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Kurt Vile and Terry Allen in Conversation: Indie Rocker Talks With His Country Hero

Vile and the 75-year-old outlaw-country singer bonded over their old-school approach to making albums

Kurt Vile, Terry Allen

Outlaw country singer and visual artist Terry Allen sits with indie rocker Kurt Vile for an intimate conversation.

James Bland; Jo McCaughey

A month ago, Terry Allen and Kurt Vile met for the first time at Allen’s Santa Fe, New Mexico, home. Vile had come across Allen’s albums, Juarez and Lubbock (on Everything), and became enamored with the 75-year-old singer-songwriter and conceptual artist from Lubbock, Texas. Since then, the songwriters have become fast friends, exchanging their full catalogs of music with each other.

On the surface, Allen and Vile may seem to come from two starkly different worlds, but in reality, they aren’t that dissimilar. They’re both obsessed with creating larger than life art that transcends the status quo. Neither is satisfied with the cultural norm or standard of art being just a single song or album. Songs can be more than just a three-minute jingle. An album can be more than just a collection of jingles.

It sounds contradictory, but the pair have a shared love of traditional recording practices — using reel-to-reel tape and physically chopping tape to make their albums — and have also been on the cutting edge in their experimental approaches.

Allen has been looking back the past several years with a trio of reissues, Juarez (originally released in 1975 and called the greatest concept album of all time), Lubbock (on Everything), and Pedal Steal + Four Corners. The latest, Pedal Steal + Four Corners, released last month as an LP/3-CD and 28-page booklet set, embodies the artist’s ambitious multi-media approach and highlights the way he interweaves spoken-word with music.

As for Vile, the Philadelphia-based rocker is fresh off the release of 2018’s Bottle It In. Still, he too has been looking back through his years of unreleased material dating to his teens. Some will never see the light of day, but it’s all a part of stepping forward with new inspirations.

Allen and Vile recently sat down for a conversation about Pedal Steal, the creative process and country music.

Kurt Vile: You gave me an advanced copy of Pedal Steal. It literally jumped to being my favorite record. It’s so far-out, but so fine-tuned at the same time. The music is great and the dialogue…Jo Harvey [Allen, Terry’s wife], wow. Both of you are just nailing it on that record. I listened to it a lot on tour. I’d be stoned in my bunk not knowing where it was leading. It took a long time to follow the story.

Terry Allen: Yeah. Well, it’s a fine accompaniment to marijuana. That’s for sure. That piece, it was made almost like a sculpture. I recorded all those separate parts. The songs, the voices, whatever it’d be. Every one of those was a strip of tape. They were laying all over Caldwell Studios in Lubbock. Every surface was covered with strips of tape with a number on them. When we finally put the thing together, it was like an assembly. It was like splicing a film, like putting a sculpture together. I missed that kind of process of making things. I miss chopping it with a splicer, laying it down, and then putting it back together later. You can do it now digitally of course, but there’s something about holding a piece of tape. I think something happens to the sound when you psychically touch things.

KV: How long did it take to make Pedal Steal? Did you have everything written before recording it?

TA: Yeah, I had it totally scripted. I brought people in to read the parts or play. We cut all the music at one time. It may have been a couple days for that. I had a little Clavinova, which sounded a little like a marimba. I really love the sound of that instrument. So we cut all the music together except for “Give Me the Flowers,” which Butch Hancock sang. Then I recorded in Santa Fe with two Native American guys. They sang a chant. You hear this drum sound and that’s actually them hitting this Formica table in the kitchen of a friend’s house..

Terry, when you first released Pedal Steal on CD, it was a single track of about 35 minutes. With this reissue on vinyl, you decided to cut it up into individual tracks. Why’d you decide to do that?
TA: Originally, it was a soundtrack for a dance. It ran while they performed this dance they had choreographed. When I released it, I wanted it to be released as it was. When [indie label] Paradise of Bachelors contacted me about wanting to do an LP, that threw it into already having to be split into sides. There’s a dividing line. When we did that, I started listening to it as how it might be broken into different segments. Like chapters. The breakdowns seem to work so I didn’t have a problem with it. Plus, it’d been out in limbo for so long since it was put out on Sugar HilI — I have a lot of records out in limbo [Laughs].

KV: That’s part of being an artist though. There’s all these moving parts. That’s what I like about all these old cassettes. It’s so nostalgic when you find some tape you made when you were however old. You haven’t touched it in years because the technology has changed. Then you hit mid-life and start to go backwards.

