Outlaw Country Lifer Terry Allen Ventures Back to Lubbock With a New Reissue
Watch his new video for "New Delhi Freight Train" and read an in-depth conversation with one of the last Texas country heroes.
Terry Allen is truly an outlaw when it comes to crafting songs (as well as visual art and pretty much everything else he does). He doesn't really have firm rules and doesn't care what you call his art. While some have classified his music as outlaw country, alt-country or the like, Allen views and writes his songs from a very elementary (and straight-ahead) level. He tries to write songs that are honest and truthful and don't try to be something they're not.
But rebel as much as he will in song or art form, he's not shy these days to appreciate the town where he comes from—his West Texas hometown of Lubbock. In fact, Allen is excited to be releasing a remastered version of his 1979 album Lubbock (on everything) on October 14. It;s an album that touches on his love-hate relationship with the town during his early years. Like many young people itching to escape their perceived bland hometown to explore the world, Allen sought to escape the barren wilderness and conservatism of the town for the abundance of opportunities of California in the 60s and 70s.
Instead of the violent mythology that came with his previous album, 1975's Juarez, Lubbock (on everything) focuses on what the album's press release describes as "prodigal-son satire." Many of the songs use intelligent satire that finds more in common with authors like Mark Twain and Randy Newman than the straight-forward protest of many outlaw artists like Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Terry's close friend and collaborator Guy Clark. As luck would have it, in searching for people to record the album with, a series of events led him to return to Lubbock to record it. He soon found he had only scratched the surface of Lubbock and its potential.
Today, Noisey is premiering a live video of Allen and his band (including his sons Bukka and Bale) performing "New Delhi Freight Train," which is featured on the album. As the video and Allen will attest, Lubbock and the songs that were influenced by it still move people to this day.
Noisey: It sounds like this remaster was a long-time coming. What led you to remastering this album?
Terry Allen: Well, Paradise of Bachelors actually started with Juarez, the first record I did. They've been talking to me a long time, about seven years, actually, trying to do the Juarez record. My license came up about the same time on Lubbock (on everything) as it did with Juarez with Sugar Hill. And I had spoken with Sugar Hill about releasing vinyl as well as CDs and stuff they were doing online. They weren't at all interested. Brendan [Greaves] had kept dogging me and calling me. I called him back and told him I was serious about it and that both records were available. At the time it timed out that I was doing a big show of Lubbock (on everything) in Lubbock, which happened last February. We did the entire album with the people that were on the original album. So it kind of fell in line with Juarez and they took both records on. Which was great for me because of the packaging they've done and the care they've shown for both of those records. And the whole format they've gone about it has been really amazing to me. So I was really happy with how those records turned out.
We had to do a real search for the masters of Lubbock because it had gone through several record companies. It was released initially on Fate Records which was my own record company. We never figured out to distribute and get anything out into the world. I finally licensed it to a record label in England called Topic Records and that's where we actually ended up finding the masters. We started playing back the Sugar Hill CD of the original Lubbock (on everything), the time was completely off and different on each of the songs. And also when they put it on cd I had to take off "High Horse Mama" which was on side three. So we got to reinstate that on the new LP and CD. It was a lot of detective work on Brendan and Chris [Smith]' part and once we got them had them remaster them. And they did. [Laughs]
So you've kept in close contact with the band members since you recorded the album?
Yeah. I've played with Lloyd Maines and Richard Bowden pretty much off and on solid since then. That's when I first met those guys and we've played music together since then. All the other people I've stayed in contact with and played on various records. Don Caldwell, whose studio I recorded pretty much everything I've ever recorded, up to Human Remains and Salvation. He played saxophone and all the backup singers were the original singers [for the live show]. The only thing we didn't get was the Monterey High School Marching Band which was at the end of one of the songs, "Great Joe Bob." They couldn't get together to do it. So we faked a marching band.
Compared to Juarez, Lubbock is considered by many a more accessible record. Do you think so?
