Maverick Texas polymath Terry Allen can be forgiven for being caught up in the past in recent years.
One of the rare visual artists whose output as a singer and songwriter is regarded in equal esteem by peers, fans and critics, Allen was the subject of a 50-year career retrospective of his art and music last year at L.A. Louver Gallery in Venice, which has represented his art career for nearly four decades.
He also has worked with the North Carolina-based indie record label Paradise of Bachelors on reissues of a number of his old recordings and radio plays from the 1970s through the ’90s, and he’s also been immersed reflecting on his longstanding friendship with fellow Texas singer-songwriter Guy Clark while creating a memorial sculpture that Clark asked Allen to make from his ashes before his death in 2016.
All of which helped spark Allen to redirect his gaze from the rear-view mirror of his life to the horizon ahead with “Just Like Moby Dick,” his first new album since 2013 and only his second of the millennium.
“I’ve spent a lot of the last three years really working on a project in Austin, a large sculpture piece,” Allen, 76, said from the home in Santa Fe, N.M., he shares with his wife and frequent collaborator, actress-poet-playwright Jo Harvey Allen. “I’ve also been working on a memorial piece for Guy Clark while working on this record. We also reissued ‘Pedal Steal’ [his 1985 album] and these radio shows we did in the ’80s. And Texas Tech took all of our archives, so I’ve been spending a lot of time crawling down memory lane.
“I’ve been so enthralled in all of these issues of the past — the L.A. Louver show, the reissues — I was really trying to make a bid to do something new,” he said. “That’s kind of the big stimulant for the whole [‘Just Like Moby Dick’] project.”
He’ll bring the new music to L.A. this weekend for performances at Zebulon Cafe, where he’ll be accompanied by most of the same group with whom he recorded the album: the long-running Panhandle Mystery Band, which includes his son Bukka Allen and the celebrated Texas guitarist-singer-songwriter Charlie Sexton (who co-produced the new album with Allen).
It’s something of a one-step-removed homecoming for Allen because the City of Angels played a formative role in his early adulthood.
Born in Wichita, Kan., and raised in Lubbock, Texas, Allen headed west after graduating from Monterey High School in Lubbock, where his classmates, in addition to his future wife, included musician, playwright and screenwriter Jo Carol Pierce and three of the most revered Texas singer-songwriters of the last half-century — Joe Ely, Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, whose work reflects a similar fascination with the sacred and profane, the sublime and the ridiculous that has occupied Allen for most of his life.
As rich in talent as Lubbock was (it’s also the birthplace of Buddy Holly), “I was just desperate to get out of Texas,” he said.
In California, he attended the Chouinard Art Institute, graduating with a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1966, shortly before Chouinard evolved into the CalArts school. He taught there for a few years after graduating and also was on the faculty at UC Berkeley and lectured at Cal State Fresno in the early ’70s before turning his focus back to music.
Whatever medium Allen works in, his robust sense of humor is often evident. Although individual paintings, sculptures, installations or songs may by turn capture anger, righteous indignation, confusion, whimsy, curiosity or joy, the connective thread is a cynicism-free sense of wonder Allen seems to maintain in his journey through life — and his abiding empathy for the foibles of his fellow human beings.
Case in point: his celebrated 1991 L.A. sculpture “Corporate Head,” a collaboration with poet Philip Levine installed at 7th and Figueroa streets downtown. It’s a slightly-larger-than-life bronze sculpture of a businessman who appears to have inserted his head fully into the solid granite edifice of an office building.
The Times’ art critic Christopher Knight hailed it as “the outstanding commission for Citicorp Plaza’s Poets’ Walk ... that rare accomplishment: a laugh-out-loud-funny sculpture backed by a percussive resonance that lingers long after the smile wanes.”
The indistinguishable border between Allen’s visual art and his music has caused him to sometimes fall between the cracks of those worlds.
“There are people in the art community who only know him as a visual artist, and a lot of people in the music world who only have been exposed to him as a musician,” said Christina Carlos, communications manager at L.A. Louver.
The music world first sat up and paid attention to Allen’s music in a significant way when he released his 1974 concept album “Juarez,” which helped lay out a blueprint for a nascent alt-country music genre with its folk-country-blues mix and savvy, classically-informed-but-still-cognizant-of-the-gutter lyrics. David Byrne included Allen on the album “Sounds From True Stories,” from his 1986 musical comedy film “True Stories,” which was set in Texas.
“I’ve never made a distinction between visual art and music,” Allen said. “One has always informed the other.”
Reviewing the L.A. Louver retrospective for The Times, critic David Pagel wrote, “If you see only one exhibition this year, my vote is for Terry Allen’s, [a show] so jampacked with love, suffering and resilience that you might be moved to tears. You may also laugh, gasp and marvel at the humanity of Allen’s artistry, which is flat-out inspiring.”
The centerpiece of “Just Like Moby Dick” is a musical triptych titled “American Childhood,” in which the Renaissance man from the West Texas prairie flashes back to the norms of youth growing up in the years after World War II.
Among grown-ups’ chief concerns: making sure their children knew what to do in case of global thermonuclear war — not unlike the climate of doom instilled by active-shooter drills required of today’s schoolchildren.
“Sitting in a classroom/In my little school desk/Looking out the window/Watch a hummingbird fly,” Allen sings in the opening verse of “Civil Defense,” the first of the trilogy’s three sections. “Bomb goes off/Hide your eyes .... Forget about Jesus/Just Duck and Cover/When you see the light.”
“Everyone was worried about The Bomb,” he says. “Major absurdity bull ... .”
He lays that feeling out unequivocally in the second section, “Bad Kiss,” by bringing what seems to be the inevitability of war forward to the present: “Iraq/Afghanistan/Just like Vietnam/Blood on that ancient land/Let death take hold your hand/Oh oh my high school girl,” he sings in a song directed toward a young woman who enlists in the armed services after the failure of a romantic relationship. The “American Childhood” segments share space with nine other new songs on what is Allen’s first new collection since “Bottom of the World” in 2013 and only his second of the new millennium.
Allen teamed with his wife and L.A. roots music kingpin Dave Alvin on the evocatively titled “Death of the Last Stripper,” composed in a single day when Alvin happened to visit Marfa, Texas, when Allen was there taking part in songwriting sessions with a number of other musicians, including New York-born, Nashville-based singer-songwriter Shannon McNally, whom Allen tapped to sing several duets on the album.
“My son was there playing this beautiful melody on a keyboard, and on a fluke I said I was thinking about the death of the last stripper,” Allen said. “Dave said ‘Write that down!’ Jo Harvey, my wife, threw in a couple of lines and that’s how that happened.”
A shared passion for the details about the lives of marginalized characters infuses the song: “She had a boy/With some guy from Fresno/Where he is now/None of us know/She had a number/On some paper in her purse/That was the number/We tried first.”
The opening verses of “Death of the Last Stripper” could double as stage directions if this mise en scene were expanded into a theater piece, something Allen has done a number of times throughout his life, notably including “Chippy,” a musical based on the diary of a West Texas prostitute the Allens used as the foundation for their 1994 commission from the American Music Theater Festival in Philadelphia.
“Death of the Last Stripper,” however, needs no more elaboration than what the Allens and Alvin invested within 3 minutes and 20 seconds of its stripped-down folk-country narrative. Allen does, however, see the creative process as both blessing and curse.
“When you start working on something, you are quickly aware of all the things you don’t know about it: the things you can’t see,” Allen says. “Then curiosity kicks in and you look for the perverse things from the other side that are hidden, the mystery. That’s where all the interesting stuff comes from.”