Terry Allen :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Terry Allen is the most singular of artists. A singer-songwriter as acclaimed for his art career (or vice-versa), he’s written and recorded legendary albums like Juarez, his 1975 blood-soaked travelogue debut, but he’s also created sculptures that reside inside airports and outside skyscrapers and universities. He’s written songs recorded by the likes of Lucinda Williams, Little Feat, and Ricky Nelson, but he’s also spent decades of his life devoted to staggering bodies of work that effortlessly move between gallery walls, large-scale installations, theatrical stages, and public radio airwaves. 

Continuing their Grammy-nominated archival series examining his iconoclastic country (“What country?”) discography, Paradise of Bachelors has just reissued Allen’s long out of print third and fourth albums, 1980’s Smokin’ the Dummy and 1983’s Bloodlines. Dummy is Allen’s most explicit rock and roll record—a high-octane trip from the dispatches of his America, with the Panhandle Mystery Band in lock step matching the thunderous edge of Allen’s lyrics. Pulling together material from a variety of sources and tones, Bloodlines may surprisingly be Allen’s most sensitive work—a meditation on the landscapes he explores best: family, faith, and violence. While not as well known or lauded as the albums that precede them, Dummy and Bloodlines are quintessential Allen—a searing mix of the sacred and profane, full of irreverence, pitch-black humor, and unbelievably moving passages. Another essential piece in a career of incredible depth that only continues to deepen and come more into focus as the world catches up.

We recently caught up with Terry just after he celebrated his 79th birthday to discuss the new reissues, his thrilling and confounding Shindig appearance, the nature of collaboration, Lowell George, the importance of language, and more. | k evans

Aquarium Drunkard: Thanks for making time and congratulations on these new reissues. I thought we’d start with those today.

Terry Allen: Sure, yeah. Thank you. Yeah, I’m very happy with them

AD: They obviously followed up Juarez and Lubbock (on everything) and those two records are pretty conceptual in their own different ways, so I’m curious how you think about Smokin’ the Dummy and Bloodlines thematically? 

Terry Allen: Some of the songs for Smokin’ the Dummy I’d actually written when I was recording Lubbock. A lot of it came out of just the intensity that was going on in Lubbock at the time, musically, from a lot of different angles. And I wanted to do a much more rock and roll record, at least sonically. So that’s really where it came from. Lubbbock at that time, for musicians, was really thriving. Most of the musicians I knew then didn’t have to have a day job. They could actually make a living. Which was fairly rare during those days. Or any days, I guess.

I think it was just that energy and I wanted to get that on a record. I was fortunate enough to have met Joe Ely and that band and all of those people and work with them some on Lubbock. Jesse [Taylor] had played a flatpick solo on “Flatland Farmer” and it just knocked me out, so I really wanted to do a record using him a lot. It just worked out schedule wise that we could do that, so he’s a real integral part of that record. He and Lloyd [Maines] both. Who of course were right with the Ely band at that time.

AD: Was it similar for Bloodlines, that it was a conscious decision of the sound of the record before you got in the studio?

Terry Allen: No, it was different. I had separate songs and it became kind of a compilation. I had written a song for my wife for a theater piece she did called Hally Lou. I wrote a piece called “Oh What a Dangerous Life” for a woman named Joan Hotchkis who did a play called Bissie at the Baths. I wanted to put those songs in a group and they all sort of fell into a narrative, I thought. Not a tight narrative, of course, but a narrative as far as the concept of ideas of it. And when I wrote “Bloodlines” it immediately became the bookends for the record to me. I was also working on “Gimme a Ride to Heaven Boy,” which I had written the first two verses of and was actually playing when I was doing live shows. But I hadn’t finished it. I finished it, actually, in Lubbock when we were recording. I finished it in a practice room at Texas Tech.

AD: Let’s talk about “Red Bird” for a minute. That song obviously has a long history with you. It was the first actual song you wrote, you think?