Yeah. Pretty much when I licensed pretty much my catalog to Sugar Hill in the mid '90s it was the first time I had any distribution other than the backseat of my pants. Because I had done pretty much everything on my own. Licensing to them got it out a lot more. But that was nearly 20 years ago. So when [Paradise of Bachelors] picked up these two records it was kind of out of the blue for me because they've been dogging me about I never paid much attention to it until I really started talking to them and thinking about it. It opened up another range of possibilities for both records for me and the record. Even though I did those records a long time ago, they've maintained sort of an odd life in different places ever since. I never thought of them as old records. They've kind of shape-shifted to the times. Which I feel really good about, that they've held up that way. People still find something new to listen to in them.
When I had all these songs together I was planning on initially recording them in different parts of the country using different people. I didn't really have a sense of a band particularly. I was just going to gather different musicians around the country from different geographies, like West Coast, East Coast, and then in Texas. But because finances and whatever it became impractical in the people I wanted to work with. It was dead in the water until I got a grant on a fluke.
I wasn't expecting to get the money and almost at the same time I received a call from a friend of mine, an artist in Lubbock named Paul Milosevich who I had told I had a bunch of songs I wanted to record but I couldn't figure out how to do it at that particular time. And Paul said 'Well, why do you come to Lubbock? There's a lot of great musicians here.' He told me about Caldwell Studios, so I called up Caldwell and talked to him and he gave me a pretty good deal to come in and cut like 21 songs. He was also working with Lloyd Mains, who was Joe Ely's steel guitar player, and Lloyd was working with Caldwell in the studio. So he said we could get Lloyd could get with me and we could put a band together. When I went to Lubbock, I went back blind, not knowing any of these guys.
The first second or two I was there, I went to this big honky tonk called Coldwater in Lubbock ,and Joe Ely was playing and I met all those guys. I met Joe for the first time and Lloyd Mains and all the people in the band. I eventually became really good friends with them and played music with a lot. I told Lloyd I was going in to make a record and the next day I went in played all the songs in order which I had already kind of organized. So he called his brother Kenny Mains, who was a bass player, and we got Curtis McBride who was a local drummer and Lloyd played guitars and I played piano. And that was the core band. It basically became the Panhandle Mystery Band when we started performing live. Curtis dropped out of the live shows after a couple years and Donny Maines, who is Lloyd and Kenny's brother, played drums. And later David McLarty, who was Ely's drummer. It was like falling into this great hornet's nest of this group of really amazing musicians.
We set up these sessions and it turned into this really amazing experience. Because I hadn't really worked with a band ever before. When I was in LA in art school I played in a blues band, kind of a cover band. Other than that I had never played with a band with my own music. I had never thought of the songs not being played with a band. The nature of these songs required instrumentation. It was a completely different kind of way of thinking than Juarez, which was much more internal and much more about the intimacy of the songs.
With the band, did you find that you had more possibility with where the songs could go?
It opened up all kinds of ways in terms of thinking about music and my music and my songs. I know when I had recorded Juarez, there were certain things I heard other instruments on it but I couldn't afford to pay for the musicians at the time and to develop any of those songs instrumentally. I started experimenting with each of my records after Lubbock and after I played with this band I started pulling various songs off Juarez and including them on other records if it made sense on it. So it was kind of an experiment in that way but working with the band opened up the idea of that.
When you originally released the album, did you notice people calling the music "outlaw country"?
No. I don't think they were calling it anything. They couldn't hear it. Most of them never heard the music. I've never been interested in those kind of labels that people put on. My songs are pretty much everyone else's. I don't even know what outlaw country means.
I've read that many have lumped you in a different area of country from some of the other country songwriters like Willie Nelson, etc.
You know, I just thought of it as going in and trying to make these songs work as true to themselves as I could. I wasn't thinking of a particular thing that was happening with them or what they were going to be called or what I would call them. Once I figured out the songs that I had and put them together on a record…which to me, you're always trying to make a record one thing and it's made of these parts. But it's still one thing. That's what I was trying to do. That's what I cared about.
