While most contemporary artists settle on one field of interest, Terry Allen has spent a lifetime exploring the theater, painting, sculpture, and music. Working against conventional wisdom, this modern day renaissance man has also managed to excel in each field. As a musician, Allen pioneered a reworking of classic country music themes and styles in the mid-to-late 1970s, ten to fifteen years before "no depression" (a type of alternative country music) became a catchword. Working below the mainstream radar from a base in Austin, Texas, Allen, along with singer-songwriters like Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, became known as one of the Lubbock Mafia. Albums like Lubbock (On Everything) immortalized the desolation of small town life and inspired new songwriters to work outside of the Nashville establishment. "There may be no greater maverick than Terry Allen in all of country music from the mid-'70s onward," wrote Richie Unterberger in All Music Guide.
Allen was born on May 7, 1943, in Wichita, Kansas, and grew up across the border in Lubbock, Texas. Rebelling against the desolate West Texas landscape and small town life, Allen turned to the arts, learning to express himself through painting, writing, and music. He learned piano from his mother, and was introduced to a wide variety of blues, rock, and country musicians while working at an arena owned by his father, Sled. Borrowing from these influences, Allen wrote a song titled "Roman Orgy," which he performed at his high school, resulting in suspension. After graduation, he left Lubbock and enrolled in the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, earning an M.F.A. degree in 1966. For the next several years he remained in California, pursuing a career in art.
In 1974 Allen developed his first musical project, a concept album exploring the differences between Texas and Mexico. Conceptually, Juarez included both songs and narration, revealing Allen's original intention of using the songs in conjunction with an art installation. The story line followed the plot of a dark road movie, where a couple on a spree turn to crime. "Juarez is one of the more fascinating country albums of its time," wrote Stewart Mason in All Music Guide, "like Willie Nelson's Red Headed Stranger as reimagined by Quentin Tarantino." As with his follow-up album, many of the songs had actually been written in the late 1960s, but a contractual agreement with a publisher had made Allen reluctant to record them until the mid-1970s.
Allen's rough-around-the-edges, Southern-flavored vocals made him a natural for country music, but his wry sense of humor and careful observations gave his songs an edge absent from mainstream Nashville music. Following the release of Juarez, he and Jack Lemon formed Fate, an independent record label (Allen eventually bought out Lemon's half). He told Jason Gross in Perfect Sound Forever, "I decided pretty adamantly if I was going to do my music, then I was going to have to do it myself." The founding of the label also set the stage for Allen's next release, an album that many critics identified as a masterful concept album. He had originally planned to record Lubbock (On Everything) in both Los Angeles and Lubbock, but after witnessing the local success of friends like Butch Hancock and Joe Ely, he decided to record exclusively in Texas. Relying on a large cadre of local talent, including Lloyd Maines, Jesse Taylor, and Richard Bowden, Allen recorded enough material for a double album, and released it on Fate in 1977. "Here, he paints a brilliant and refreshingly honest portrait of life in West Texas," wrote David Goodman in Modern Twang, "by using familiar country music idioms but in a way that is wholly original."
Throughout the 1980s Allen released a steady stream of albums on Fate. Smokin' the Dummy (1982) followed Lubbock, though with a harder rock edge, while 1983's Bloodlines explored the theme of religion in the modern world. One song in particular, "Gimme a Ride to Heaven, Boy," underlined Allen's bizarre sense of humor. In the song, a hitchhiker hijacks a car for a mystical journey, and the hitchhiker turns out to be none other than Jesus. "A satisfying and often fascinating album," wrote Mason, "Bloodlines is one of Allen's best."
In the mid-1980s Allen abruptly switched directions in regard to the themes and styles of his music. Between 1983-86 he participated in a "Youth in Asia" project, a venture that explored the emotional distress of the Vietnam War. Allen's music also graced Amerasia, a documentary by Wolf-Eckart Buhler about American servicemen who remained in Thailand after the war. He traveled to Cambodia to record the soundtrack and worked with a local rock band, Caravan, on the recording. Next, Allen wrote Pedal Steel for the San Francisco Dance Company in 1985 and Rollback in 1986 (the album Rollback would not be released until 1988). He also contributed several songs to David Byrne's (of the Talking Heads) True Stories in 1987 and completed four commissioned radio works, Torso Hell, Bleeder, Reunion: Return to Juarez, and Dugout, with his wife, Jo Harvey Allen. In the early 1990s the husband and wife team also wrote Chippy, the Diary of a West Texas Hooker, which ran off-Broadway.
