Thursday, October 09, 2008

Unsung Giants of Modern Music VII: Terry Allen

It's been over a year since I've written one of these but, since we've been on the subject of mavericktude lately, it seems like a good time to talk about the true maverick of Texas music: Terry Allen. Now, there are great Terry Allens in a lot of different realms. Magnum T.A. was a legendary pro wrestler whose career was cut short by a broken back and the Redskins had a running back by the same name who was quite good at running roughshod over the Cowboys, much to my delight. But the man who has truly made the name great is the man from Lubbock, TX who has written some of the finest songs in the history of country music about the hard life of West Texas, murder, and the art mobs of New York and Los Angeles, often in the same song.

(Warboy: kid with the Thalidomide eyes)
Allen is not a musician first, however. His father, "Sled" Allen, was a turn-of-the-century pitcher for the St. Louis Blues and later a wrestling promoter through West Texas who was nearly sixty when Terry was born. His mother, Pauline Pierce, was a barrelhouse piano player who was, herself, nearly forty at his birth. While his penchant for storytelling and musicianship can clearly be attributed to his family (it is hard for me to imagine a more outrageous storyteller than a man who went from old-timey ball player to wrestling promoter; ol' Sled must have been quite the liar) but, when Terry left Lubbock for art school in Los Angeles, he wrote and sculpted, and his art installations have been received as fondly, and often more so, as his music.

His first album, Juarez, was originally conceived as a soundtrack to an imagined film, and finally came out in 1975 to accompany as series of lithographs that describe the story. Filthy and violent, this concept album about a pair of lovers and a crime spree is ambitious and difficult to say the least. At the time, and rarely since, there's little in country music that resembles it. Willie Nelson's Red Headed Stranger comes to mind, but Nelson's Western flight of fancy with himself in the lead doesn't hold a candle to the dark and violent landscapes that Allen creates with just his heavy Lubbock drawl and simple piano melodies. The strength of his songwriting is on full display in his first album, but this would only get better.

(Stage 5: The Sea of Amarillo)
In 1977, Allen released Lubbock (on Everything), and the double meaning of the title really describes the album. Not a full concept album as Juarez, Lubbock uses a large band with backing vocals and horns to describe the hard, but often very funny, stories of ex-football stars robbing convenience stores and travelers falling in love with waitresses. It is far easier on the ears than its predecessor, but is also one of the most ambitious and best country albums of all time. His esthetic takes shape here; he shows that his subjects are more than the narrow themes of some of his Lubbock contemporaries (he went to high school with the likes of Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore). On the one hand, he mocks the young loser in the FFA and, on the other, the losers in the world of high art. The song, "Truckload of Art" is about New York artists who rent a truck to send samples of their work to the artists in L.A., simply to show how much better at it they are. Unfortunately, this super-sweet truck blows up along the way, leaving the art burning on the highway. It's a silly song, but one with great writing, such as this verse:

"Well the driver went sailing high in the sky
Landing in the gold lap of the lord
Who smiled and then said,
'Son, you're better off dead
Than haulin' a truckload full of hot Avant-garde.'"

I'm not sure how many country artists discuss the world of the Avant-garde, though I'd bet you can count them on one finger. Between his upbringing in the Texas flatlands and his life as a high artist, Terry Allen has done essentially whatever he's wanted to do, flipping the bird to whoever might stand in his way. I'm not going to go through every album but, though this is less than ten over thirty years, there is great stuff in all of them. One of his newest records, 1999's Salivation, is also one of his best. Rife with blasphemies, praising our Lord and Savior Jesus Cash, he shows that he hasn't lost a step (and his voice still sounds great after all these years). This is a man who writes what he wants to write and creates what he wants to create. It's amazing to me, living in Texas, how few people there are that I know who have even heard of him, let alone know any of his songs beyond Robert Earl Keane's cover of "Amarillo Highway," admittedly a great song, but it's sadly shocking. Terry Allen is a treasure to be cherished, both as a songwriter and a visual artist and, though he has a devoted following. For how great his art is, however, this following is unfathomably small.