It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.
They used to say that all Lubbock, Texas, ever had was Buddy Holly and UFOs, especially the so-called Lubbock Lights photographed in 1951 — but now only the flying saucers remain. And yet something about Lubbock was both necessary and sufficient to spawn a small, tight, and oddly ambitious posse of singer-songwriters who eventually fled the bone-dry town for greater glory elsewhere. Terry Allen, for one, moved to New Mexico, where he flourishes as a well-known artist, playwright, and semi-obscure musician, having released several albums that explore Lubbock's mystery, history, and sociology. Released as a double-vinyl set in 1979, Lubbock (on Everything) is a magnificently witty collection of character studies performed by Allen, a boisterous barrelhouse pianist and singer, and a couple of dozen friends — most notably the prolific Lubbock producer, guitarist, and Dixie Chick sire Lloyd Maines.
"I don't wear no Stetson/ But I'm willin' to bet son/ That I'm as big a Texan as you are," roars Allen in "Amarillo Highway," a panhandle credo borrowed by many an anti-macho Texas troubadour. He backs up the bravado in hard grooves like "New Delhi Freight Train." Allen leans hard on Southern hypocrisy in songs about high-school heroes gone bad ("The Great Joe Bob," "FFA"), good girls gone wild ("Lubbock Woman," "The Girl Who Danced Oklahoma"), and cocktail lounge intrigue ("High Plains Jamboree," "Rendezvous USA," "Cocktails for Three"). In "Truckload of Art" and "The Collector (and the Art Mob)," Allen demonstrates himself equally knowing in the ways of artistic self-delusion. "OUI (A French Song)" is a particularly touching Texas tribute to a good ol' boy who can't hack the art world:
Now some say it's pathetic
When you give up your aesthetic
For a blue-collar job in the factory
But all that exhibiting
Was just too damn inhibiting
For a beer drinking
Regular guy...like me
Allen's Lubbock odyssey ends in autobiography. "Thirty Years Waltz" memorializes the "storms and the rains," the "fears and the pains," and the "wars and the games" experienced during his then three decades' of marriage to actress Jo Harvey Allen. And even if the record ends with Allen declaring, "I Just Left Myself," Allen's artistic partnerships with his Lubbock buddies — such as Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock, and Joe Ely — inspired at least one more generation of alt-country art desperadoes.
This is the original version of the 1972 eight-track debut released by the Flatlanders, the nearly-forgotten Lubbock supergroup co-founded by Terry Allen's pals Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock. The Flatlanders broke up a year later and reunited in 1998. Rounder Records re-released the group's eponymous debut in 1992 as More a Legend Than a Band, replacing its two live tracks (Jimmie Rogers's "Waiting for a Train" and A. P. Carter's "Hello Stranger") with a pair of studio recordings. In whatever version you choose to hear it, the album's a deceptively low-key, string-driven masterpiece of superb songwriting conveyed mostly by Gilmore's quicksilver country voice and the haunting background shimmer of Steve Wesson's musical saw. Gilmore's "Dallas" and "Tonight I Think I'm Gonna Go Downtown" are less country songs than metaphysical meditations on the state of the Texas soul. And while Willie Nelson's "One Day at a Time" fits nicely into their Zen-country gestalt, the real surprises are Ed Vizards's wisely skeptical "Bhagavan Decreed" and Al Strehli's sublime "Rose From the Mountain."
Gram Parsons may have been the original cosmic cowboy, but Jimmie Dale Gilmore's metaphysical musings also justify the mantle. "I've seen crimson roses growing through a chain link fence/ I've seen crystal visions, sometimes they don't make sense," Gilmore sings in "Where You Going." Gilmore, Terry Allen once told me with a hearty guffaw, "just picked up astrology to get girls on the road!" But the depth of feelings possessed by this silver-maned, part-Cherokee singer with an unearthly nasal voice is unassailable. This serenely challenging and sumptuously performed 1993 album by the Flatlanders' crucial country component is informed equally by Hank Williams's stark fatality ("I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry"), Willie Nelson's American-songbook eloquence, and a sense of spiritual surrender Gilmore perhaps acquired as a devotee of Maharaj Ji during the several years during the seventies that Gilmore spent living in ashrams. Songs like Al Strehli's "Santa Fe Thief" or Butch Hancock's "Nothing of the Kind" resemble qawwali poetry in their shifting meanings and sublime blend of the sacred and the profane. Q: Is Gilmore singing to a girl or a god? A: Yes.
Joe Ely moved from Amarillo to Lubbock at age 12. He met Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock at Monterey High School and cofounded the Flatlanders with them as "the rock 'n' roll guy." It's only slightly surprising, then, that Gilmore and Hancock provide the better half of the ten tunes on Ely's eponymous 1977 debut. Hank Williams is obviously behind Ely's openers, "I Had My Hopes Up High" and "Mardi Gras Waltz," and he more than does justice to Gilmore's sly "Treat Me Like a Saturday Night." But the best of the rest especially "She Never Spoke Spanish to Me" ("She said, 'If you're from Texas, son/ Where's your boots and where's your gun?'/ I smiled and said, 'I got guns no one can see'") relies on Hancock's idiosyncratic Texas take on Bob Dylan's freewheeling folk-rock. Ely's terrific band, with which he would tour extensively, includes Lloyd Maines and the late, great Lubbock guitarist Jesse Taylor.
On Beyond Lubbock
Like Terry Allen, fellow Texan Robert Earl Keen is an immensely talented and often very funny narrative songwriter. He writes crisp and wry first-person story songs that twist back upon themselves with an O. Henry snap. Keen's economic twang cuts to the quick of loss, loneliness, and barbecue sauce. Need a lyric to get your through your drunken 3 a.m. despair? Lines like, "I am guilty of a dreadful selfish crime/ I have robbed myself of all my precious time" will take you either one way or t'other. Pleading emerges as pure pleasure in "Think It Over One Time," whose last-ditch optimism can be heard all over this excellent 1994 release. And it's a rare country record on which the funniest track ("Merry Christmas From the Family," in this case) conveys as much honest emotion as the dark solitudes of "Lonely Feelin'." Honeymoon also contains as much fine guitar playing as any Allen release, with Tommy Spurlock a pedal hero to reckon with.
Lubbock on the Hudson
David Byrne is New York's Terry Allen, and the multimedia artists' paths finally crossed when Byrne asked Allen to write a song for True Stories, Byrne's Texas-filmed directorial debut. (The two later collaborated on a musical-theater version of Allen's radio play, Return to Juarez.) Talking Heads' underrated penultimate album, released in 1986, features music from the film and exhibits much of the same sly humor and obsession with the strangeness of normalcy as Allen's Lubbock sociology. True Stories is in many ways Byrne's song of the South. The great Tejas accordion player Esteban Jordan adds a norteo sizzle to "Radio Head" (from whence the British rock act derived its moniker), and a West Texas fiddle and pedal steel swings through "People Like Us," Byrne's autobiographical celebration of everyday weirdness.