November 1, 2016


The world of re-issues and the accessibility of everything allows us to revise our own histories. Artists we dismissed or missed completely become re-framed and electrified in a second life. The story occurs all the time. Light in the Attic specializes in it, turning lost artists into stories of success and triumph. See Rodriguez and Lewis—-musicians no one cared about instantly becomng cult heroes with rabid followings. It’s pulling myth-making out of thin air.

Perhaps one artist who deserves this sort of late career re-evaluation is Terry Allen, the Texas born songwriter who helped create and define Outlaw Country music in the mid-’70s. His two best records, Juarez (1975) and Lubbock (on everything) (1979) were just re-issued by Paradise of Bachelors—an amazing label that continues to impress. Both records are available now, and to celebrate the re-release of Lubbock, I spoke to Terry over the phone about the impact of geography on his work, balancing his various artistic endeavors, and the context of his music as it find a new audience. —Will Schube

Are you still in New Mexico these days?

Terry Allen: Yeah I’m in Santa Fe for the rest of the week, then I’m headed for Texas.

Are you playing shows out there?

Terry Allen: I’m doing a show in Marfa and I’m working on a project at the Laguna Gloria Museum in Austin. I’m casting this 1953 Chevrolet in bronze and it will be this sort of abandoned car in a wooded area. I’m inviting all of these different musicians, writers, and artists to send sound pieces. The car is going to have a state of the art sound system so it will play stories, memories, songs, whatever. I’ve been working on that all year.

The two Paradise of Bachelors re-issues, Juarez and Lubbock (on everything), came out in 1975 and 1979, respectively. What’s it like to have these records come back into existence and find a whole new audience the second time around?

Terry Allen: It’s great when things recycle like that. It’s not like the records actually disappeared after they were made, though. They’ve had numerous lives over this period of time with different companies and different people doing the songs. But this is the most comprehensive—with the essays and the books that Paradise of Bachelors put together, they really did an amazing job—history of those records.

How did your relationship with Paradise of Bachelors come about?

Terry Allen: I had licensed both of those records to Sugar Hill some time ago and they were released in the late ‘90s. They were new packages at that time. But Brendan [Greaves, founder of Paradise of Bachelors] has always—for about six or seven years—dogged me about wanting to do Juarez primarily.

When my license was coming up the last time with Sugar Hill I contacted them because I was interested in doing LPs. I asked if they were interested and they said, “absolutely not.” So I called Brendan up and we started talking seriously about doing it. He was so knowledgeable and had such amazing ideas about the record. And then Lubbock kind of came up at the same time. It kind of fell right in place to do that next. They were pretty persistent about wanting to re-issue these records.

Well I’m glad they were.

Terry Allen: I am too [laughs]. I didn’t really know much about Paradise of Bachelors, but Brendan started sending me LPs and showing me what they were doing, so it was exciting to me because it was another planet. I really, really like that label a lot now. I feel really fortunate that they took those two records.

Do you listen to a lot of bands on that label or much new music in general?

Terry Allen: I’ve listened to a lot but can’t name who they are [laughs]. There’s a banjo player that I listen to but I can’t remember his name. I keep going back to that record over and over again.

Nathan Bowles?

Terry Allen: Exactly. I really like his music.

Do you consistently listen to music in general?

Terry Allen: I do. But I kind of listen to music relative to things that I’m working on at a particular time. Like, I’ve been listening to a lot of Italian Futurist music because I’ve been working on a piece dealing with short Italian theater pieces. I’ve been working on it off and on for three years so I’ve been listening to a lot of music related to the Threepenny Opera which was kind of at the same time period. But I’m real Catholic as far as my tastes in music. I listen to all kinds of music.

Did your background in theater and your varied approach to art in general help inform the narrative approach to Juarez?

Terry Allen: I don’t really approach songwriting. It kind of happens with things that I’m working on. Juarez came out of a whole visual body of work I was doing. I was writing songs and doing visual drawings, trying to deal with the idea that a song tells one set of information and visuals tell another set. And neither illustrates the other but they tell different aspects of the same thing at the same time. I was working both visually and musically with that. But they were feeding each other so fast that to say one was dominant over the other would be wrong. I’ve kind of always felt that way.

My work has always been where one thing leads to another and nothing takes a precedence. It’s just what I’m focused on in a particular piece. They’re all the same to me. They all come from the same place.

Is it tricky trying to balance your various artistic endeavors?

Terry Allen: It just depends on what I happen to be working on at a particular time. I don’t think, “Today I’m only gonna do music, or today I’m only gonna do this or that,” unless I’m doing something specific that goes with an element I’m trying to connect. I don’t slot any of those things.

You sort of just tackle them as they come about?

Terry Allen: Yeah. I can be working on a song and I get an idea for an image, so I’ll stop working on the song and sketch the image. Or I can be working tediously on a drawing or sculpture piece and just go to the piano and start playing just to break the monotony. I go to my studio pretty much every day, even if I really don’t want to. It’s like that old Flannery O’Connor line, “If something happens I want to be there.” Inevitably it does. You read or you putter around, but you get bored and you start doing things. There’s no rule that I follow, though, as far as materials or anything that I’m using.

Do you write exclusively on the piano?

Terry Allen: Yeah I write on the piano because that’s the only instrument I know how to play [laughs].

Juarez was recorded in San Francisco and Lubbock was recorded in Texas. Did location and place impact the way you wrote and recorded the music?

