Interviews: Terry Allen on Lubbock (On Everything)

Photograph by Peter Ellzey
Photograph by Peter Ellzey

by: Thomas D. Mooney
Editor-in-Chief

This coming Thursday, February 18th, Lubbock artist-musician-writer Terry Allen will be performing his masterpiece album, Lubbock (on Everything) on Texas Tech University campus as this year’s “Lubbock Lights: Celebrating the Musical Heritage of the South Plains” guest speaker and artist. Allen and company will be performing Lubbock (on Everything) at the Student Union Building’s Allen Theatre on the Texas Tech campus.

Joining him on stage will be a star-studded lineup of individuals who either recorded the album at Caldwell Studios in 1978 or have been a vital piece of Allen’s life and music since then. They include Allen’s wife, Jo Harvey Allen, Richard Bowden, Don Caldwell, Gwen Decker, Suzanne Henley, Kenny Maines, Lloyd Maines, Alan Shinn, Curtis McBride, Terry and Jo Harvey’s sons Bukka and Bale Allen, Casey Maines, Donnie Maines, and Terri Hendrix.

Tickets for “Lubbock Lights,” which is open to the public, are $15 and available through Select-A-Seat, at (806) 770-2000 or at www.selectaseatlubbock.com. Doors will be open at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 18 with the performance beginning at 7:00 p.m.. Texas Tech University students will be admitted free with a valid ID.

We caught up with Allen to discuss the monumental album, the landscape of Lubbock music around the time, and the impact of the album all these years later.

New Slang: I’ve seen you talk about Lubbock being a scapegoat for you in your younger years. You couldn’t wait to get out of here and so you move out to Los Angeles. But then, Lubbock and the area starts to creep back into your life through your art. At the beginning, were you frustrated or even angry that despite being a thousand miles away, somehow Lubbock, in its’ own way is a major influence on your art?

Terry Allen: I think it was just a realization. After going back and forth and kind of finding my own identity out in California. We went back and forth all the time because Jo Harvey’s folks lived there. My mother lived in Amarillo. All during the ’60s and ’70s, we were pretty much burning up the road between California and Lubbock during the holidays.

But I think it was just a realization of where you come from is important. No matter where you come from, there’s a richness that can be tapped into. Part of it, it’s made you into the kind of person you are–or at least can give you the kind of heart you have for whatever work you’re doing. I think that’s what I was really coming to terms with.

I did leave with a vengeance. I did want to get out of there–big time. I remember when I first got to California and into art school, I was kind of stunned to meet people with similar circumstances from all over the country. They all couldn’t wait to get away from where they were from. It was kind of a weird, prodigal group. Self-made outcasts. I kind of learned through talking with all those people. It was realizing how different their lives were and from maybe a place you thought of as some kind of paradise, they couldn’t wait to get their ass out there. We’re all made up of these different geographies. I think it’s coming to terms with the fact that they’re important. Wherever you come from, it’s a big one in your life.

NS: With Lubbock (on Everything), I think the title, it’s often misunderstood, that it’s you exploring the various pockets of people who inhabit the Panhandle–there’s plenty of that–but the album is really more about Lubbock’s impact on everything in your life.

TA: Yeah, that’s exactly it.I think Lubbock as home. Lubbock as a place you run from. Lubbock as the world. Lubbock as the smallest dot on the planet. By the time I went back to record the record, there were so many songs that came from so many different angles. Whether it was the Vietnam War, selling in galleries and making art in that sense–there were a lot of lives that were stacked up there on the album. It just made sense to call it Lubbock (on Everything).

Also, for years, Lubbock had a billboard outside of town, their main billboard, that said “Lubbock for all reasons.” So what’s the difference?

NS: I found this old record you’d done called Live at Al’s Grand Hotel May 7th, 1971. It has two songs from Lubbock (on Everything) on there–“The Pink and Black Song” and “Truckload of Art.” How big of a time period are the songs of Lubbock (on Everything) from?

