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September 8, 2010 / scherstuhl

“No, They Were Horses”: Terry Allen & the Impossible Possibilities of Avant Garde Country Music

Like Dadaists, rappers, and junior high kids, country singers can spend more time announcing who they are than actually being who they are. Even a fringe-riding distinction-smashing cross-genre weirdo-crank kinda/sorta genius like Terry Allen feels obliged to throw down in his assorted subcultures’ who’s-authentic? pissing contests.

Despite his Guggenheim and his NEA grants and his authorship of an off-Broadway musical, Allen drops this declaration 75 seconds into his 1979 country-music masterpiece Lubbock (On Everything):

“I don’t wear no Stetson

But I’m willing to bet, son

That I’m as big a Texan as you are.”

He rhymes this, a little later, with the boast that his “trunk’s full of Pearl and Lone Star.”

Even a country singer with sculptural works in the New York MOMA and the LA MOCA has to prove he drinks Texas beer. (Lone Star’s well-known ad slogan: “Drinking any other beer is treason.”)

01 Amarillo Highway.mp3]

Allen grew up in Lubbock, Texas, where the distinctions are already shaky. Buddy Holly and Waylon Jennings both hail from there: one’s a rock-and-roller, the other’s pure country, but pick any three cuts from either and I’ll be damned if you can say what the difference is.

Throughout Lubbock or Leave It the genres smear together like plains and sky on a West Texas horizon. His great road song “Amarillo Highway” marries barrelhouse piano to an oompah march beat to a killer steel solo from Lloyd Maines, the father of that one Dixie Chick. Others start as rock songs, flower into country songs, and then lower again into something else altogether. But Allen’s music is more complex than country rock or rocking country or cocking runtry or alt-whatever-the-fuck. We’re used to country singers mixing genres. Allen mixes media.

Terry Allen and Philip Levine's "Corporate Head." Photo from You-are-here.com

This is the guy who teamed up with poet Philip Levine on “Corporate Head,” that well-known installation piece at Poets Walk on Figueroa in Los Angeles, the one where a life-sized business man leans his head into an office building –- literally, into, as in the building has become his head. Lines from Levine explain: “They said become concrete/& I became concrete.”

Here are sculpture, poetry, and architecture come together not in a smooth whole but as three separate things conjoined into one. Lubbock or Leave It is like that, too: a mixed-media experiment that demands, variously, that lyrics and music, content and form, choruses and recitations, seriousness and satire, song and manifesto, never blend into familiar wholes. Country music is engineered to fade into the background, to saturate the lives of its listeners, but Allen’s instead demands attention.

The first songs are the most conventional. With scraggly vocals built more for lampooning than for tenderness, Allen digs deep into country topics like adultery and jukeboxes, lonely women and high-school football, class resentment and that triumvirate of American teenage  concerns: highways, orgasm, and rock-and-roll.

Then comes “The Girl Who Danced Oklahoma,” for the first two minutes a traditional country tune about a girl who “breaks for the wilds outside” her small town.  Halfway through, Allen smashes the form. For 45 seconds his band vamps along without vocals, solos, or anything, really. This featureless plod captures something of the feeling of driving through a long, featureless landscape. Then Allen announces, “And ten years later” and his Oklahoma girl has hit the world of Los Angeles art and artists.

From there, Lubbock (On Everything) opens up into a country-music exploration of capital-A Art itself.

The centerpiece is “Truckload of Art,” an arch apocalypse where highbrow smashes into lowbrow and takes the entire art world with it.

07 Truckload of Art.mp3]

Stunt? Parody? Earnest examination of the American public’s relationship with art?

Whatever it is, the song fuses the destructive impulse of the early avant garde to the anti-elitism of country music, that Blue America need to assert a moral and commen-sensical superiority over the rest of the country. Musically, it’s the countriest country song on Lubbock Or Leave It; lyrically, it’s the artiest art song in Allen’s catalog. The result is funny and buoyant, annoying and unsettling – a stink-bomb lobbed not just at New York and LA but also at Nashville and the very idea of what a country song can express.

More songs of art follow, satirizing “the art mob,” toying with the distinction between craft and art, considering whether it’s possible to work a tough blue-collar work job and still hold on to an aesthetic. While arresting, and on occasion illuminating, these songs don’t satisfy as songs quite the same way Allen’s non-art songs do. But as manifestoes and experiments and brain-tingling weirdness, they satisfy in ways the traditional songs couldn’t possibly.

Just one manages to do all of this at once.

To me, Allen’s finest moment is “Beautiful Waitress.” Here his mixed-media flourishes blend instead of grate, create instead of destroy. Just as the techniques of the avant garde eventually work their way into – and often elevate — popular art, Allen’s spoken-word conclusion lifts an already lovely song into one touched with profundity.

12 The Beautiful Waitress.mp3]

The song couldn’t be simpler. A lilting waltz on the topic of on-the-road loneliness, it adheres to country convention: a working-class narrative, great meaning in small moments and everyday ritual, a three-verse structure where each reveals more. Allen tweaks the formula, of course: note his goofy repetition of “cracker crunch!” in the pocket between verse and chorus, or the way his fantasy grows creepier with each go-round.

At the end, Allen relates a conversation he and a waitress once had on the subject of art. He speaks so simply and directly, with a tenderness antithetical to “Truckload of Art,” that I always presume he is telling the truth. (If so, he is mixing song, story, and documentary reportage.) The waitress likes drawing horse but lacks the technical know-how to do so to her satisfaction; Allen at first tries to encourage her but eventually settles for joking that it sounds like she’s drawing sausages instead.

Allen allows her the last words: “No, they were horses.”

Country music comes from the place where traditions and genres converge. Allen does, too, and he’s hauled new forms and media with him, so much so that the label “country” might seem inadequate to describe his music. Can country music contain so much? At Allen’s best, when he rises above that impulse toward parody and destruction, he manages to create works that contain all of this, as well as new forms not yet named, work that nurtures something new from the traditions rather than work that leaves those traditions aflame by the highway.

Like those horses, Allen’s work is country because he says it’s country.

— Alan Scherstuhl

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