Graded on a Curve:
Terry Allen,
Pedal Steal + Four Corners

Although he’s noted as a painter and conceptual artist, Terry Allen also writes songs, sings them and has recorded albums that have earned him an enduring cult following. This music has sometimes found him lumped into the subgenre of outlaw country, a designation that short-shrifts the man to an almost ridiculous extent. At no time will this be more apparent than while listening to Pedal Steal + Four Corners. Collecting Allen and the Panhandle Mystery Band’s long-form narrative audio works onto one LP and three CDs with an info-loaded 28-page color booklet, the set defeats tidy stylistic categorization and presents the artist as truly one of a kind. It’s in stores March 22 via Paradise of Bachelors.

Art continues to accumulate at such a rate that the impulse to time-manage and only engage with an artist’s best or most noteworthy work is stronger than ever, even as evaluations over which examples are the greatest evolve over time. Make no mistake; Terry Allen, an artist of multiple specialties born in Wichita, KS and currently residing in Santa Fe, NM who’s been long-associated with the non-conformist country music scene of Lubbock, TX, is amongst our greatest artists. Pedal Steal + Four Corners takes the idea of abbreviating his body of work to one or a few examples and blows it completely to smithereens.

For decades, folks looking to become knowledgeable about Allen’s music were almost always urged to check out Lubbock (On Everything), his sophomore double-album masterpiece from 1979. Circa the late 1990s and into the new century, if someone was eager to go a little deeper, the recommendation was often Human Remains from ’96, in part because it was easily available (or easier to find, anyway) and also because it retained a similar vibe to Lubbock; call it singer-songwriter. The two albums even shared personnel in Joe Ely and Lloyd Maines (the latter’s steel guitar is all over Pedal Steal + Four Corners).

Back in 2016, Paradise of Bachelors’ vinyl reissue of Allen’s ’75 debut Juarez threw a major wrench into the works. It had hit CD for the second time in 2004 through his longtime label Sugar Hill, though I don’t recall much fanfare during that period. And by much, I mean hardly any at all, probably in large part because it was a rough time for physical releases of any kind.

By contrast, just short of three years ago Juarez’s reemergence on vinyl was occasioned with significant hubbub that came with the suggestion that Allen newbies should start right at the beginning (well, maybe not at the very beginning, as Allen performed his song “Red Bird” back in ’65 on the TV show Shindig!) and make Lubbock the second installment, which wasn’t hard to do as Paradise of Bachelors reissued that one in October of ’16.

Pedal Steal + Four Corners casts sustained illumination upon an aspect of Allen’s biography that’s often mentioned but too-infrequently emphasized as integral to what the man is all about. Specifically, it makes screamingly clear that the most appropriate way to describe Allen is not with a short blurb nodding to his diversity while prioritizing his stature as a musician but rather to concisely call him what he is: a multimedia artist.

In the visual art world, they’ve been cool with this simplicity of description for a long time, but on the musical side of the fence I’ve noticed the occasional insinuation that Allen is a dabbler. Now, many artists (indeed, many musicians) dabble in different forms, and there is not a thing wrong with dabbling, but a dabbler Terry Allen most certainly is not.

The five longform pieces offered in Pedal Steal + Four Corners, four of them radio plays and one a soundtrack to a dance performance by the Margaret Jenkins Dance Co., span an eight-year period of accumulated brilliance (’85-’93) that’s impressive in its diversity (in both form and content) while being just as remarkable for its thematic unity, not just across these pieces (all the narratives take place in the US Southwest and West) but to Lubbock and especially Juarez, and additionally, to his contemporaneous museum exhibitions YOUTH IN ASIA and Anterabbit/Bleeder (a biography).

1985’s Pedal Steal is the dance performance soundtrack, featuring the story of Billy the Boy, a sort of composite character inspired by the steel guitarist Wayne Gailey and the legend of Billy the Kid. Yes, there is a story, but it progresses in a wonderfully non-traditional way, combining music ranging from a short passage of Les Brown’s “Sentimental Journey” (played by Rolling Stones’ saxophonist Bobby Keys) to bursts of song that are recognizably Allen-like as a succession of voices in English, Spanish, and Navajo bring Billy the Boy to life. PoB calls it country-concrète sound collage, and that’s astute.

The soundtrack won a Bessie Award (a.k.a. a New York Dance and Performance Award) in 1986 for best soundtrack to a dance performance, so it’s not like that community considered him some sort of interloping dilettante. Listening to Pedal Steal, it’s easy to imagine an even more enriching experience in combination with dance, though in no way does it register as incomplete as a standalone. And if not a radio play, it’s made plain that the later Four Corners works wouldn’t exist without Pedal Steal’s initial success, so the pairing here is thoroughly fitting.

The Four Corners plays, with Torso Hell (’86) produced for KPFK’s Soundings program and the other three, Bleeder (’90), Reunion (a return to Juarez) (’92) and Dugout (’93) for New American Radio, were all broadcast on NPR but due to adult themes mostly late at night. Still, their existence managed to get the attention of that putrid (and deceased) moral watchdog (and bigot) Jesse Helms of North Carolina, whose disdain was substantial. I suspect he never actually listened to any of them.

Of the four, Torso Hell is well-assessed as cinematic, and in a way that kinda makes me regret ever using the adjective before. Cinematic by design: unwinding as a “radio movie,” it’s like hearing a filmmaking couple pitch a scuzzy ’80s Vietnam-themed exploitation flick as an intrigued producer grinds the stub of an unlit cigar between his teeth until it softens into a brown clot of nicotine. Interestingly, Roger Corman did try to buy the rights to Torso Hell. He was rebuffed.

Featuring a striking performance from Allen’s wife, the writer, actress and artist Jo Harvey Allen, Bleeder is a glorious dive into dual character portraiture; if Torso Hell is cinematic, this follow-up exudes a sense of growing confidence and insinuates that Allen could’ve directed his artistic skills toward the writing of short stories or novels.

Reunion (a return to Juarez) can be synopsized as a retelling of the saga from Allen’s debut LP; there, it thrived as sort of a left-field Southwest concept album. Here, it shows that while Allen was developing and constantly moving forward as an artist he was also looking back and enlarging aspects of his overall work; the Juarez cycle dates to 1968 and continues to the present. Loosely based on the lives of his parents, Dugout (also part of a larger cycle) is the most openly autobiographical of the four. Its focus on memory combines well with the other pieces here, and to Bleeder in particular.

The radio plays were designed by Allen for car listening, which partially explains why they are here on compact disc as well as digital; Pedal Steal is offered on vinyl and CD. As a major portion of Allen’s body of work and at roughly 30 minutes each, these selections are best listened to separately. Also, like great works of literature, or more appropriately cinema (as these pieces are designed to flow; to pause or rewind them is to ruin the effect), there is simply too much content in any one of these plays to be absorbed in a single hearing. Or in multiple listens, in fact.

I’ll add that Brendan Greaves’ extensive essay, when combined with the complete scripts and credits to all five works, is an addition of considerable value. Whether listening to Pedal Steal + Four Corners at home or perhaps exploring the artist’s belief that the best way to soak all this stuff up is to hear it while out navigating a stretch of the open road, it becomes obvious that as he transcends easy classification, there is no other artist like Terry Allen. Suffice it to say, he’s a long way from outlaw country.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+

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