TA: I’d say the earliest come from around ’66, ’67–something like that. I’d say it was about a 10 year span. I had written a whole record before with Juarez. These though, they were songs from different angles and times. That’s one of those things you realize years later when people ask “Why don’t you do another record like Lubbock (on Everything)?” Well, you can’t. And you have no desire to. They were done at a particular time when particular things fell into place in your life and your music. It’s kind of a ridiculous thing to comprehend. The idea of repeating yourself like that, you can’t.

NS: Yeah. I think people always want that. It’s why sequels are made. But for you, it’s you really dedicating a decade of your life to a particular idea.

TA: Yeah. A lot of them were surprisingly about West Texas. They were literally surprising to me when I started putting them together. I’ve told this story a lot. Really, the first time it ever dawned on me what that country and those people really meant to me, it was when we were listening to the record for the first time. It dawned on me that I really did deeply care about that country, the stories I grew hearing, and the stories of the people I grew up around. It’s a matter of learning. It’s a learning process that continues until you’re dead–hopefully. If it doesn’t, you’re dead anyway.

NS: Yeah. Going back to that Al’s Grand Hotel record. Was that you just solo? What’s the story behind that?

TA: Yeah, it’s just me. Those tapes were lost for a long time. A friend of mine, he’d done this art installation. It was a hotel that people could actually check in. It was in conjunction to a show called Art and Technology. It was in LA and was through the LA County Museum of Art. Al Ruppersberg, he’s a very close friend of mine, he made this piece. I had done this song called “Al’s Cafe.” It was with this prior installation of a working cafe that sold art instead of food. He was like the chef and you ordered your art off a menu. So I had written that song for him and we put it out as a “Blue Plate Special,” the 45 record.

Anyways, so he wanted me to play at the opening of the hotel. At the time, I had signed with a record company called Clean Records, which was a subsidiary of Atlantic Records. They suggested cutting some of these songs live. So they brought in a piano and recorded all this stuff. I don’t think it lived up to any of their expectations. The tapes were almost immediately lost for the next 30 years [laughs]. The way they were found, Al was in New York, he went and spoke to the man who ran Clean Records at the time, a man by the name Earl McGrath. It ended up being in his closet. So we got those tapes. There’s a lot more songs on them, but I edited them down to the ones that made sense–and ones that I got from beginning to end without totally screwing up on. That’s not always the case if you listen to them. There’s a lot of screw ups [laughs]. Al got to kind of revisit that hotel through a big show he had, so we thought since he did find the tapes, it’d be a good idea to do an LP. It was very limited edition, only 500 of them made.

I had done one more record prior to that. It was a 45. I think it came out in ’66. It was a song called “Gone to California” and the other side was “Color Book.” It was A&M Records who wanted to do a record with me so we went and cut those two. It was keyboard and a guitar player by the named of Mike Deasy. They pressed about 300 of them. There was a guy floating around L.A. around the time called Hollywood Arson. He literally lit one of his fires on my stack of records. They were supposed to be promo records, but there were only about 50 that survived. As far as I was concerned, they were immediately collector’s items. They were part of the “Blue Plate Special” we did over at Al’s Cafe.

The only other recording I did prior to Juarez was for a movie called Two Lane Blacktop. I cut “Truckload of Art.” It was around that same time for Clean Records. It only came out in the movie very briefly. Like they played it on the radio. That was pretty much about the only stuff that went out into the world before ’75.

NS: Yeah. When I interviewed Lloyd Maines about the record, he had mentioned you playing “Red Bird” for a variety show called Shindig!

TA: Yeah, that was ’64. Shindig! was a show around then. I had done “Red Bird” and another song that’s long been buried thank god, called “Freedom School.” I did both those songs in a minute and a half. It was very much Chipmunked up. It’s so ridiculous that it’s funny now.