Also, the incredible surprise of meeting these incredible musicians and getting to play with them and at the same time going out to clubs and hearing them play, was for me at the time a completely new experience. So I wasn't thinking about anything other than getting the songs down as best as they could be put down. And when the record came out it was called everything. It was called alternative country and eventually outlaw country and then eventually Americana. And eventually this or that. But it still is what it is. It's just Lubbock (on everything). It's just a group of songs. I don't spend a lot of time concerning myself with what other people need to call things in order to get through their day.
Lloyd went on to record with bands like Uncle Tupelo and Wilco. How do you feel about his impact?
He's played with a lot of people. He's played steel guitar and has done session work and has done incredible production work for the last thirty years. He's one of those backbones of Texas music or just music that I know of.
Do you have any opinion about where country music has gone since you wrote Lubbock (on everything)?
I just think that the label "country music" shifts a lot. I'm not prejudiced about any kind of music. I listen to all kinds of music. I guess if there's a thing that you rail against is when you hear something that is an overt lie… I don't think there's any kind of so-called label that doesn't have really brilliant music and lyrics. And at the other end of the spectrum is just horseshit. I think you try to be as clear and honest as you can with your music and wherever your imagination has taken you that you want to explore with whatever you're writing or whatever you're doing. I think you want to do it as straight-ahead and honest to the thing that you're giving this time as you can. I think that's true if you're a writer or painter and sculptor or whatever you are.
Can you tell me about the town of Lubbock for those unfamiliar with it?
Well, it's one of the flattest places on the planet. It's in the center of Llano Estacado...which is a big flat plain has a very harsh climate. It's almost preposterous thinking how anyone decided at the time that they did that they were going to live there. It got hit hard by the Dust Bowl like a lot of towns in that part of the country. One of my comments is usually that it's so flat in any direction that if you look in any direction really hard on a clear day you can see the back of your own head. But it's also hypnotic because you're surrounded by this immense horizon in every direction. I think you're always drawn to that edge.
When you combine that with music and motion, it's a pretty incredible potential experience. Driving in a car in flat land listening to music. I think the music that comes from that part of the country is very similar to the geography of that country. It has the same sense of wide open space and distances that happen in these songs that I think is unique to that part of the country as opposed to East Texas or wherever a person grows up or lives. I think the music kind of takes on the character or personality or subconscious, really, of that particular place. Music and motion and dirt are codependent in that part of the world. It's a very remarkable place in that sense.
It's a very conservative town but it's generated some incredibly unique artists and music that have come out of there. A lot of people attribute it to outer space landings or the water or whatever. But it's really boredom. Boredom is the mother of invention pretty much. For me, growing up there and when I heard rock and roll, it was like an open door to the world. And I had to get out of there as quick as I could. I think that affected people in the same way. A lot of young people scapegoated the conservative and walk-in aspect of the town to leave and go out into the world.
Is it the same now?
No, nothing's the same now. But everything's the same. It's like everywhere else. It's got the internet. [Laughs] It's a much bigger town than when I grew up there. There's still a character [to the town] that's still the same. I think there's a value structure that's still the same. But I'm in and out of there now. I haven't lived in Lubbock since 1962. I've been back a lot and played music there and my wife has family there and I still have a lot of friends there. And actually Texas Tech, the university, is taking on archives. My wife and I have 40 years of notebooks and letters and stories and tapes and whatever we've accumulated over our lives together. Because both of us are from there. It's kind of a funny full circle that we've made from leaving there to coming back and taking our work, at least the genesis of a lot of our works.
In the press release for the album, it claims that the songs have a universal appeal that could be applied to anywhere. Was that your intention when you wrote the songs?
