Terry Allen on the Texan roots of his music and his art
For more than half a century, artist and musician Terry Allen has drawn inspiration from the Southwest. “It’s space, it’s the horizon,” he told me. “And also the paradox of being so restrictive and conservative on other levels. There are so many crazy people that come from this part of the world – and I don’t mean crazy in a particular negative way, I just mean say, like, crazy to do things, to do things, to get out of there, to face your life.
In a work that spans albums, installations, radio plays and drawings, Allen, who is seventy-eight, talks about the region’s long stretches of deserted roads, drab motels and neon-lit bars, and bank robbers, washed away. the soccer players and the loners of the small towns who inhabit them. The potential for violence, or romance, always seems to buzz beneath the surface.
Allen grew up in Lubbock, selling sodas at the dance hall run by his father, a baseball player turned event promoter; he heard Hank Williams and Little Richard there. At the Los Angeles Art School in the sixties, he frequented the Surrealists and befriended Ed Ruscha. As a musician in the 1970s, he performed at festivals and wrote songs alongside the outlaw elite, releasing two world-building albums with country accents: “Juarez” (1975) and “Lubbock (on everything)” (1979). Although the documents soon run out, they have circulated among those in the know.
Allen quickly became better known for his visual art, an amalgamation of installations, theatrical dramas, video pieces, and lithographs, largely related to his early years in Lubbock. He gathered a series of fans, friends and collaborators – Dave Hickey, David Byrne, Bruce Nauman – who appreciated his eclectic approach to the genre and the edge of the outlaw laugh behind his broad, friendly smile. Country singer Guy Clark, who died in 2016, requested that his ashes be part of a sculpture by Terry Allen. Several years ago, when an interviewer asked Bob Dylan what contemporary art he was following, he said he liked mini-golf and Terry Allen.
Allen’s longest-serving collaborator, however, is his wife, actor and writer Jo Harvey Allen. The couple met in Lubbock when they were eleven and have been more or less together since. “The joke is, we didn’t have sex until we were twelve,” Allen told me when we spoke to each other a few days before Christmas. “Jo Harvey hates this joke.”
Allen’s refusal to stick to just one medium means that he sort of exists as an outsider, even though his work has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Hirshhorn. Years ago, the Smithsonian expressed interest in its archives and Allen sent them reel-to-reel tapes with some of his old recordings. When the museum told Allen they were only interested in his visual works, it canceled the deal, instead sending the materials to Texas Tech in Lubbock.
In 2016, North Carolina label Paradise of Bachelors re-released “Juarez” and “Lubbock (on everything),” drawing new attention to Allen. “It was like a whole world was opening 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, as well as Charlie Sexton, Dylan’s longtime guitarist. When we spoke, Allen was in Austin setting up an exhibit at the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas. He told me he couldn’t wait to get back to his studio in Santa Fe. “I’ve worked a lot with the work I’ve done before,” he told me. “I am excited to embark on what is to come. “
You were exposed to the entertainment industry early on, but in a very Lubbock way – rock and roll, but also wrestling. I heard a rumor that when you were a kid you met Elvis.
His group was trying to find where the room was, and they stopped by our house to ask where to go. That’s when they were touring in a station wagon with a bass attached to the top and drums in the back, and they were opening act for Little Jimmy Dickens. I think it was Elvis’s first time playing Lubbock.
Did you go to the show?
I work the show! My father brought a lot of actors 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 outward nature of rock and roll at this time made it so. But, for me, it was just normal business: wrestling every Wednesday, then every Friday night there was black dancing, and every Saturday night there was country dancing. I’ve been working for them since I was about six, selling pop and stuff. I’ve seen amazing people: T-Bone Walker, BB King, Jimmy Reed. Everyone came, because Lubbock was the only town of any size within three hundred miles.
What has it done in your life, and in the world of Lubbock, to have these outside influences?
It was like an atomic bomb. The city was so conservative. There were preachers who would go up to the pulpit and say, “On this day, bring these sounds of Satan to the fun fair and burn them in a bonfire.” How could a kid not like something that would do that to people?
My dad had been a baseball player and was sort of a local hero, so I think he dodged a lot of points with his finger. He brought Little Richard [to Lubbock], he summoned Elvis. In 1957, he had the first “Cosmopolitan Dance,” which was the first time that blacks, Hispanics, and whites were all in the same room. Ray Charles played it. Jo Harvey and I went. It was three small groups of paranoid, tight humans watching over their shoulders what the other group was going to do.
Rock and roll is that city sound, but the rural influence is also so crucial to its sound – it’s mixed with blues, country music, especially in those early years. So this is something that happens in these small towns, but it is also of them at the same time. And then you have Wolfman Jack, who you wrote a song about, who is this radio DJ from Brooklyn, who broadcasts from a station in Mexico, who plays rock and roll to the children of Lubbock. There is a real blurring of influences there.
I remember getting in a car and driving at night as fast as possible, listening to Wolfman Jack, who was playing music you had never heard – southern blues, rhythm and blues, doo wop . It was a bit perfect. There was a kind of weirdness in what was on the air – there was a Bible seller who came after Wolfman Jack who literally sold autographed pictures of Jesus Christ, straight from the Holy Land. How do you lose, listening to something like that?