Terry Allen on the Texas roots of his music and art

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

Terry Allen.Photo by James Bland

In a work that spans albums, installations, radio games and drawings, Allen, 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 hum beneath the surface.

Allen grew up in Lubbock and sold sodas in the dance hall run by his father, a baseball player who became an event promoter; he heard Hank Williams and Little Richard there. At the art school in Los Angeles, in the 19’s, he hobbed with surrealists and became friends with Ed Ruscha. As a musician in the seventies, he played festivals and wrote songs with the elite of the outlaw country, and released two albums with country-bent world structure – “Juarez” (1975) and “Lubbock (about everything)” (1979). Although the records soon went out of print, they circulated among the celebrities.

Allen quickly became better known for his visual art, a fusion of installations, theatrical dramas, video works, and lithographs, much of which he struggled with in his early years in Lubbock. He gathered a number of fans, friends and collaborators – Dave Hickey, David Byrne, Bruce Nauman – who appreciated his eclectic approach to the genre and the edge of outlawry behind his wide and friendly smile. 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 was pursuing, he said he liked miniature golf courses – and Terry Allen.

Allen’s longest running partner, however, is his wife, actor and author 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 did not bone until we were twelve,” Allen told me as we spoke a few days before Christmas. “Yeah Harvey hates that joke.”

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

In 2016, the North Carolina record label re-released Paradise of Bachelors’ “Juarez” and “Lubbock (on everything),” which brought new attention to Allen. “It was like a whole world opened up,” he told me. But he and Jo Harvey had never stopped doing 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 guitarist. When we spoke, Allen was in Austin, installing a show at the University of Texas’ Blanton Museum of Art. He told me he was itching to get back to his studio in Santa Fe. “I’ve been very busy with work I’ve already done,” he told me. “I’m excited to get into what’s next.”

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

His band was trying to figure out where the venue was and they stopped by our house to ask where they were going. That was when they were a touring band in a station wagon with a bass strapped to the top and drums at the back, and they opened for Little Jimmy Dickens. I think it was the first time Elvis played in Lubbock.

Did you go to the show?

I the work the show! My dad brought a lot of plays to town – wrestling, boxing, music. He had a large old aircraft hangar, which he used as an auditorium. Rock and roll and wrestling went hand in hand. The external nature of rock and roll at the time did it that way. But for me, it was just a normal kind of affair: wrestling every Wednesday, then there were black dances every Friday night, and every Saturday night there were country dances. I worked for them from the time I was about six years old, selling pop and stuff like that. I saw some incredible people – T-Bone Walker, BB King, Jimmy Reed. Everyone got through, for Lubbock was the only town of any size within three hundred miles.

What brought this to your life and the world of Lubbock that these outside influences came in?

It was like an atomic bomb. The city was so conservative. There were preachers who would be up on the pulpit and say, “On this day, bring these sounds of Satan to the Mass area and burn them in a fire.” How could a child not love something that would make it by people?

My dad had been a ball player and was a kind of local hero, so I think he avoided a lot of finger pointing. He took Little Richard with him [to Lubbock], he picked up 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 people looking over their shoulders at what the other group would do.

Rock and roll is this sound from the cities, but the rural influence is also so crucial to the sound – it is mixed with blues, with country music, especially in the early years. So it’s something that comes to these small towns, but so is it of them at the same time. And then you have Wolfman Jack, who you wrote a song about who is this Brooklyn radio DJ who broadcasts from a station in Mexico and plays rock and roll for kids in Lubbock. There is a real confusion of influences going on there.

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

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