Terry Allen: Well the recording of the music was dictated by the money. I had no money and my cousin was working as a road manager for Jefferson Starship and they had a studio booked at Wally Heider’s place in San Francisco. They had it 24 hours a day, and my cousin had access to it when the band wasn’t recording, which was in the morning. Juarez was recorded during those mornings.

But both of these records were made over a period of time, really. Juarez was made over five years but I was traveling a lot during that time between California and Texas. I was constantly traveling throughout that part of the world. I grew up going from California to Lubbock. My grandfather was a cobbler in Cortez, Colorado. So I had a sense instilled in me of that geography.

Lubbock seems less narratively driven. Was that intentional? To loosen yourself from a strict story?

Terry Allen: Juarez was a specific focus. It built itself out of these four characters. Lubbock was put together from songs that were written from 1968 up through 1975/1976. They weren’t written with any intention of being on an album. They were just written as songs. When I got the desire to do Lubbock—to do a new record after Juarez—I started to pool those songs together and I realized that there was kind of a loose narrative. It was an odd, biographical narrative. So I started to put that together accordingly. It has a narrative, but it’s totally different. It’s not story driven like Juarez is. It’s atmosphere and time driven.

One thing that happens too with music that comes from that part of the country is…I don’t think people who aren’t raised on flat land realize the dominance of being raised with an endless horizon in every direction. The space is so immense, the space in the songs from that part of the country is the same as the space in the geography. That’s probably true for people who make music anywhere, but my songs definitely take on a climate of the geography.

There’s a whole alt-country movement now that sort of traces back to your two albums, too. With the internet, it’s easy to trace the lineage and find old music that used to be impossible to find.

Terry Allen: I couldn’t be happier about that happening, even though I’m a total cyber dumbass.

Are you recording any new music?

Terry Allen: Not at the moment, but I’m getting ready to tour in a little bit. I haven’t toured in quite a while but I’m getting back out there to support these two records. I’ve been doing some festivals, too. I’ve been writing quite a bit of music. It’s kind of piecemeal right now but I’m hoping to get into the studio next year and cut some things together.

I’ve also been doing some digging and found some old songs that I never recorded. I’m re-visiting those and changing the ones that are worth listening to.

It must be kind of wild to re-visit that era of your life.

Terry Allen: I think what happens is—when you find a song you’ve written that you haven’t thought about for a while—it becomes almost a new song. You realize that it’s not a song you could write right now because it has nothing to do with your life right now.

Most songs come out of the time they were made. I have people wanting me to make another Lubbock or Juarez, and you can’t. It’s totally ludicrous because that was a time in my life that was totally different than it is now. Needs and desires were different and that’s what made those records happen. One thing I always try to do with my music is be present. You have to be present. You can’t be anything else.

David Byrne wrote the liner notes for the Lubbock re-issue. I know you worked with him on [his film] True Stories. How did your relationship come about?

Terry Allen: A mutual friend of ours told David about my music and my wife’s one-woman plays when he was putting True Stories together. He went to see my wife’s performances because he was looking for people that could write and ad-lib their own material. Most of the actors that he chose—like Spalding Gray—were all great at ad-libbing. He was basing it around Texas music, because the movie was shooting in Texas, and I just got a call one day.

He wanted me to do a song for a particular scene. He sent me the cassette of the demo, and the demo had the most bizarre Arabic yodels instead of words. It was unlike anything I had experienced before. But I took the tape and built a song called “Cocktail Desperado” out of it, which was used in the movie. After that, David and his wife came to visit and we just became friends. We did a number of things together over a period of time.

That’s a pretty amazing friendship to have.

Terry Allen: I guess him and Joe Ely are two of my favorite performers. They could be playing in your kitchen—or anywhere—and as soon as they start playing a song it goes full tilt. It’s always about the song. That kind of intensity, plus the curiosity that he brings to everything, is always inspiring.

What does your current live band look like? Is it musicians you played with back during the Juarez and Lubbock days or new musicians?

Terry Allen: I play with Lloyd Maines and Richard Boughton, guys that I met when we did Lubbock (on everything). But yeah, I’m playing with the same musicians that I pretty much played with since the late ‘70s. It’s a cliché, but it’s like a family of people. Everybody has maintained a connection with one another. I also play with my sons, which is really nice.

These records are so tied to land and geography. Do you have a favorite place to visit?

Terry Allen: You know, I kind of live wherever my family is. My family is very transient. My wife and I have spent a lot of time in Santa Fe because we have our studios here but we also have a place in Austin. We travel a lot and we’re driving a lot. But, I don’t know. I guess every place you go is kind of charged with the possibility of doing something with it. Whether that is a song or whatever…That’s just kind of the way our life has been.

You kind of have to leave a place and come back before you can really see it; especially if that place is the place where you grew up. That was exactly what happened to me with Lubbock. I think you also realize that the landscape you travel in is as much a part of you as your body parts. Your life is rooted in those spaces and that geography.

How did you end up in Santa Fe?

Terry Allen: We were living in Fresno, California but decided to move when my kids got out of high school. I booked a bunch of gigs in Texas, so we stopped there for a couple of days and ended up finding a place we really liked. That kind of changed everything for us. On a fluke we ended up buying it and sold our place in Fresno just in time. More than anything, our studios have been out here. Plus I’ve always loved New Mexico.

My mother’s last professional gigs were in Santa Fe. When I was a little kid we would drive out here and she would play in the La Fonda Hotel in the bar. I would sleep in the booth and then we’d drive back to Lubbock. She and my dad loved it up here so we were always in and out.

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