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Terry Allen's high art in low places

The multimedia maverick makes his long-awaited return to recording



It's fitting that Terry Allen's e-mail address starts with the word "irony" and his phone number ends in "666." This, after all, is the songwriter whose subjects include a car-jacking Jesus ("The lord he moves in mysterious ways / And tonight, my son, he gonna use your car") and a truckload of modern art burning on the highway ("The smoke could be seen for miles all around / But nobody knows what it means").

The Texas-reared son of a pro baseball player and a barrelhouse pianist, Allen is a renowned storyteller whose songs are sometimes hilarious, often haunting, always brilliant. He's also an accomplished visual artist who's been awarded National Endowment for the Arts and Guggenheim fellowships; his paintings and sculptures can be found everywhere from the Museum of Modern Art to Denver International Airport. (Just look for the cast-bronze gargoyles perched in open suitcases.) And if all that's not enough, he also collaborates with his wife Jo Harvey Allen, as well as friends like David Byrne and Joe Ely, on large-scale theatrical and multimedia works.

While much of the above has kept Allen from releasing a proper studio album since the waning days of the Clinton administration, the Santa Fe-based artist put things right last month with Bottom of the World, a powerful and moving showcase for his patented combination of Texas twang and art-school eccentricity. The album's emotional range extends from the wistful "Do They Dream of Hell in Heaven" to starker fare like "The Gift," about a real-life Wall Street scion who hung himself with a dog leash while his 2-year-old slept in the next room. This spring, he'll also be releasing a limited-edition box set containing one art print for each of its 11 songs.

Allen took time out last week to talk about all that and more.

Indy: I wanted to start by asking at what point in life you realized that you didn't have to limit yourself to music, or visual art, or theater — that you could do all of those things.

Terry Allen: It was probably in the mid-'60s when I was living in L.A. and going to the Chouinard Art Institute. I had a band, and friends of mine had a house where whoever owned it had built a small homemade theater in the basement. So we used it to perform every week. We'd take turns writing a piece, doing the sets, doing the music, acting in it.

Everything was wide open. An art store wasn't any more significant for art supplies than a junk store, or a hardware store, or a garbage dump. I think I left that period just thinking everything was possible.

Indy: Did you imagine that kind of collaboration and diversity when you were growing up in Lubbock?

TA: Are you KIDDING?!

Indy: No, I'm just prompting you, really.

TA: [Laughs.] No, there wasn't. I mean, the museum in Lubbock was full of farm implements. But you did have that vast space, you know, to kind of fill up your boredom with your imagination.

Indy: There's also a vast amount of space on the new album. Even though you have pedal steel and keyboards, it still sounds kind of "unplugged" without any bass, drums or electric guitar. What made you decide to forego those?

TA: I think the songs, you know? I wanted to do something that had a lot of space in it, and those songs just felt that way. I didn't HEAR any drums, and I didn't hear any bass or percussion. The only percussion I really used was a block of wood — we put a jack in it, amped it, and I stomped my foot. You can hear it on "Bottom of the World" and "Hold on to the House."

Indy: So you've continued working with Lloyd Maines, whose playing on this album makes it easy to see why. And then you've got a 50-plus-year marriage, which is something I think only you and my parents have managed to accomplish.

TA: [Laughs.] Yeah, it's stunning how long two people can misunderstand each other.

Indy: So what about that? I take it loyalty must be something you really value.

TA: Well, yeah, I do value that. Lloyd is probably the equivalent of an uncle to my kids. They've grown up with him, and now they've played music with him. There's a group of people from Lubbock who kind of found each other, and lost each other, and refound each other. And I feel very close to those people, almost like a family, because we've been through so many different experiences.

And I certainly feel that way about my wife, of course, because we've worked together in every conceivable way since we first got married.

Indy: I understand that, in the limited-edition set, you'll have a print for "Queenie's Song" with sheet music that you shot a bullet hole in. I'm wondering how hard it was to write about something like that, and if your darkest songs have a therapeutic quality for you.

TA: It was a funny situation, because this dog had been missing for quite a while, and we just kind of resigned ourselves to the fact that she had either been stolen or something had happened to her. And when we found her under this tree in a bunch of brush we have on our land, Guy Clark was here. And I literally came in and said, "Guy, some son of a bitch shot my dog." And he said, "Well, let's write a song about it."

Indy: That's quick.

TA: Well, we didn't immediately sit down and do it, but we started thinking about that. And meanwhile, I buried the dog and whatever. But we started just kind of messing around with [the song]. And so, you know, it was therapeutic in that way.

But I never had a dog shot before, and I've always thought that anyone that did that should be shot themselves. Especially THIS little dog, which was kind of the sweetest little dog you could imagine.

Indy: What breed?

TA: It was a heeler. But anyway, I don't think a lot in terms of therapy, you know, or how to make myself not depressed or happy or whatever. I've found out that some days I can be just, you know, in a great good humor and write the most cold-blooded song. Or vice versa, just really be lowdown and something comes that's just outrageously hilarious to me. They come when they come, you know?

Indy: For me, the other most moving song on the record is the one about Bernard Madoff's son. It's also the only song of yours I know that's tied to a contemporary real-life tragedy. As you were writing it, did you wrestle with the idea that his family members would likely hear it one day?

TA: No, I didn't, because it's such a tragedy, and I have a couple of friends who were directly affected by that. One of them, who's bipolar, is a really wonderful musician, but had some real issues. And so his father had given Madoff all this money to set up trusts for his kid, and all that money was lost.

But as far as the family, I don't see how a song like that could possibly compete with the agony that the news has presented. I think it's just a really sad story.

Indy: Rich folks and religion have shown up in your songs more than a few times. At this point in life, would you say you have more understanding for people who end up adhering to those kinds of values?

TA: Oh, you know, I would hope so. I mean, I don't know about adhering to those values, but I think the older you get, the more aware you are that we're all facing demons. We all face issues and problems, and make mistakes, and screw each other over, and whatever. We're all pretty much in the same bag.

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