When I was writing for the Boston Globe I would sometimes drop by Rounder Records to see what was new, and one afternoon I stopped by George Thomas’s desk and he handed me Bloodlines by Terry Allen and the Panhandle Mystery Band. I’d never heard of Allen, and George was so horrified by my confession of ignorance that he also handed me Smokin’ the Dummy and Lubbock (On Everything). So he’s to blame for me becoming a stone Terry Allen fan, and I’m forever grateful.
To be honest, it took a while for me to understand what I was hearing. I got “Gimme a Ride…” immediately and started performing it, but it took another year or two before I recognized the transcendent genius of the Lubbock set and started doing “Wolfman of Del Rio,” which may still be my favorite evocation of what it is to be American, or at least some kind of American. (I’ll get that one up here in a while, but meanwhile I recommend picking up the whole album.)
For those who don’t know his work, Allen is a sculptor and multimedia installation artist, a playwright, a songwriter, a singer and a five- or six-finger pianist. He grew up in Lubbock, where he and his future wife Jo Harvey were the oldest of a high school musical rebel crew that also included Jo Carol Pierce, Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and a bit later Lloyd Maines, who ended up playing a lot of the instruments in Allen’s backing group, the Panhandle Mystery Band.
Allen’s father ran the Jamboree Hall, where all the top black acts played on Fridays and all the top country acts on Saturdays, and Buddy Holly played guitar for the local country band. Allen’s mother was a honky-tonk piano player and accordionist.
So, out of that, Allen ended up as kind of a prairie Randy Newman, if you had to compare him to anyone, except his music doesn’t sound much like Newman’s and his frames of reference are very different. The music is a lot more minimal, for one thing, maybe because he’s a pretty limited pianist but also because that’s clearly how he likes it. It’s sometimes dry and sometimes Brechtian, and sometimes conceptual like the visual art it sometimes accompanies, and sometimes straight-up country but with weird twists.
None of which is particularly helpful, but I owe him several debts — a later album, Human Remains, arrived just when I was going through a bad break-up and I listened to it over and over for several weeks, interspersed with early Ornette Coleman, which sounds like an odd combination, but it got me through.
And then there’s this song, which speaks for itself.