Lubbock-born Terry Allen came into his own as a musician and multidisciplinary artist in the mid 1960s, when artists across all mediums were erasing the lines between disciplines. As a result, songs have always informed his artwork, and vice versa.
“I don’t really think of them as separate,” says Allen, now 74. “I think of them as tools you use to make a third thing, which is whatever the work is.”
And just what is the work? For Allen, who’s recorded several albums of original music, and whose art is found in major museums and collections across the U.S., it’s drawings, paintings, sculptures, installations, theatrical performances and radio plays augmented by his original music.
Houstonians will get to experience Allen the songwriter this month when he and his good friend and fellow musical maverick Joe Ely take the stage at The Heights Theater for a “song-swap,” an unscripted evening of storytelling and songs. “It’s kind of amazing to sit on a stage that close to a person who is doing what they do really well,” says Allen. “It’s very intimate for the musicians, and for the audience.”
While his music is often pigeonholed as straight country, Allen stretches and pulls the genre into new and surprising hybrids, firmly rooted in the music he heard growing up in Texas. “When rock 'n' roll hit Lubbock,” says Allen, “I had to play music.” His mother, a working jazz pianist who was expelled from Southern Methodist University’s School of Music for performing with black musicians, got Allen started by sitting him down at the piano for a quick lesson. “She taught me how to play [W.C. Handy’s] ‘St. Louis Blues,’” remembers Allen. “After that she said, ‘You’re on your own.’ And I certainly was!”
Amazingly, Ely and Allen, who are four years apart, attended the same high school, though they didn’t know each other. They finally met in 1978, long after each had fled the small town of their youth, when Allen was recording his sprawling, often hilarious concept album, Lubbock (on everything).
“Both of us were chompin’ at the bit, and music was the salvation that got us out into the world,” says Allen. “He joined the circus and I went to art school. Which one was the most circus, I have no idea!”
Allen’s self-deprecating sense of humor belies the darker themes in his work, which can leave the viewer (or listener) disconcerted, wondering whether or not there is a riddle to be solved. Still, the man may be the most unpretentious artist on the planet, and he’s refreshingly matter-of-fact when explaining his commitment to creating work on his terms.
“Some people have problems and will ask, ‘Are you a musician, or are you an artist?’” says Allen. “I find that to be total bullsh*t, because it’s one thing. If it’s a necessity, you do that.”
Joe Ely & Terry Allen—Song Swap. Jan. 26 at 7 p.m. From $26. Heights Theater, 339 W. 19th St. 214-272-8346.