“Bottom of the World,” Terry Allen (www.terryallenartmusic.com)
It’s pretty obvious that several decades ago something special was taking place in Lubbock, Texas. In the 1970s a group of young artists, which included Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, Jo Harvey Allen, Jo Carol Pierce and Terry Allen, who all hailed from the city (and even the same high school), began producing some of the coolest art and music in the country.
These weren’t one-note artists. They were renaissance characters, free spirits, deep thinkers, who created visual art, theater pieces and music. Most of them created all three.
One of the most intriguing was Terry Allen, whose dark songs were infused with an odd combination of innocence and experience that could be both lovable and unnerving at the same time. He was maybe closest to Chicago’s John Prine, but with a more sarcastic bent. A song might make you laugh, but quickly you’d have to stop and say, ‘Well, now, wait a minute ...”
It has been 14 years since Allen last released a collection of new songs (his last was the weird and wonderful “Salivation”), which makes Allen’s new disc, “Bottom of the World,” all the more welcome.
Like most of Allen’s work, it at first seems modest and whimsical, but gets darker and deeper with repeated listenings.
“Do They Dream of Hell in Heaven” is a good example. At first, it just seems like a funny musing, but the more you think about Allen’s thoughts on the subject, accompanied by languid steel guitar and fiddle, you are also pondering if heaven’s residents might wish they’d waited till the last minute to repent and “if the golden gates of forever close tight on all the fun?”
Of course, “Little Queenie” couldn’t be more spare and to the point: “Some SOB shot my dog/I found her under a tree/If I hadn’t have loved that dog so much/it wouldn’t mean nothin’ to me ...”
Allen goes on to describe how he’ll track down his dog’s killer and he tries to imagine what kind of creep would be so callous to kill a little dog.
With a chorus describing burying Little Queenie and finally a musing on death itself, it’s raw, simple, heartfelt and beautiful.
“Wake of Red Witch” simply has Allen telling scenes from movies ending each verse with “John Wayne’s dead.” At first, it seems like a lazy excuse for a song, but, by the end he leaves you wondering about how we absorb stories.
Then there’s the far more visual “Emergency Human Blood Courier,” which almost seems like a news report as Allen watches a van loaded with human blood as it heads to Mexico where “someone’s bleeding to death Nogales/In Juarez, someone sees the last rites ...”
But it isn’t as if Allen doesn’t include a sweet song or two about love and companionship.
The greatest achievment of Allen’s art is to actually make it seem artless. It’s so honest and plainspoken that you hardly notice how he’s crafted each song down to only the essential words needed to tell the story.
He’s like the old guy whose little life stories can be taken as parables or Zen koans, but you won’t notice until later, because you’re just enjoying having a beer with him.
Maybe that’s how they grow philosophers in Lubbock. Now is the time to pay attention. You might have to wait another 14 years to hear Allen’s next set of songs.
© 2013, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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