The amount of time it takes to explain the incredible talents of Terry Allen–the prolific painter, sculptor, and dramatist–is, well, long. (In fact, it’ll take you just as long as it does to sit down and get lost in 1/1,000th of his output.) And yet, Allen may be best known to CREEM readers as a musician, having cut 14 records, going nominally country with his third and fourth records, Smokin’ The Dummy (1980) and Bloodlines (1983), re-released this year. Born in Lubbock, educated in Los Angeles, Allen’s a California expat—two-plus decades—who’s been in Santa Fe for the last 30-odd years. He’s also a sculptor who sings, a painter who holds installations, a musician who works in all sorts of media. He defies categorization, while breaking them down.
Now 79-years-old, Allen comes across as someone very ahead of his time, predating this modern age where everyone appears to have two or three hustles. But for Allen, there’s no distinction between main gig and side one: we don’t put up with his sculptures as we wait for his records; we’re not glossing over his installations for something else.
Really, it’s that we’re all catching up. Now in a slightly more art-literate age—or one where we know a little bit about a lot of different things—we’re finally accessing Allen’s work on its terms. It’s evident this his records are painterly, his sculptures tell stories, even his radio plays feel like more than just that. Allen eschews these genres—“labeling something,” he says, “is an instant way to have not think about it”—and instead focuses on what each work means.
CREEM spoke to Allen in April about the upcoming re-releases, working with his wife, Jo Harvey Allen, country music, and more.
Hi, Terry. What’s the relationship between your 1980 record Smokin’ The Dummy and your 1975 debut, Juarez? Smokin’ is such a loose record — was that pre-planned, or did it shake out that way, since the guys were all such good players?
When I was in California, I had never worked with a band or with other musicians, and I was anxious about that when I went to do [1979’s] Lubbock (On Everything). And that was one of the great surprises: we could all play together, and I could actually play with a band. But I had always wanted to—I had heard different instruments and whatever in Juarez, and I always wanted to try different things with it. So it started on a path of doing that, on Smokin’ the Dummy and Bloodlines, and pretty much every record I made up until [2020’s] Just Like Moby Dick. They all had a Juarez song on it, or two. At one point, I thought, I’ll put out a record of Juarez songs with instrumentation, but I haven’t. It was really just to hear what those songs might sound like with a band.
What was it like recording Smokin’ the Dummy? Was it smoother than Lubbock?
It was really comfortable [recording process] with Lubbock. That was one of the things that was stunning about it: how quickly I became comfortable with the band. Then, when we did Smokin the Dummy, that first meeting awkwardness was long gone. By then I had played a number of gigs with Lloyd [Maines] and even with [Joe] Ely, [who would perform live with me.] We played a lot at a club out in Lubbock called Coldwater, and Joe’s band and the Maines brothers–as I walked on the stage, [those session musicians trasmorigified and] became the Panhandle Mystery Band. I had the flu part of that [recording] session, so it was a stopped-up atmosphere for a few days. But we cut it pretty fast. I wanted to work with [guitarist] Jesse Taylor since I met him, but also since he cut that incredible flat pick solo at the end of “Flatland Farmer” at the end of Lubbock. Just watching Jesse and hearing him play with Joe…they were all in town, and it worked out good. Jesse went out with me when he wasn’t out with Joe. It was always very comfortable.
Did any of the flu takes show up on the record?
It affected my voice a little bit. But my voice is the kind that can be affected and you never even know it. (Laughs.)