When they decided to leave Lubbock in the early 1960s, Terry Allen and his wife, Jo Harvey, flipped a coin to decide whether they’d go to New York or Los Angeles. That’s a big decision to leave to chance. But looking back, Allen considers it a personal manifest destiny that had only one possible outcome.
“I don’t think the coin would have ever flipped the other way,” says Allen, speaking by phone from his home in Santa Fe, N.M. “I think we both have such a western pull. I’ve always wanted to go that direction. I mean, I love to go to the East Coast and work back there. But I like west better than east, and I like south better than north.”
Location always has played a defining role in Allen’s art, which has included musical, visual and theatrical endeavors. So it’s fitting that when he plays the Paramount Theatre on Saturday with a band that includes ringers such as multi-instrumentalist Lloyd Maines and Dixie Chicks bassist Glenn Fukunaga, Allen will focus on “Juarez” and “Lubbock (on everything),” the 1970s albums that put him on the map as a masterful songwriter.
Initially released on Allen’s own Fate Records and recently reissued by the indie label Paradise of Bachelors, “Juarez” and “Lubbock” are very different records, but both draw heavily from a sense of place. “Juarez” plays out like a twisted musical theater piece, split into California, Cortez and Juarez subsections with narration scattered amid the songs.
“‘Juarez’ was so dense,” Allen recalls of the multidisciplinary approach to his first album that came to define his identity as an artist. “There were images that went with it, there was a theater piece, there was a lot of text that went over periods of years — soundtracks and installations at museums.
“It kind of expanded into a way of working for me, I think. I don’t want to say methodology, but I’ve always described it as a haunting. Because it’s been so many things, and changed in so many ways.”
“Lubbock (on everything),” a double-album released four years later, found Allen returning to the town where he was raised and reflecting upon its culture, politics and geography in ways that surprised even himself. In the extensive liner notes to the reissue, Allen offers up some fascinating insights about its songs:
“It really wasn’t until we were listening back to the whole record after we’d just mixed it that I realized these songs I had written about that place were actually affectionate toward it and the people there. My feelings about Lubbock were so internally different than the attitude I had been expressing externally. And it was kind of shocking to me, because I suddenly realized how much I actually cared about the place, and how important it was to me and what I did.”
Another big revelation of the “Lubbock” sessions was Allen’s introduction to Maines, who played guitar, pedal steel, dobro, mandolin and banjo on the record and became a key collaborator and co-producer on many of Allen’s subsequent records. Maines was at the time playing in the band of Joe Ely, who also turned up as a guest player on the album.
Ely’s former Flatlanders bandmates Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore had gone to Lubbock’s Monterey High School with Allen in the early 1960s, but Ely, slightly younger, hadn’t previously met Allen. By the time “Lubbock (on everything)” was recorded, Ely and Hancock had moved to Austin, with Gilmore soon to follow.
For Allen and his wife, though, the compass out of Lubbock always pointed west. “I never thought about Austin,” he says in retrospect. Advice from an art teacher during what he describes as an “academically miserable” stint at Texas Tech also helped push them to Los Angeles.
“The only classes I did well in were a writing class and a drawing class,” he says. “I remember asking the drawing teacher if there was a school like his class, and he told me about this school in L.A.” That’s how Allen ended up at Chouinard Art Institute, now part of the California Art Institute.
The Allens stayed in California for more than 20 years, raising their sons Bale and Bukka there. Expecting to return to Texas in the late 1980s, they happened upon Santa Fe and were charmed enough to settle there. Allen had childhood memories of visiting the town with his mother, a pianist who often performed at the still-standing La Fonda Hotel in downtown Santa Fe.
As fate would have it, both of the Allens’ children ended up in Austin. Last winter, Terry and Jo Harvey got a place here, too. They’ve spent quite a bit of the past year in town, spending time with their kids (and, now, grandkids).
And now Austin finally has its own permanent Terry Allen art installation. Renowned for decades as a sculptor with works displayed around the world, Allen created a new piece called “Road Angel” that was unveiled last month in the Contemporary Austin’s Marcus Sulpture Park at Laguna Gloria.
A full-size bronze cast of a classic 1953 Chevrolet coupe, “Road Angel” wonderfully dovetails Allen’s parallel pursuits of sculpture and sound: Personally curated audio selections rise from the car as if playing on a dashboard radio.
The audio — a mix of songs, poems and other noises — came from friends Allen invited to contribute to the project. Musicians such as Ely, Michael Nesmith and Inara George (daughter of Little Feat’s Lowell George, among the first to record one of Allen’s tunes) offered up songs, while a few writers and artists sent along spoken-word pieces.
One of Allen’s favorites came from Florida artist Jim Roche, “who just gnawed on a bone really loud,” he says with a mischievous laugh. “It’s pretty amazing when it’s coming out of that car.”
“Road Angel” in some respects echoes “Trees,” an installation Allen made for the University of California at San Diego in the 1980s. Replicas of eucalyptus trees, created from discarded remains of actual trees, emit music and poetry.
Allen says he treasures works that allow him to collaborate across disciplines. “I’ve had that experience two or three times,” he says, “and I always like it — just providing some kind of a platform for people to do what they do.”
What awaits is perhaps the most surreal collaboration Allen has ever undertaken. Many years ago, his longtime friend Guy Clark, the legendary Texas songwriter, asked Allen to use his ashes in a sculpture when he was gone. When Clark died last May at age 74, that promise came due.
Allen isn’t yet sure what form it will take. “I’ve been doing a lot of drawings and I have some ideas for it, but nothing that I really feel right about at this point,” he says. “I was honored to do it, but at the same time it’s a pretty awesome responsibility. So I want to do it right for him.”
The two had joked about it a lot over the years, as Allen revealed when performing at a tribute to Clark two months ago during the Texas Book Festival. “I ended up telling him, ‘Well, I’m just going to do a bronze of a goat, and I’m going to shove your ashes up its ass,’” Allen explained.
“And he said, ‘Perfect.’ So he gave me an out.”
When: 8 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Paramount Theatre, 713 Congress Ave.