With the exception of a collection of odds and ends (The Silent Majority: Terry Allen's Greatest Hits Missed) in 1993, Allen's musical output since the release of 1983's Bloodlines had been relegated to film, dance, and theater. This changed in 1996, when he began releasing his albums on Sugar Hill, an independent record label. First, Allen released Human Remains, "which offers more of his signature West Texas commentary," noted Goodman. Sugar Hill simultaneously re-released Lubbock (On Everything), allowing the 16-year-old classic a chance to reach a new audience. "It was a fortunate situation for me," Allen told Gross. "It was the first time ... that those old records got recycled back into the gene pool and were available to people."
In 1999 Allen released his own brand of "gospel music" on Salivation, an album with a rather whimsical painting of Jesus on its cover. "'salivation' is a play on the word 'salvation,'" Allen told Brittney Chiu in the Colorado Springs Gazette. "I think the mad-dog voice you hear from certain religious groups sounds more like salivation than salvation." Sugar Hill also continued to reissue earlier Allen albums, including Juarez, Smokin' the Dummy/Bloodlines, and The Silent Majority. The reissue of Juarez also included a new instrumental and a new song, "El Camino," recorded in December of 2003. As always, Allen remained involved in multiple projects in 2004-5, including a biographical installation titled Dugout that resulted in a book.
For the Record . . .
Born on May 7, 1943, in Wichita, KS; married Jo Harvey Allen. Education: Graduated from the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, M.F.A., 1966.
Released debut Juarez on Landfall, 1975; formed Fate Records with Jack Lemon and released Lubbock (OnEverything), 1979; released Smokin' the Dummy, 1982, and Bloodlines, 1983; participated in the "Youth in Asia" project, 1983-86; composed soundtrack for Amerasia, 1984; released Pedal Steel, 1985, and Rollback, 1988; wrote Chippy, The Diary of a West TexasHooker with Jo Harvey Allen, early 1990s; signed to Sugar Hill Records, mid-1990s; released Human Remains, 1996, and Salivation, 1999.
Addresses: Record company—Sugar Hill Records, P.O. Box 55300, Durham, NC 27717-5300, website: http://www.sugarhillrecords.com.
From Juarez in 1974 to Salivation in 1999, Allen's music has utilized an idiosyncratic point of view to explore the complexities of the human heart. "I think you try to write to sides that you can't see and the things that are not always just mapped," he told Gross. "I'd much rather write a song that addresses some of those kind of things than to write another Hallmark card."
Juarez, Landfall, 1975; reissued, Fate, 1981; reissued, Sugar Hill, 2004.
Lubbock (On Everything), Fate, 1979; reissued, Sugar Hill, 1996.
Smokin' the Dummy, Fate, 1982.
Bloodlines, Fate, 1983.
Amerasia, Fate, 1984.
Pedal Steel, Fate, 1985.
Rollback, Fate, 1988.
The Silent Majority: Terry Allen's Greatest Hits Missed, Fate, 1993.
Songs From Chippy, Hollywood, 1994.
Human Remains, Sugar Hill, 1996.
Smokin' the Dummy/Bloodlines, Sugar Hill, 1997.
Salivation, Sugar Hill, 1999.
Goodman, David, Modern Twang: An Alternative Country Music Guide and Directory, Dowling Press, 1999, p. 3-4.
Waters, Neil, editor, Music Hound Folk, Visible Ink Press, 1998.
Gazette (Colorado Springs, CO), June 30, 2000.
"Terry Allen," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com/ (June 10, 2005).
"Terry Allen Interview," by Jason Gross in Perfect Sound Forever,http://www.furious.com/perfect/terryallen.html (June 10, 2005).
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
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