Terry Allen: Yeah, it was literally the first song I felt like I wrote that was really a song that wasn’t motivated by some effort to get kicked out of school, or offend somebody, or cause some kind of problem. Which pretty much everything I did up until that point, that was what happened to it. 

I don’t know where “Red Bird” came from. It’s obviously a death song. I was listening to a lot of music. This was in the early sixties. I was listening to Dylan, I was listening to Leadbelly. It’s one of those songs where you sit down and it starts coming at you and you don’t know why but you’re there to receive it and try to get it down. And when I played it for the band the first time, they were not interested in recording it. They didn’t think it would work that well with the record. I think the obscurity of the lyrics threw them. But then I had worked up a little paraphrasing of the melody of “Dixie,” and we started playing that and brought some horn players to work on those choruses. I think by the time we finished it, it was one of the favorite songs that everybody had on the record. 

AD: Did you ever try and record it before then at all? There was that Shindig performance in what, ’65?

Terry Allen: I recorded it on Shindig but that was just a fluke. I was working construction after school every afternoon with these wealthy guys up in Hollywood Hills. And I was waiting for my check one day with a group of other people. They had a piano in their living room and so while I was waiting I just sat down and started playing it. And one of the guys came up and asked me, “Hey, do you wanna be on Shindig?” I said, “Yeah, sure.” So they gave me a date to go in and do an audition. The only songs I really had were “Red Bird” and this song called “Freedom School” that I’d been working on. So I went and tried out. I think I played a Leadbelly song “Linin’ Track” as well. But as far as my own songs, those were the only two. So they told me to do my own songs but I only had a minute and I don’t know how many seconds, so I had to do both songs together but really fast. I don’t even feel like it was a recording of that song but that was the only thing that was existed of that song before I put it on Smokin’ the Dummy.

AD: Did it still feel like the same song when you recorded it as it did when you wrote it, or did it change in your mind over those years?

Terry Allen: I still really like doing that song. We just did it on Austin City Limits. To me, certain songs have multiple lives and that’s definitely one of them. I’m still mystified by that song and every time I sing it and hear it, it still has that kind of impact for me.

AD: I’m so glad that Shindig footage exists. It’s such a wild performance and just the fact that it even happened.

Terry Allen: It was totally bizarre. I remember when I went and did the rehearsal or the audition, The Byrds were auditioning right down the hall in another room. They weren’t on the same show I was on, but Marianne Faithfull was on. I think her first record had just come out. And Little Eva was doing “The Loco-Motion.” And there was some English hair band. Bowl hair band, like Beatles hair. There was a guy also on it named Jerry Naylor who was from Lubbock and had been singing with The Crickets. He took me under his wing when he found out I was from Lubbock and knew I was spooked being on television and he did his best to calm my nerves. Obviously I had no clue what I was doing or I wouldn’t have worn those pants or played a kazoo.

AD: I just love that kazoo in a harmonica rack thing you did. 

Terry Allen: The thing I always comment on is probably never in the history of television has someone played a kazoo with girls screaming behind it.

AD: I’m really fascinated by artists revisiting or doing slightly different versions of songs, and you did a bit of that with some Juarez material on Bloodlines.

Terry Allen: It’s more for live shows than I really record anything like that. Juarez was different because it was done on such a shoestring, as far as money-wise, time-wise, everything. A lot of those songs I really wanted to put instrumentation with, but I didn’t have the opportunity until these other records came along. They were really experiments more than anything. Just to see what those songs might sound like with the band. Now I pretty much only hear them with a band because that’s the way I play them.

AD: Do you think of the two versions of “Bloodlines” separately or are they a similar song with a different treatment?

Terry Allen: I think of them as the same song. I think “Bloodlines” is all inclusive just by the nature of what the song is about. It’s about family, it’s about closeness. But it’s expansive in the sense that it’s about all families. I sing it solo, which I still do. And I sing it a capella every once in a while. My wife does a reading and at one point in it she announces the song and leads up to it and I just stand up and sing it. So it’s got different lives to it, too. But I never think of it in terms of being separate. Whenever you do a song, it’s the song. It just goes through different phases.