I wasn't thinking that way at the time. I do think that wherever you do grow up is pretty rich for everybody. It's all about how you turn around and look at it. A lot of times you don't get to see it unless you believe it. I think that was my case. Like I said, it was a fluke to go back there and record that record. Because most of my feelings about the place were pretty negative up until I went back and recorded those songs and listened to them and realized that all those songs were about, shit, I had a great affection for the place. Something was happening inside of me that I wasn't reading outside. I think that can happen with a lot of people when they're from their hometown and thinking about leaving and coming back and seeing something for the first time and how you see it and how you respond it.
But it's really about putting together a collection of songs I had written over a period of time and put them in an order that was coherent. And because of the time it was put together, it was '60s and '70s, there were so many things that were going on in my life. I had kids for the first time in my life, it was the first time I was in art school, the war was going on, we were living in LA which was like another planet after coming from Lubbock, and the greatest time to live in LA was the 60s.
So I had all these things that were happening and it just became Lubbock (on everything). I was beginning to share my work and art work. I was trying to figure out how to make up a visual work with a song. Just basic things I was working on at the time. So it was a confluence of a lot of different things at once that went into those songs. That was all in retrospect. At the time it was just making songs.
You once said 'If it's not a lie, it's satire.' Do you still feel this?
There's a part of me that certainly does. I think you have to have to have a sense of humor and a little tongue-in-check pretty much everything you confront that's being thrown in your face as highly serious.
Can you talk about incorporating satire in your songwriting?
I think it's a natural thing that shows up. I don't think it's incorporating it. I don't think you sit down and say 'Oh, I'm going to be satirical or I'm going to do this. It happens and it happens relative of what's going on in the song.
The press release compares your songwriting and satire with authors like Mark Twain. Was there any literature that influenced your songwriting growing up?
I suppose when I lived in Lubbock in the latter years and then left and what motivated me literary-wise was the Beat, [Jack] Kerouac and those guys. I read them fairly early on. That sense of openness and motion, which was the same thing that was appealing to me about where I lived but I didn't know it. That was probably the first literary influences and Hemingway and reading the succinct cynicism. But I don't think my reading was any different from other people that had that curiosity at my age for books. It was about what was accessible and there really wasn't a lot that was accessible in those days except for at school. Classic comic books were probably my main education in the classics. [Laughs] Because you certainly weren't taught it. Maybe some Shakespeare but that was about it.
What does it mean for you to have these songs from this album and your career like "Amarillo Highway" resonate so much with today's songwriters like Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell? I imagine at least a few of the people who hear these covers are curious enough to check out your music and it helps attracts the younger generations.
Yeah. I'm very happy that they hear something that they like. You want people to like your music. It's great when people like your songs and play them. I always feel good about that. I know there was a Swedish band that covered my song " Amarillo Highway" once that was pretty bizarre. Most of the covers I've had, and I haven't had a lot...I'm honored that people would want to do my songs.
The theme of the album seems to be the thought that you can't escape from your past and what influenced you, and the best way is to take it all in stride and act with grace.
Yeah I think it's there. You can escape from it but you're always carrying it. You're carrying part of it with you. You can resist it or you can embrace it or just be objective about it. But it's there. And I think that's true for all of us wherever we're from.
As you've gotten older has that idea resonated even more for you?
Yeah, it might. Because when you get older you look back at choices and you look at things that came from those choices and you have more of a distance to look at it and come at it from different angles. I think you have a longer range perspective with it. But also I think your perspective is tempered with a clarity maybe that you didn't have before. It's just a different...vantage point looking back than running with it. And you have to when it's something like Lubbock (on everything) or Juarez and they come out. And when they came out it was done so long ago that it's ramped in its past but it's also new.
So it's a double edged thing that you're thinking about. You're thinking about pushing those songs forward and doing them now and the times they came from and where they came from and all that. So all of that is coming together at the same time. So it's a really interesting, odd storm that you're in, when you start getting attention for older things that you're done that didn't get that much of attention at the time. But it did and nothing happened with it.
What does it mean for you to play with your sons Bukka and Bale on "New Delhi Fright Train"?
