Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Album project: Lubbock (on everything)

Terry Allen, Lubbock (on everything) (1978): I have what might be called a love-hate relationship with country music. As much as I've tried to avoid it over the years, it's always been around. Over the years I've managed to pick up an appreciation for some of the stuff. I don't care for most of the material that gets mass-produced in the cubicles and studios down the road from here, and I can't stand to listen to country radio because the assembly-line stuff is all they ever play. To really get to know good country music, you have to get out of Nashville and into the mountains, out in the fields, and in the small towns of rural America. You have to get to places like the flat, dusty plains of West Texas, and get to know artists like Terry Allen.

Terry Allen is not the sort of talent you can pigeonhole. Of his music, he says, "People tell me it's country music, and I ask, 'Which country?' " He went to high school with such outlaw-country luminaries as Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock, and Joe Ely, and although much of his music is comparable to theirs, he has also worked with the Talking Heads' David Byrne. Allen's talents aren't confined to the music field; he's also an accomplished painter and sculptor whose work has been exhibited in many of America's most prestigious museums and galleries.

Allen's exposure to music began at an early age. His father, a veteran minor-league baseball player, settled down in Lubbock after his playing days and converted an abandoned church into a small auditorium where he promoted everything from concerts to pro wrestling. He held R&B dances for the blacks on Friday nights, and country dances for the whites on Saturdays. He also brought artists like Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Ray Charles to Lubbock for the first time. Of those shows, Allen would say, "These were the first cosmopolitan shows they ever had in Lubbock where you'd find whites, blacks and Hispanics all at the same place." Terry, then a teen-ager, helped sell concessions at the concerts. Allen also received inspiration from his mother, a former honky-tonk pianist who was kicked out of Southern Methodist University in the 20's for playing in an integrated combo. He received the only piano lessons he had from his mother, although he says, "She taught me 'St Louis Blues' and then she said 'you're on your own.'" On top of that, Allen's high-school days were the time that hometown hero Buddy Holly was burning up the charts and proving that it was possible after all to escape Lubbock and get noticed in the world.

Allen left Lubbock as soon as he graduated from high school and enrolled in the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, where he would receive his BFA. He also began writing songs and performing during this time, working for a while with some of the musicians who would go on to form Little Feat. He built up enough of a reputation around LA that at the end of the 60's he was signed to a major-label recording contract, but little came of it. The label rejected the songs that Allen had written, and when they requested more commercial material, Allen refused. Instead of providing the label with more songs, he sat out the five years of his contract, supporting himself by painting, sculpting, and whatever odd jobs came his way. He also began teaching, and eventually landed a job as professor at California State University - Fresno. Once free of his contract, Allen and a friend formed Fate Records, the label that he still owns and releases music through to this day. His first musical release, Juarez, came in 1975. Juarez is a story of two star-crossed couples who rob their way across the Southwest; Allen also created an art exhibit to accompany the music. Three years later, he would turn to his hometown memories to create a masterpiece, Lubbock (on everything).

Allen hadn't given much thought to Lubbock in the more than 15 years since he left home. But an old high-school acquaintance who was a fellow painter convinced him to return and record there. Back in Lubbock, Allen met up with members of honky-tonker Joe Ely's band, some of whom he also knew from school, and they laid down a classic of outlaw country music. Some of the songs were from the batch that the major label had rejected a decade earlier. Along with those, Allen provided additional tunes that evoked the unique characters and spirit of the West Texas flatlands, mixing them in with some songs about his other favorite subject, art. The result is a wry, rollicking, and often poignant look at some of the things that shaped his youth.

Some of Allen's best songs here turn redneck stereotypes inside-out, like "High Plains Jamboree", about an illicit couple finding furtive love in a cheap motel room, and "Lubbock Woman", about an aging small-town beauty who wears too much makeup but "has a good heart". One of the best is "The Great Joe Bob", a hilarious tale that any fan of country music or football will appreciate. Joe Bob is a high school football star who gets led astray by a loose woman, loses his college scholarship, and winds up in jail for robbing a liquor store. Terry's alma mater Monterey High School marching band plays a few bars of the school song at the end, giving the finish an almost dirge-like quality.

Just as funny are the songs where Allen brings his wry perspective to the world of art, such as "The Collector (and The Art Mob)", "Oui (A French Song)" (actually about a guy who gives up sculpting for the assembly line), and "Truckload of Art", a hilarious tale of an art exhibit that turned over and scattered all over the road as it was being transported from New York to Los Angeles. Allen's at his best, though, when he combines his two inspirations. There's "The Girl Who Danced Oklahoma", about a housewife who escaped her boring life on the plains only to end up dancing naked at an LA art party. One of the best moments on the disc comes at the end of "The Beautiful Waitress", when Allen tries to explain what he does to the girl waiting on him in a local diner:

A waitress asked me what I did
I told her I tried (to make art).
She asked me if I made any money.
I said no...I have to "teach" to do that.
She asked me what I taught and where.
I told her.
She told me that she liked art, but that she
couldn't draw a straight line.
I told her if she could reach for something
and pick it up, she could draw a line that
was straight enough.
She said she wasn't interested in that kind
of drawing... but had always liked horses.
I said I did too, but they were hard to draw.
She said yes that was very true... said she
could do the body okay, but never got the
head, tail, or legs.
I told her she was drawing sausages... not horses.
She said no... they were horses.

Allen also comes up with straight-up rockers like "Amarillo Highway" and "New Delhi Freight Train"; there's also the beautiful "The Thirty Years Waltz", dedicated to his wife (and high school sweetheart), Jo Harvey Allen, an accomplished playwright and actress in her own right. I can't stop before mentioning "FFA", which can't help but remind me of a certain occupant of the White House:

He never done too good
When he's in high school
He never even talked
To a popular girl
He just hung around
Down at the drive-in
Honkin on his horn
An drinkin Pearl
But he's a Future Farmer of America
Blue Jacket pride
Of the FFA
He's the future father
Of some president
Who'll be another pain-in-the-ass
For the U S of A
He'll be another pain-in-the-ass
For the U S of A

This is music that must be heard to be believed; go here for a download. You can also check out this recent performance of "Amarillo Highway".

Allen has released a number of albums over the past three decades in addition to Lubbock, which unfortunately I haven't had a chance to hear. Terry Allen is a true renaissance man who has managed to do what he has wanted to do for most of his adult life; he's an accomplished artist who would rather eat chili in a greasy-spoon diner than hang out at Hollywood wine-and-cheese parties. I like his outlook on life: "No one with access to a convertible, an empty highway and a good radio station should ever need a psychiatrist." Convertibles, empty highways, and good radio stations all seem to be in short supply these days; maybe that's why life seems to be so crazy now.

Here's an excellent interview with Terry Allen for those who'd like to know more about the man.