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Dugout can also make you think of the trenches from World War II and World War I and earlier. There’s one long discussion about what happens to one character’s father in the Civil War, where he’s dogging his dad to tell him. Finally, his mother grabs him and takes him out to a field and tells him what happened, how [his father] had come back and everyone was dead except him. He told her what had happened and says he’ll never tell it again.
It’s really not about my folks in the sense of any autobiographical thing. It’s about climates that those stories evoked. I’ve always thought of Juarezand [its] characters as not really being people but climates, emotional climates — all of them displaced and trying to get someplace else and colliding as they go. And Dugout is kind of the same way, except it’s a little more . . . calm.
The Juarez that Allen refers to is his first self-released album from 1975, the spare, dark, funny and complex country concept album that has only now been reissued on CD by Sugar Hill Records. In an odd side effect of his cross-disciplinary tendencies (Juarez actually came about as a byproduct of a printmaking edition, and eventually spawned installations and theater pieces of its own), Allen probably has a larger sheer number of fans in the music world than he does in the art world, although in terms of relative fame, it’s the other way around. Still, he’s one of those “musician’s musicians.” His follow-up double LP, Lubbock (On Everything), cemented his reputation with such classics as “New Delhi Freight Train,” “The Beautiful Waitress” and the art-school-heavy rotator “Truckload of Art” (“Yeah, a truckload of art is burnin’ on the highway, precious objects are scattered all over the ground, and it’s a terrible sight if a person were to see it, but there weren’t nobody around”). David Byrne became a fan during the making of his quirky Texas movie True Stories. As the careers of Allen’s high-school buddies Jimmie Ray Gilmore, Butch Hancock and Joe Ely (a.k.a. the Flatlanders — and not to mention the Legendary Stardust Cowboy) have taken off, Allen’s finally getting some collateral recognition for his songwriting genius.
Is there something in the water in Lubbock?
Poison. [Allen laughs.] No, everybody used to chase the DDT truck, so it’s a mutation deal. Everybody’s got their theory, y’know, but it’s really boredom. Epic boredom is the mother of invention.
Did you ever see Buddy Holly play?
I saw him: He played at roller rinks and he played some gigs but, you know, I never paid as much attention to Buddy Holly and his music as I did to Chuck Berry or Little Richard. Carl Perkins was the first person that knocked me out — “Blue Suede Shoes.” You know, it was about myshoes. I loved Bo Diddley. And part of it was Wolfman Jack, who was such a mystery at that time, had a radio show out of Del Rio, the border station. That was the first real exposure anybody in that part of the country had to rhythm and blues, to black recorded music.
After my dad played ball, he became a local sports promoter and threw rock & roll shows and some of the first dances in Lubbock, so I grew up on Friday-night all-black dances. And on Saturday nights it’d be all white — it was heavily segregated. I used to sell “setups,” which were just buckets of ice and some lemon and stuff. Thinking back, that was pretty remarkable, because everyone had a touring band then — Muddy Waters, B.B. King, T-Bone Walker. All of those incredible people came through and played dances, and the same with the country stuff: Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Kitty Wells. You kind of took it for granted — that’s just who came through. But God, thinking back, it was so rich.
Sounds like your parents were pretty hip.
They’d kind of been through the bullshit and were on “cruise” with each other. I upset it a little bit, y’know. They weren’t well educated, but both of them, to me, were real brave. Leaving home to be a musician when you’re a woman and starting a band is pretty nervy in the late 1920s, and for a kid to run away from home to play baseball — of course, that was probably a little bit easier, because he didn’t want to be a farmer really bad. I’ve always regarded them as people that were pretty much at peace with themselves as far as what their lives had been and what their lives were about.
Do you think you were genetically predisposed to run away and hit the road?
Maybe. Yeah. I grew up [in a home] where transience was pretty much the accepted way of life, even though they weren’t that transient after I came. Dave Hickey asked me years ago what I thought the definition of art was, and I immediately said, “To get out of town.” And I kind of think that’s true, on all the different levels that “getting out of town” means. The nature of making art is that a year from now I can find myself in a world I never anticipated being in, or just working with a material I never thought I would. That’s one of the things that continually keeps you going.