Oh, it's great. It's like one of those gifts that you never thought about. But it's a great feeling. To play with old friends and play with your kids and see your kids play with your old friends when you're not even playing, you realize it's a world that's kind of come up in this world that music gave you. It's a pretty amazing feeling. Always. And I've been fortunate that way because I've worked a lot with my wife and my kids have done stuff together separately. But liking things has always been one of the big priorities in all of our lives together and separately. That's pretty fortunate. And to be able to make a living doing it is even more fortunate.
Do you remember the first time you shared these songs with your sons?
They grew up around musicians and people playing songs. It's just something that embedded in their childhood and my memory of when they were little. I can remember sitting down and playing certain songs. With Juarez I remember sitting down with them on the floor with the record player and playing the songs. And they would ask me a lot of historical things like 'What was Cortez?' and things like that because they were pretty small when I did those. But now...I know my son Bukka always said that song "Cortez Sail" has always stuck with him in some kind of way because it was so mysterious to him. And now it's so amazing to play it with him. It's the way time kind of runs into itself again. But it was such a natural process of them being part of the music and visual art and all of that. Every aspect of our life. I could really dig into my head and dig out specific images and memories but they were really with us.
Are you working on any new projects at the moment?
I'm working on a sculpture project in Austin called Road Angel. It features a 1953 Chevrolet and it's going to be sited in this swamp area of Laguna Gloria Museum in Austin. I'm inviting musicians, writers, artists and storytellers to contribute pieces they'd like to hear coming out of an abandoned car. So it's going to have a state of the art sound system unit and I'm starting to collect these pieces from people. And building an archive hopefully of that lost romance of the automobile in motion and what it means to people. Because I think the world is very different now as far as how we perceive cars and fuel and motion and all of that. Then Guy Clarke laid this incredibly preposterous thing on me of putting his ashes in a piece of art. So I've been working on some ideas of how to honor Guy and paying him back for laying such a chickenshit job on me. [Laughs]
What's your favorite memory of Guy?
Oh God, I have a lot of them. We played together a lot and did song swaps. I think it's that when you play music with somebody who you really like and like what they do, it's so amazing to be three feet away from them and watch them do what they do. It was just one of those people that you look as being an important person in your life.
Are you writing any new music?
Yeah I have been. I've been writing quite a few new songs. But just like I write, I have pieces and parts all over the place. Gradually I keep banging away at them and they start trying to come together.
How do you think your songwriting now compares with when you wrote Lubbock (on everything) and your early work?
I think it's a lot slower. I guess it's because your head is too crowded from the stuff and have to wade through a lot more bad habits than you did when you were younger. You had some extremely sharp bad habits when you were young but there weren't quite as many of them. I think you have to try to get through those habits to get to the truth of the song or beat of it. So yeah, it's slower for me now.
One of my favorite parts about Lubbock (on everything) (and Juarez for that matter) is the spoken word segment. Can you talk about crafting that?
The ["Beautiful] Waitress" song. That's almost verbatim of a conversation I had at a Denny's with a waitress there. It's almost word for word as I remembered it. When I was in art school I was fortunate enough to meet an artist named Man Ray. He lived in LA at the time and he liked to come and talk to the students at lunch. He was one of the old surrealist guys. What I remember him saying was that if you're an artist you can do anything you want to do. If you want to draw a dog, draw a dog. If you want to pick some flowers, go pick some flowers. If you want to make a sculpture, make a sculpture. You are free to do what you want to do. Anything you want to do.
But you're also responsible for it. That's the catch. So I've never had any system of rules as for what should be on the record or what shouldn't be on the record. I think everything is fair game. It's the same with the subject of the songs or picture or whatever. The catch is how you go about doing it and making it. I think I've never had any problem putting spoken word or profanity if you want to call it profanity or anything whatever the subject matter is. It's never been an issue. But the issue is how well you do it in your own mind.
Photos courtesy of Paradise of Bachelors
Joshua M. Miller is staying open-minded on Twitter.