One of the dangers of being a versatile, genre- and media-hopping artist is that, since people don't know how to automatically classify and pigeonhole you, you can go through life creating wildly, without gaining broad recognition in any particular field. Such is the case with Terry Allen, whom I consider one of the truly under-recognized geniuses working today. The 62-year-old Texan (now living in New Mexico) is responsible for Juarez, a starkly beautiful Western concept album about sex and violence from 1975. Allen has also collaborated frequently with David Byrne, published songs dedicated to Dave Hickey, written theatrical performances, and is a virtuosic visual artist on top of it all. To date, there is no comprehensive collection available of Allen's work, but a gripping and beautiful new book from the University of Texas Press is a riveting barrelhouse entry point into the artist's storytelling prowess and visual aesthetic.
Dugout reads as a three-piece opus comprised of two art installations and a one-woman play based on the lives of Allen's parents and his own childhood. Dugout I is made up of six Kienholzian tableaux and a series of 40 drawings that feature written vignettes from his parents' hard-scrabbled lives. Allen's father was an itinerant baseball player, his mother a honky-tonk pianist who was kicked out of college for playing at a Negro jazz club in Dallas. Their stories of drifting together across the high plains, through smoky bars and grave-like dugouts, are cobbled through pastels, sculptures, and stories of epileptic baseball players, matricide, decapitated siblings, alcoholism, and loneliness.
The second section of the book documents a large installation of an abstract recreation of the artist's childhood home. The windows, walls, and basketball hoops become screens for projected videos of Allen's life in Lubbock, TX, a bone-dry cotton and cattle town on the windy Llano Estacado. Dugout III comes as the one-woman play, performed by Allen's wife, Jo Harvey Allen, in an evocative telling of Allen's youth in post-war America.
Dugout isn't a book to be picked up and flipped through casually. Read as a visual and written narrative, the book (and accompanying CD), is a Texas opera noir about love, loneliness, jazz, baseball, and the high plains.