And the end of “Bloodlines,” I’d become very close with the Maines families and I just wanted to recognize all of the friends I had there in Lubbock and met through Lubbock (on everything). And a number of people were in town, like Dave Hickey and others. I asked all of them to come in and sing on the chorus.

AD: How about coming back to Caldwell and recording there? Lubbock (on everything) was such a homecoming for you, so were these next two records similar in the recording?

Terry Allen: Yeah, I recorded everything pretty much at Caldwell’s after Lubbock (on everything) until Human Remains. It’s just been a natural progression, the way these musicians and these people I work with happen over the years. But Caldwell’s was always like a family gathering after Lubbock (on everything). And it was a real celebration for me, too. Just because I’d had such an innate hostility towards the place ever since I left it. It was a shock that I actually had such a great time and met all these great people in that town.

AD: When you approach a recording studio like Caldwell, are you different in there than you are in your home studio when you’re working on music or making art?

Terry Allen: I don’t really have a home studio. I have a tape recorder and a keyboard. I’m fortunate enough to have access to so many places I can go to record stuff that I was never interested in having a studio situation where I lived. I actually feel more comfortable, music-wise, in the studio than just about anywhere, when it comes to playing music. I think I could just stay in the studio and write there and play there. But of course I don’t have the money or the room.

AD: Do you think that comes out of your comfort in a studio generally, like your art studio? 

Terry Allen: It’s been different recently. With [Just Like] Moby Dick it was the first time I went into the studio that the band had played these songs. A number of us worked on them together and several of us had co-written some of the songs on it. And by the time we went into the studio, we knew the songs. We had a real sense of what the songs were, so it’s just a matter of going in and trying to get the essence of all of that in the recordings. Which I think we did. But before that, mostly I would come in with a group of songs and have them organized and the band hadn’t heard the songs before, and I would sit down and I would play it for them. Then they would go to their instruments and would build it from there. So it was a group thing. What the heart of the song was about, we always tried to look for that and build on that.

AD: Would you mind talking about your friendship with Lowell George? I knew Little Feat covered “New Delhi Freight Train” but I didn’t realize you two had a relationship.

Terry Allen: I met him in LA in the late sixties when they were rehearsing and getting ready to do their first record, Little Feat. Lowell had heard my record Juarez. Actually he had heard it as a tape, but he was interested in producing it as a record when I first started talking to him. 

AD: Wow.

Terry Allen: He asked me to come and jam with them, just to hear some other songs and whatever. So about three or four times I went to a warehouse with them and sat down and played. And jamming with them was kind of impossible because I was like a three finger piano player and Billy Payne’s one of the greatest players that ever was.

Lowell really liked “New Delhi” and wanted to record it at some point, but by then I had signed a publishing deal with a record company that completely strapped me. I describe it as, “You get enough money to live through the summer then starve to death the next five years.” That was the sort of deal it was. But Lowell actually waited and on the last Little Feat record he was on, Time Loves a Hero, they cut it. It’s funny because the version they cut is so much slower. By then I’d done Lubbock (on everything) and “New Delhi” was a much faster song. I love the version they did and a lot of people that have covered that song, covered their version.

Actually, when I did Lubbock (on everything), I was going to try to get Lowell since the Juarez thing fell through. It never really progressed, but I was thinking about getting him to produce Lubbock (on everything) and all the California parts and elements. And then Laurie Anderson, who I met and became friends with. I never actually asked her to do it—I’ve told her about it since—but I wanted her to do the East Coast art stuff, and then the rest of it in Lubbock. But it turns out both of them were on the road doing other stuff and I had this sudden opportunity to go to Lubbock so I just cut everything there, which I think turned out for the best.

All of my connections with Lowell were pretty much in that zone. Then “The Heart of California” came after he passed away.

