Terry Allen on the Texas Roots of His Music and Art

For more than half a century, the artist and musician Terry Allen has been inspired by the Southwest. “It’s the space, it’s the horizon,” he told me. “And also the paradox of it being so restrictive and conservative on other levels. There are so many crazy people that come out […]

For more than half a century, the artist and musician Terry Allen has been inspired by the Southwest. “It’s the space, it’s the horizon,” he told me. “And also the paradox of it being so restrictive and conservative on other levels. There are so many crazy people that come out of that part of the world—and I don’t mean crazy in any particular negative way, I just mean, like, crazy to do things, to make things, to get out of there, to confront your life.”

Terry Allen.Photograph by James Bland

In a body of work that spans albums, installations, radio plays, and drawings, Allen, who is seventy-eight, evokes the region’s long stretches of empty roads, dingy motels, and neon-lit barrooms, and the bank robbers, washed-up football players, and small-town loners who inhabit them. The potential for violence, or romance, always seems to be humming below the surface.

Allen grew up in Lubbock, selling soda at the dance hall run by his father, a baseball player turned event promoter; he heard Hank Williams and Little Richard there. At art school in Los Angeles, in the nineteen-sixties, he hobnobbed with surrealists and befriended Ed Ruscha. As a musician in the seventies, he played festivals and wrote songs alongside the outlaw-country élite, releasing two albums of country-inflected world-building—“Juarez” (1975) and “Lubbock (on everything)” (1979). Although the records soon went out of print, they circulated among those in the know.

Allen soon became better known for his visual art, an amalgamation of installations, theatrical dramas, video pieces, and lithographs, much of it wrestling with his early years in Lubbock. He collected a series of fans, friends, and collaborators—Dave Hickey, David Byrne, Bruce Nauman—who appreciated his eclectic approach to genre and the edge of outlaw orneriness behind his wide and friendly smile. The country singer Guy Clark, who died in 2016, requested that his ashes become part of a Terry Allen sculpture. Several years ago, when an interviewer asked Bob Dylan what contemporary art he followed, he said that he liked miniature-golf courses—and Terry Allen.

Allen’s longest-time collaborator, though, is his wife, the actor and writer Jo Harvey Allen. The couple met in Lubbock when they were eleven and have been together more or less ever since. “The joke is that we didn’t screw till we were twelve,” Allen told me when we spoke a few days before Christmas. “Jo Harvey hates that joke.”

Allen’s refusal to stick to one medium means he exists as something of an outsider, even as his work has been shown at the Museum of Modern Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Hirshhorn. Years ago, the Smithsonian expressed interest in his archive, and Allen sent them reel-to-reel tapes with some of his old recordings. When the museum told Allen that they were interested only in his visual works, he called off the deal, opting instead to send the materials to Texas Tech, in Lubbock.

In 2016, the North Carolina record label Paradise of Bachelors rereleased “Juarez” and “Lubbock (on everything),” bringing new attention to Allen. “It was like a whole world opened up,” he told me. But he and Jo Harvey had never stopped making things. These days, they live in Santa Fe, where Allen plays in a band that includes the couple’s sons, plus Charlie Sexton, Dylan’s longtime guitar player. When we spoke, Allen was in Austin, installing a show at the University of Texas’s Blanton Museum of Art. He told me that he was itching to get back to his studio in Santa Fe. “I’ve been dealing an awful lot with work I’ve already done,” he told me. “I’m excited about getting into what’s coming next. “

You had an early exposure to the entertainment industry, but in a very Lubbock kind of way—rock and roll, but also wrestling. I heard a rumor that, when you were a kid, you met Elvis.

His band was trying to find where the venue was, and they stopped at our house to ask where to go. That’s when they were a touring band in a station wagon with a bass strapped to the top and drums on the back, and they were opening for Little Jimmy Dickens. I think that was the first time Elvis played in Lubbock.

Did you go to the show?

I worked the show! My dad brought a lot of acts to town—wrestling matches, boxing matches, music. He had a big old aircraft hangar that he used as an auditorium. Rock and roll and wrestling kind of went together. The outside nature of rock and roll at that time made it that way. But, for me, it was just a normal kind of affair: wrestling every Wednesday, then every Friday night there were Black dances, and every Saturday night was country dances. I worked at them from the time I was about six years old, selling pop and stuff. I saw some incredible people—T-Bone Walker, B. B. King, Jimmy Reed. Everyone came through, because Lubbock was the only town of any size within three hundred miles.

What did this bring to your life, and to the world of Lubbock, having these outside influences coming in?

It was like an atomic bomb. The city was so conservative. There were preachers who’d be up in the pulpit saying, “On this day, bring these sounds of Satan to the fairgrounds and burn them in a bonfire.” How could a kid not love something that would do that to people?

My dad had been a ballplayer and was kind of a local hero, so I think he dodged a lot of the finger-pointing. He brought Little Richard [to Lubbock], he brought in Elvis. In 1957, he had the first “cosmopolitan dance,” which was the first time that Blacks and Hispanics and whites were all in the same room. Ray Charles played it. Jo Harvey and I went. It was three paranoid, tight little knots of humans that were looking over their shoulders at what the other group was gonna do.

Rock and roll is this sound from the cities, but the rural influence is also so crucial to its sound—it’s laced with the blues, with country music, particularly in those early years. So it’s something that’s coming to these small towns, but it’s also of them at the same time. And then you have Wolfman Jack, whom you’ve written a song about, who’s this radio d.j. from Brooklyn, broadcasting out of a station in Mexico, playing rock and roll to kids in Lubbock. There’s a real scrambling of influences going on there.

I remember getting in a car and driving at night as fast as you could go, listening to Wolfman Jack, who would be playing music that you had never heard—Southern blues, rhythm and blues, doo wop. It was kind of perfect. There was a kind of weirdness to what was on the air—there was a Bible salesman who came on after Wolfman Jack who literally sold autographed pictures of Jesus Christ, direct from the Holy Land. How do you lose, listening to something like that?


Dong Anker

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