great man. Years later in LA I found out that he died on January 1st, when the whole town would have been shut down anyway. Those kind of impressions, however deceptive they are, that’s what our life is made of. I really didn’t at the time have any concept other than that there were a lot of people that came to see certain people and applauded a lot. Got exceptionally drunk.
AD: You’ve described Lubbock as ‘visually absent’ before. Was that a catalyst that led you to art in general?
Terry Allen: Thinking back, anytime you have any curiosity and you are raised in the absence of the visual, you have a tendency to want to fill things up. I think there was something to it. From the time I was very little I liked to draw. The space and the horizon dictates a kind of longing that if you have any creative urges, they fall into that and are encouraged by that. We had one picture in our house and it was of a sailing ship. That ship always reminds me of that flat land. And traveling through that space. The nature of that geology and the harshness of it makes you want to get your ass out of there as quick as you can. At the same time you are carrying so much of it with you because it’s all you know inside yourself when you leave there.
AD: There’s a story of you writing/reciting a beatnik poem in high school when you should have been working on Shakespeare. Instead of punishing you, your teacher encouraged you keep going. Why was that so important?
Terry Allen: It was so important to me just as a permission. To me, I was just trying to duplicate some kind of whacked-out beatnik poem, but being told to keep doing it – that was sobering to me. All of a sudden it occurred to me that there is a responsibility too. From my end. Of all the things that happened in high school, it was one of the few times when someone encouraged you to do what you ended up doing. The opposite is true also. I had an event where I was expelled from school for singing one of my own songs at an assembly. A song called a “Roman Orgy” and performed it after trying out. This coach as soon as I walked off the stage, threw me up against a brick wall and said they might not know what an orgy is but I do. That had its own kind of encouragement too because my peers approved very much of me singing it but the powers at be did not.
AD: I’m really excited about the Paradise of Bachelors reissues. How has your relationship with both Juarez and Lubbock (On Everything) changed over the years?
Terry Allen: They’ve gone through several reissues. They’ve always been a presence. Brendan had been dogging me for several years about doing something with him. He had expressed at the time wanting to reissue Juarez. I didn’t pay much attention to it. He was so persistent and I liked everything he said. When they came up…the licenses came up due, I called him and we started talking for real. Initially he just wanted to do Jurarez but then there was so much starting to happen with Lubbock (On Everything). I was getting ready to do a big blow out show where I’d re-do Lubbock in its entirety with the original band, which we just did. It fell in place for me. I was so relieved to talk to someone…Brendan is just so smart and his essay on Juarez was brilliant. I felt extremely lucky that these guys were interested and that they’ve done what they’ve done.
AD: Initially the songs on Juarez were intended to accompany an art installation. Did you ever imagine them taking on so many different forms?
Terry Allen: No, not at the time. At the time, I was writing songs and doing these visual pieces and they were coming together as one thing. I kind of thought the drawings were not in any way illustrating the music and the music was not a backdrop for the drawings. It was almost like the drawings were on one wall and the music on another. You are down the middle. They were always integrated…they were built that way. Came to me that way. But there was always an edge of more. Of wanting to see more…to do something else.
So it became a theater piece. A film script. A music-theatre piece. Then I developed a number of illustrations that were in museums, but really studies for sets for a theater piece that never happened. I’ve referred the record a lot as being a haunting. In a way it was. It wasn’t pre-planned, just came out of the ether. In a way it built itself. Cliche, but you felt like you were the vehicle. Just pouring into me. There was never any calculated effort to make a song work with a drawing or vice versa. I always thought of it as one thing and still do.
AD: And it was during a recording session that it clicked to do a proper album?
Terry Allen: I went into with Juarez with continuity. It was locked in to exactly what it was. The thing that is interesting now is talking to people about ordering an album. When you were dealing with an LP…you’ve got side one and two. You developed it, you really thought about the first part of a record and the second. Just like a play or story. It’s three sections. The first is California, that is the whole first side. Then there is Cortez and Juarez on side two. I don’t know how that works on the digital album where someone can just buy one song, which is fine. They were never intended to be anything other than a part of a whole.
AD: A reissue now with the power of the Internet means something very different.
Terry Allen: They do. Lubbock was similar in that it was a double record but it was pretty much organized and titled before I went into the studio. I had it in my notebooks locked in. That’s always been important to me when making a record. I’ve always thought of it as making one thing.
AD: Your dedication to your craft is remarkable. What keeps your creative spirit rejuvenated?
Terry Allen: I’ve never victimized myself with blocks. I’m kind of a Nazi with myself. I make myself go to my studio every day and whether I’m bored out of mind or can’t think of anything…I read or I answer mail. Sooner or later you get antsy and you start working. You start drawing something or I sit down at the piano and start playing. It’s like the old Flannery O’ Connor thing about writing…she said when it happens I want to be there so I go there every day.
AD: Seems like the other school of thought is just only create when you feel inspired.
Terry Allen: There are a lot of doors into making things. When it’s the only thing you do and the only thing you care about really. Other than family or whatever. Somewhere down the line it’s not a career, it’s a way you chose to live. Your time shifts to that. It’s ultimately all about that. It doesn’t mean you don’t have to deal with the same bullshit as everyone else like bills or eating, but I do think it’s a shift in your whole self toward what you do. Toward the way you look, think and listen to things. It’s a whole new way of assimilating information.
AD: I’ve never felt like I’m on one path. I just do what feels right, but it’s hard at times.
Terry Allen: There really aren’t any rules except what you impose on yourself. There is no reason to do it. All the reasons…if you are going to talk about reason…are about not doing something. The easiest thing in the world to do is to wish you were doing something or say I’d like to do that. That’s easy. Doing it and carving out the time and doing it is work.
AD: You’ve said before you used to keep notebooks as a kid of what you wanted to be. Does that list still get added to?
Terry Allen: It was always I want to be a writer or musician or an artist. Pretty much those three things encompass everything I can think of or want to do. Including theater or whatever. I’ve managed fit the whole planet in those three words. At least for me.
AD: What does it mean to be a great storyteller?
Terry Allen: A big part of it is coming to terms with where you are from and the richness of the world you come from, wherever that happens to be. Whether Alaska or Europe or New Jersey or Lubbock. That’s what happened to me anyway. I left home with a vengeance. I wanted out of there and to never go back. I carried so much of it with me and it kept coming out of me in different ways. It wasn’t until I went back again and really saw it that I saw the culture that was so rich that I carried. I had gone against it for so long, then I got very comfortable with that and the rest of the world could fall into it. And it could fall into the rest of the world. That’s a big one.
Getting there for me was always about stories. Those multiple connections of events. I grew up around storytellers. My folks were epic bullshitters. My wife’s mother says America went straight to hell when they got rid of the front porch. Because people stopped caring about one another business. It’s kind of true. There was a total taking for granted when I was a kid that people told stories and tried to tell em the best they could. words / j silverstein