Songs We Love: Terry Allen, 'Cortez Sail'
Over the decades, the myth around Terry Allen's 1975 album Juarez has grown into a fantastical, thing. Its tale has been fed by myriad creative offshoots (multi-media installations, radio and stage plays, a sculpture series, a musical theater collaboration with David Byrne etc.), and by the fact that for much of its pre-Internet existence, the album's admirers were largely confined to the songwriting cognoscenti. Allen initially conceived of the 15 musical vignettes and spoken interludes that make up Juarez as parts of a gallery show; but following some recording sessions with a cousin who happened to be Jefferson Airplane's road manager, the pieces became a proper album. Only 50 copies were released at first, then 1,000, and since then, one indie label or another has reissued the collection every decade. First, it was Allen's own Fate Records imprint, then folk and bluegrass giant Sugar Hill did so; and now it's being re-released by Paradise of Bachelors, a label championing Southern eccentrics, and which also plans to put out the songwriter's other '70s classic, Lubbock (On Everything), pairing both albums with reprints of Allen's drawings. An essay that accompanies this latest edition of Juarez captures the elusiveness of the thing; Allen, ever the poetic aggrandizer, is quoted as calling it "haunting...an ongoing project that began in the late sixties, runs to the present, and I have no doubt is still lurking in some form or another in the future."
Terry Allen came up in Lubbock, Tex. alongside such brilliant country-expanding minds as Butch Hancock, Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, dipping his toe into recording around the same time that Willie Nelson's concept albums (Phases & Stages and Red Headed Stranger) were challenging elite perceptions of country's banality. The path that Allen chose was even wilier: smuggling his outsider storytelling into the art world, leaning on his gnawing Texas twang to ground his imaginings in an uncivilized landscape. With Juarez, he conjures a still-Wild West, at once romantic and grotesque, nourishing and mystical, and complete with a colorful quartet of characters: Sailor, Spanish Alice, Jabo and Chic Blundie. The album's longest track and gravitational center, "Cortez Sail" is a rickety waltz which pivots between whimsical road ballad and ominous war song, between Jabo's keenness to get back across the border into Mexico (homesick and ducking a double murder he'd committed in Cortez, Colorado) and 16th century conquistador Hernan Cortes's drive to brutally colonize the Aztecs. It's a dialogue between the freedom to move, to flee, to choose one's destination, and the power to dominate — or the powerlessness of being dominated. The juxtaposition of such notions makes human agency feel vital, tenuous and jealously guarded indeed. The fact that Allen isn't the least bit hung up on being linear or realistic in his telling of these tales make them all the more riveting.
The reissue of Juarez is out on May 20 on Paradise of Bachelors.
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