AD: Now this might be a bit of a reach but did the rodeo ever play a role in your life over the years?

Terry Allen: Well I went to a lot of rodeos when I was a kid. I never rode in a rodeo. Fortunately I was born with more brains than that, which isn’t saying much. But I’ve got a lot of friends that are rodeo riders.

Dave Hickey wrote a song called “Calgary Snow” and Bobby Bare recorded it. He did two of Dave’s songs and two of my songs on a record called Cowboys and Daddies. And I really loved Dave’s song “Calgary Snow” and I’d never written a rodeo song, so that’s where it [“Helena Montana”] came from. But it was really more about trying to write a rodeo song that was as good as Dave’s.

AD: I’m not too far from Calgary, so that line always stuck out to me and I couldn’t figure out where it came from. And I know you had an exhibition in Calgary in the mid-eighties.

Terry Allen: I did. I did an exhibition at an art center there in Calgary. Of course I always knew about the rodeo [Calgary Stampede], but I didn’t see one there. I saw my first hockey game, which is kind of like a rodeo.

AD: How do you feel when material from the past like these two records gets reissued or a career-spanning exhibition is staged like that one in L.A. a few years ago? Are there some complicated feelings involved in things like this?

Terry Allen: It’s like crawling through your past. I was going to call one of those shows Whistling Through the Graveyard just because for a while there I was doing so many things that had to do with stuff I had already done. I was really anxious about getting away from it and getting into some new things, which is how Moby Dick came along, musically.

That [L.A. Louver] exhibition was amazing because they brought all this stuff in that I hadn’t seen or thought about in a long time. And just to see how certain elements and certain ideas were songs, were pictures, were an object—that there’s a thread that runs through everything you do. To see it overtly like that is really interesting, and it’s taking another look at yourself that you never thought about. Which can be incredibly frightening, too.

And then with Paradise of Bachelors, that was such a fortuitous thing to meet those guys. Their dedication to what they do and how they’ve gone about putting these things together on every level has really been amazing to me. It gave a new breath of air to all of those records, and a new audience, a younger audience. The records hung around, even though they were so erratically distributed, if you can even use that word. They were distributed into the closet in boxes. But they actually got out. People actually did hear them. Now with Paradise of Bachelors, it’s presented the works to me as well as they could be presented. And it was a great opportunity to meet those guys and become friends with them.

AD: And one of them [Brendan Greaves] is working on a biography of you?

Terry Allen: Yeah. Poor soul.

AD: I know you don’t divide your art and your music but it’s interesting to me how often borders of some sort appear in all your work: geographical, physical, spiritual, otherwise. Is that a conscious effort on your part or have you always been interested in borders?

Terry Allen: I think it’s a natural instinct. I know with Juarez and a lot of the visual pieces I was doing in the sixties and seventies that went with Juarez, I spent a lot of time on the border. And you realize it’s a third thing. It’s a third culture. You have Mexico and you have the United States, and you have the border.

I proposed a piece on the border which was two huge funhouse mirrors that were placed on the banks of the Rio Grande, each reflecting the other side in a distorted way. I think that thing too of growing up in a culture that romanticized Mexico so much in a time when it was romanticized so much in movies and books—the idea that you can just cross a line and everything is all different. All your dreams come true, or never come true again. That there’s some transition just by crossing a line, that’s always interested me, and always interested me on an interior level with people, too—where those borders exist inside yourself. I think the first time I really tried to confront that with work was in Juarez, with these characters which I never thought of as people, but more like atmospheric conditions that are crossing into one another and pulling one another. 

It’s kind of an existential issue, the idea of borders. You can translate that word and use it anywhere. Whether it’s a counter at McDonald’s or inside your car and outside your car. It’s all borders.

AD: Can you tell me about your approach over the years with regards to collaboration, say with Jo Harvey or Lloyd Maines for example?