Kurt, you’ve said you first listened to Juarez on this trip from L.A. to Austin with your wife and kids. Do you think going through that same terrain, seeing that landscape out there, and just being out on the road amplified your listening experience?
KV: Absolutely. First, my gateway drug was Lubbock (on Everything). I of course wasn’t around when it was released and never knew it’d received a five-star review in Rolling Stone when it was released. I just found that out the other day when I was nerding out on YouTube or something. I’d listened to Lubbock one day while I was shoveling some snow outside my house. Then I listened to it with my kids. We got a kick out of “The Beautiful Waitress.” Just loved the spoken word on there about how she could draw sausages, but she says they were horses. That’s just brilliant. So many catchy songs on that record.

Terry, what are you working on now?
TA: We’re going into the studio to cut all these new songs in all of May. I’m playing a film festival in Waxahachie, Texas, at the end of April. That’s the only gig I have until this summer. My gallery is doing an exhibition of drawings from the Sixties to the present. They’re wanting to do some different gigs connected with that.

KV: Is Charlie Sexton and Lloyd Maines going to be playing on your record?

TA: Yeah. We’re cutting it at Arlyn Studios [in Austin]. Charlie’s going to be on it. Shannon McAnally is going to be coming in from Nashville to sing on it with me. Then, kind of the old guys from the Panhandle Mystery Band —  it’s always a mystery of who is it, so we’ll have a lot of people coming in. I’m so happy with Paradise of Bachelors and how they’ve put out this older stuff, but I’ve been chomping at the bit to do some new things. It’s like I’ve been whistling through the graveyard the last couple years. I do think it energized me though. What about you?

KV: I actually have a bunch of stuff left in the can. Sort of like what you were talking about — some from the last record and some from earlier ones. There’s a Nashville session. I’m going to really take my time for once and kind of slow down and release a few EPs. I’ve always traveled a lot to record. I’ve really been trying to get my roots back here at home. Record some at home and maybe at some studios in the Philly area by extension. I’ve kind of just been flying by the seat of my pants. That’s all fun and all, but I’m trying to be more prepared.

TA: Well, it’s all about motion. It doesn’t matter if you’re out playing on the road or if you’re laying low and working on a new project, it’s about motion. You’re looking to move from one place to another and trying to figure out what’s in the middle.

KV: That’s definitely the truth. When I was in Santa Fe with you, you said you’d go into your office every day. It was a Flannery O’Connor quote: “If it happens, you want to be there.” You want to be able to capture that moment. And if it doesn’t happen, you’re listening to music or taking care of some bullshit and maybe getting towards that point. Regardless, you’re in your comfort zone.

TA: Yeah. Sooner or later, something will happen. Like she says, you want to be there when it happens.

KV: You said you played the very first Dripping Springs Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic. What was that like?

TA: Yeah, it was the first one. It wasn’t billed as Willie Nelson’s though. It was called the Dripping Springs Reunion. It was a huge festival where no one hardly came since it was the first one and I think people were afraid because it was the first time in Texas that hippies and rednecks were all at the same place. So there was heavy security. But it was incredible the people who where there. Tex Ritter was the master of ceremonies. Loretta Lynn, Waylon and Willie, Charlie Rich, Flatt & Scruggs — it was like the history of country music at the time. In between the big acts, they had four budding young songwriters to play. Billy Joe Shaver was one of them. I was one. A guy named Lee Clayton was. I can’t remember the fourth. Anyway, it was a huge and tremendous flop in terms of money. I think the only one who really got paid was Hank Snow because he demanded his money in advance. For years, I had this check from Dripping Springs Reunion that was stamped “insufficient funds.”

Speaking of Charlie Rich, Kurt, on Bottle It In you covered his “Rollin’ With the Flow.” How’d you come across that and decide to cut it?
KV:
I grew up with the basics of country because of my dad. A lot of bluegrass and old-time stuff. Guys like Johnny Cash. Hank Williams. The past few years, I’ve read enough country bios to realize all rock & rollers are posers more or less — except for people like Jerry Lee Lewis. Obviously, I’m sorta kidding, but once you read about these old country guys and dive into their music, they could play and live circles around a lot of rock & rollers. J Mascis told me about Charlie Rich actually. Somewhere along the way, I found a used greatest hits for like a dollar. My two favorite songs on there were “Rollin’ With the Flow” and “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues.” I knew if I did a cover of it, no one in my world would be covering it. It just stuck with me.

TA: I love some Charlie Rich. He was an incredible player. I don’t know, he had that tire tool mentality, like an elegant tire tool kind of guy. He always struck me as one of those back alley thugs who’d found a tux. I remember at the Dripping Springs Reunion, he pulled up behind the stage in a big black Cadillac. Him and his wife, they stayed in there basically the entire show except for when he got out to play. They’d nudge him on the shoulder, he’d get out, get himself together, and then go play. Then he’d go back and lay in that Cadillac.

KV: Life on the road, man.