“You can go more places making stuff than you can just sitting around waiting to take it,” Terry Allen says, kicked back in a booth at a neighborhood bar in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The “stuff” Allen makes—music, paintings, sculpture, prints, theater pieces—has taken him from the panhandle cow town of Lubbock, Texas, where he was raised, to the art galleries and theaters of cities as disparate as Bangkok and Los Angeles.
Known dually for his 30-odd years writing and recording sharp-witted roots music and an equally long career creating visual art in various mediums, Allen mixes the notions of “high art” and “pop art” as readily as shadow mixes with shade. He’s created theater pieces about hookers and written country songs about art critics. His work with dancers has inspired albums and work on film scores has led to art installations.
“One thing dominoes into the other,” Allen says of his creative style. “I could be working on a drawing or on a song and the next thing I know I’ll get an idea for something else and start building something. It happens to me in pretty much everything I do.”
Allen connected music to visual art and back again during the making of both Amerasia and Juarez, two albums from Allen’s back catalog that are now being reissued by Sugar Hill Records.
Amerasia was originally the soundtrack for the film of the same name, a documentary about ex-patriot American Vietnam veterans living in Thailand. In 1981, Allen traveled to Southeast Asia to visit the locations featured in the film and to work on the soundtrack.
“I worked with a Thai band called Caravan and recorded about five songs in Bangkok. Then I took all these traditional instruments from Laos, Cambodia and Thailand to Lubbock and gave them to my band and we recorded the rest of it there.”
In 1987 Allen released Amerasia on his own Fate Records label and Sugar Hill reissued it last June. As David Byrne says in the reissue’s liner notes, the album is not a typical Terry Allen record. It doesn’t feature the wry humor and sympathetic look at peculiar characters that can be found in much of Allen’s songwriting. Instead, Amerasia is moody and full of regret, as Allen looks at the effects the war had on the soldiers who fought it and on the civilians who have endured its aftermath. Amerasia, though, is a typical Terry Allen creation in that it acted as one domino in a cascading chain that inspired Allen’s next body of work.
“At the time, the idea of going to the Orient was the last thing on my mind. But the next thing I knew I was in this world and it had a huge impact on my life because the next 10 years I did a whole body of visual work called Youth In Asia, that dealt with the aftermath of the Vietnam War.”
While music and visual art are all part of the same creative stream for Allen, some of us tend to see them as worlds apart. There’s often a notion that those who relate to a good country song couldn’t possibly relate to a fine painting and vice versa. Allen doesn’t see those distinctions, though, and can’t help but mix it all up.
“I’ve never really thought about the art world and music world as being very different. I’ve run into people in galleries saying what are you doing that country music for? Then dealing with record companies saying what’s this art stuff? But it’s all the same.”
This attitude is what brought Allen’s classic first album, Juarez, into being in 1975. Slated for reissue in February, Juarez is a western-gothic concept album that follows two couples who shoot and screw their way across the Southwest. Allen had written most of the songs for the album when he started work on a series of lithographs that told part of the story in Juarez. The printer he was working with suggested they make the prints the size of an LP and include them with the album. Allen released 50 editions of Juarez with the prints and pressed another 1,000 to sell without the artwork.
In addition to Juarez and Amerasia, Sugar Hill also has plans to reissue Pedal Steal/Rollback (two projects that were originally music for dance pieces) and Silent Majority (songs from various theatrical productions) later this year.
“Always when you make something, the first thing you have to confront are your own preconceptions about it,” Allen says. In all that he does, Allen is also confronting widely held preconceptions about the established rolls of art in general. Pop art, high art, music, visual art—Juarez, Amerasia and the rest of Allen’s work make it apparent they all rise from the same restless muse.