Terry Allen: Well Jo Harvey and I, our collaboration has obviously been the longest. We’ve worked for each other, that’s the way we’ve mostly operated. When she does a piece I’ll help her. I’ll do maybe songs or help her with sets or just talk to her about what the nature of the piece is. And vice-versa. She’s actually been more active in my pieces than I have hers, because she’s acted in every one of them. It’s been much more intense and intimate, her collaborations on my work. And then we’ve done a couple of pieces just the two of us, and those are the ones that are just sheer hell because we’re pretty cold blooded with one another. When we try to make something together, it’s like a war. 

Lloyd fits into that, too. Just working with him, from the first time I met him, was incredibly comfortable. When I was in California I didn’t play music with that many people. I didn’t know how. I never felt like what I call timing and what they call timing was the same thing. So I was self conscious about playing with other people. And when I went back to Lubbock and met Lloyd and those guys—but mainly Lloyd—it was like this incredible thing lifted because I could play and he would follow. It became one thing, which at that time was amazing to me. And then to do one song after another, and bring in other people—it was the first time I really thought collaboratively or had the opportunity to be collaborative with a group of people. The band is always a collaboration. Theater pieces are always a collaboration. Whenever you’re working with other people I think you’re collaborating. It’s from equal footing that things like that get built out of. 

AD: When you’re in your own studio making a drawing or working on a song, does that very initial impulse come from the same place? And then you just follow it where it goes?

Terry Allen: It’s like some kind irritation. It’s some kind of something. Irritation is maybe not the right word. It’s a longing. Or a discomfort and a longing to make something happen. That impulse to sometimes just sense a piece of paper and a pencil on it. Or to make an image. Or to just hear a little melody or something. It’s the same thing to me. And it’s the same weird necessity that I think I’ve always had, probably from the time I was a child. I just didn’t know what to call it or how to deal with it when I was a kid. Necessity may be the best word. It’s just something that you can’t help. And you don’t want to. 

AD: Does doing something like a public art commission throw a wrench in things?

Terry Allen: No, because I don’t ever do anything I don’t want to do or that I’m not curious about throwing myself into. I’ve been fortunate that way. That can be a whole other world of just bureaucratic bullshit and it’s certainly restrictive. I’ve been fortunate at not being restricted by circumstances. I mean, I’m responsible for all that. I take full blame. 

AD: I almost hate to ask this, but what effect has the pandemic has had just on your day-to-day creativity and inspiration and workflow?

Terry Allen: I think it’s changed everything. It’s changed the whole culture, it’s changed the whole planet. But I’ve done a lot of work. I’ve written a lot. We were in Austin most of the time, so I wasn’t in my studio except maybe half of the time during the pandemic. That was very frustrating. And that isolation thing was really difficult. Not as difficult for Jo Harvey and I because we did the same thing we always did, and just worked. But it was difficult to see what was happening to our grandkids and kids. And just people in general, what they were going through. I think the implications just get more and more, too. Of how it’s affected people. 

How about you, do you feel that way?

AD: Yeah, absolutely. I think I feel it more now than ever before. Now that dust is settling.

Terry Allen: It’s just relentless. 

AD: There was that period where you thought after this blows over that people and things might come back better than they were before. But that’s long gone now. 

Terry Allen: I know. Better? You just wish it’d go back to not better.  

AD: You mentioned you’re writing a lot and I’m curious about your relationship with the written word. Do you find language itself changes when you take it out of your notebook and move it into a song or a visual work?

Terry Allen: I think really the wellspring of all of the work that I do comes from writing. And reading, I read a lot. I read all different kinds of things. But just the idea of putting something down no matter what gibberish it is—getting it out of you and putting it down and looking at it—has been huge for me in terms of where it might lead to a song, a theater work, a drawing, or whatever. Language has always been important to me. A kind of natural importance. 

AD: You’re still as interested in stories and telling them as ever?

Terry Allen: Yeah, I think I am. There’s no shortage of stories. 

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