NS: Yeah [laughs]. Getting back on Lubbock (on Everything), someone once described the record to me as kind of being like Dubliners. There’s these character studies. You mentioned it earlier, being in art school with self-proclaimed outliers. What drew you to writing about these characters who are down on their luck, don’t fit in, outliers, or sometimes even just troublemakers?

TA: I think all those people, I certainly encountered them for real or in the climate of growing up there. Like “Joe Bob (The Great Joe Bob”), he’s not a real person, but he’s certainly a composite of some. I actually have drawers with newspaper clippings that people have sent me over the years of that same exact story. The football hero in high school goes to hell as soon as he gets out. It was almost an icon in a sense–the failed football star.

I don’t think you make biographies as much as you make a climate. Mostly, when a song works and sung about a character, all of that character is made in the head of the one who is listening to it. The bulk of that character is built there. We all have our private people that we have inside ourselves that we know. We know these specific, personal things about these people. You can sing a song about “The Beautiful Waitress” and I’ll have one take on it and a person from New York City, they’re going to have their own. Same with someone from East Texas or Thailand. That story though, it’s almost universal. Coming across somebody who serves you, moves you, and then you move on.

NS: One of the things I’ve thought about the record, was how it’s kind of a circle. It feels like the last song, “I Just Left Myself” directly connects to the first, “Amarillo Highway.” For me at least, it makes sense that when you’re in “I Just Left Myself,” you’re on the Amarillo Highway–that’s where the wreck of “I Just Left Myself” happens. The lines that really connect them are “The closest I’ll ever get to heaven is making speed on old 87” (“Amarillo Highway”) and “I didn’t float, I didn’t fly, I did not transcend” (“I Just Left Myself”). Was this something that was on purpose? Were they put in order specifically for that effect?

TA: I don’t think consciously they were. But one of the things I tried to do with this record, was to make it one thing. I wanted it to be something you experienced from beginning to end. I like you saying that because it was my intention. I don’t know about specifics, but the climate of those songs, I wanted it to give an atmosphere of one thing and it being made out of a lot of parts. That’s really what I meant when each person finds their own way of listening to something. I’d be the last person to tell you “No, no. That’s not the case.” I think it’s really important that people lend their own world to it and make it theirs.

NS: Yeah. Over time, I think I’ve decided that with music, even though a songwriter writes a song for some specific reason and it holds some importance to them, it’s just as important, if not more, what the listener gets out of the song, even if it’s something entirely different.

TA: Yeah. I think they can be very different. A song can come from one thing and take on a life that you never even thought about. And in some cases, some you never intended. They’re all OK–unless you’re talking with someone and they just have some moronic interpretation [laughs].

NS: [Laughs].

TA: I think the listener finishes the song. You don’t really know where one comes from. Some are more apparent because of a theme or an idea, but the actual making of a song, it’s as mysterious as a blank sheet of paper that you suddenly fill up because of an idea. It’s a very mysterious act.

NS: Lubbock (on Everything), it’s a big album. 21 songs. Was there ever any talk about making it smaller?

TA: Never. When I walked in, I had them pretty much in order. I had them in a notebook and played them pretty much in order. We shifted a few things around. I didn’t have any outtakes of song. It was pretty much planned as far as order and size. It had to be two records. I think the great thing about LPs was you had to think in terms of size. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. It’s like a book in a sense. With CDs, you’ve lost that. It’s all one thing that starts with the first and ends with the last. Or now, you know, you can just buy one song and take them out of the integrity of the single record. Which, I don’t like…but so what [laughs]?

NS: [Laughs]. When I spoke with Kenny and Lloyd about the album, they both talked about how organized you were. How you had all the songs in an order, knew what you wanted to do, and really, just all the preparation was done before pressing record.

TA: Yeah. It was kind of a perfect situation. Really, it’s just luck. Coming to Lubbock, meeting Lloyd, Kenny, and all those people–actually meeting people who could implement that. With the background I had with other musicians, it had been pretty limited. I worked with a couple on Juarez, but pretty much any time I had worked with other musicians, I had felt kind of restrained. I talk with Lloyd a lot about this. I had played with other guitar players, but it was always uncomfortable for me–which, it could be because I’m such a shitty piano player [laughs]. But when I sat down with Lloyd, it was a huge sigh of relief for me. It was finding someone who played in the same way I was thinking the song ought to be. We never really argued about anything. Lloyd, he’d get tight-assed about how some songs had to have a certain meter or rhythm or whatever. I would never paid attention to him on that. But it was such an incredible encounter with all those guys at Caldwell Studios. I think that atmosphere and those people, they lent to the feel of that record just as much as the songs. It came out of a real connection that I was just ecstatic over having because, I’d never had it before. That was a big part of it. The fact that it was in Lubbock, that was even more bizarre.

NS: Being recorded in Lubbock and with Lubbock musicians, that’s certainly an important aspect to the album. It’s significant. You said earlier that there wasn’t any outtakes. I always felt that Smokin’ the Dummy, which was your next record, it was kind of a sequel in a way. Were any of those songs written around the time of the Lubbock (on Everything) songs or were they after?

TA: With the exception of “Red Bird,” they were all written after Lubbock (on Everything). I’m not totally positive on that though. I probably had a few pieces and parts since that’s how I write. I’ll have a verse, a chorus, or a line all over the place. I know that after meeting all those guys though, I wanted to do a real upbeat kind of record. I wanted to work with Jesse [Taylor]. He had blown me away on what he did on “Flatland Farmer.” It worked out with his deal with Joe [Ely] that he could go out with me some and he could do some recording. I thought of it as more of a rock’n’roll record, even though there are songs like “Texas Tears” and other country feeling songs.

“Red Bird,” no one wanted to do that song when I sang it to them for the first time. They all thought it was too weird. I told them, “Of all the songs that are going to be on this record, that one is going to be on it.” When we recorded it, we figured out this little kind of line in the rides between the choruses. It was almost like a Dixie piece. All of a sudden, all the harmonies they were doing, they just started to work. I think to this day, it’s still everybody’s favorite song–but I’m always reluctant to say “favorite” song. It’s like picking your favorite kid or favorite this or that.

NS: When Lubbock (on Everything) was being pressed to CD, the song “High Horse Momma” was left off due to space. I’m sure you wanted it on there. But why was it ultimately that song and not something else?

TA: Yeah, that’s a good question. It really was a toss-up. I didn’t want to cut it, but there was no way it would fit. There’s a group that I just licensed Lubbock (on Everything) and Juarez to out of North Carolina called Paradise of Bachelors. It’s these guys who are doing reissues of records that they like. They’re doing these packages of the LPs with a booklet that’ll have some essays and stuff for it. Because it’s an LP, “High Horse Momma” is going to be on it. I did put “High Horse Momma” on The Silent Majority compilation. And we’re going to do it on the 18th.

NS: A lot of people who I’ve spoken with about the album, they’ve said that even though the music scene was starting to bubble up and had some songwriters and bands doing some things, that really, Lubbock (on Everything) was the tipping point. Now, we know all of them as this established group from Lubbock, but then, it’s not necessarily the case.

TA: Yeah. Joe was still living there when we recorded the album. I hadn’t met him before. I knew Jimmie [Dale Gilmore] and Butch [Hancock] from high school. They were sophomores when I was a senior, but it wasn’t because of anything to do with music. Didn’t reconnect with any of those guys until I went to record. That was the first time I met Joe and all of the Maines people. It was a whole new experience to me. And shortly after that, they were all moving to Austin. Joe was the first. Lloyd was sort of the last one. He’d been burning up the road between Lubbock and Austin so much that he just finally moved. Jimmie and Butch left. Jo Carol Pierce was another. She’s a wonderful songwriter who moved down to Austin. Anyways, it was a wonderful generation of music. They went to Austin, and of course, I’d left years before. You know, I always said, they called themselves The Flatlanders. Me, I was get my ass flat-out of there. [laughs].

NS: [Laughs].

TA: I think a lot of people left at the same time. I was living in Fresno when I cut Lubbock (on Everything). I’d come back and play gigs all the time with them. We’d play Coldwater and Stubb’s. It was funny, the first gig of The Panhandle Mystery Band that we did was in Chicago at Second City. Kenny, Curtis McBride, Lloyd, Don Caldwell, and me–I think that was all of us–anyway, Caldwell came up with us and trashed our set [laughs].

NS: [Laughs].

TA: I’m just kidding. I always just accused him of that [laughs]. Obviously Caldwell and Kenny stayed in Lubbock. When we started going out on the road, which wasn’t really until after Smokin’ the Dummy, we played a lot of museum gigs and gigs that were sponsored by museums and art galleries. It was a very bizarre audience in one sense because it was a new audience. We’d play in a nightclub one night and then in a concert hall the next. We’d do the same exact set list. It was a real interesting time. Donnie [Maines] came on after Curtis. Donnie played on everything I think after Lubbock (on Everything). He was just a monster drummer.

NS: Kenny said at that Chicago show, you kicked a pedal out of a piano.

TA: Yeah. That happened a lot in those days. I kicked a pedal in two and kicked a lot of them off. I stopped my foot pretty hard. At one time, after playing all these uprights, I had a collection of pedals I had broken off. I had tape on each one with the place and date. Usually, it was because I’d ask them to tune the piano, and going into a club, you never know what you’re going to get since it’s somebody else’s instrument. Some of them would be horrendously out of tune. I would have to stop it extra hard.

NS: Talking with folks who played on the album, they all said spoke about how playing on the album, playing shows with you, all of that had an impact on what they thought about music. It influenced their own ideas on what they could do individually. I’d assume that in the moment, you don’t see you’re having an influence on them, but looking back, do you see how your work would have some kind of influence on their future work in The Maines Brothers, solo albums, and what not?

TA: Well, I knew The Maines Brothers liked my music because they recorded a bunch of my songs. We’d play a gig were it was The Maines Brothers Band and The Panhandle Mystery Band. There were a lot more players in The Maines Brothers, but then Richard [Bowden], Kenny, Donnie, and Lloyd would play with me as The Panhandle Mystery Band.

I always thought the sounds of the two bands were very different. The way they’d do “Amarillo Highway” and the way I’d do it were different. They’d adapt really fast. I don’t really think in the way you’re talking though. I don’t really think that way. But, I’m always happy when someone records one of my songs.

NS: This upcoming show, you’ll be doing the album in full. How many times has that actually happened?

TA: I think it’s the first time. We did Juarez. A friend of mine, Cliff Westerman, who was an artist, he had a retrospective exhibition in Chicago. Cliff, he always loved Juarez. We played that then, which was the only time. The band, they played acoustic during the entire album. Juarez, it really is such a solo record, but we did a lot of minimal arrangements for the band to play. I’ve thought about re-recording it because I really liked what we did with it. But, I don’t think we’ve ever done Lubbock (on Everything) from start to finish.

NS: Were you surprised they asked you to do the entire album for this show?

TA: Yeah. Andy Wilkinson really kind of spearheaded that. I knew they’d done something like it last year. They’d been asking for several years. Don Caldwell was wanting to do a show for a long time. So it kind of worked. Caldwell had a lot to do with it, pushing the idea, him and Andy. With Tech on it, they’ve been great to work with. They’ve parlayed it into all these talks. My wife is going to talk to the Theatre Department. I think we’re both going to Monterey High School. I’m talking to an art class and a music class at Tech. I think Lloyd is in on it too. We were all laughing about the scholastic intent of Lubbock (on Everything) wasn’t really heavy [laughs]. But I love it.