It’s almost not fair, this band Terry Allen has assembled for what’s become a new January tradition in Austin. When the Lubbock-raised, Santa Fe-based artist and songwriter takes the stage Saturday at the Paramount Theatre for the fourth straight year, he’ll be flanked by Charlie Sexton and Lloyd Maines, two instrumentalists and producers almost any musician would jump at the chance to work with (including Bob Dylan, who’s had Sexton in his band for the better part of two decades now).
Alongside them are a bunch of other aces. Bassist Glenn Fukunaga and drummer Davis McLarty, known for backing up the Dixie Chicks and Joe Ely, respectively, anchor the rhythm section. Fiddler Richard Bowden, who’s spanned generations playing with Texas troubadours such as Butch Hancock and Ryan Bingham, plays alongside cellist Brian Standefer, a longtime standout in Alejandro Escovedo’s band.
Terry’s sons, Bukka and Bale Allen, add a close family touch on keyboards, accordion and percussion. Cap it all off with Shannon McNally, a Nashville-based singer who’s made some of the best Americana records of the last 20 years, and this latest lineup of Allen’s storied Panhandle Mystery Band might just be the best ensemble in American roots music today.
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Now it’s documented, too. Due next week via North Carolina label Paradise of Bachelors, "Just Like Moby Dick" is Allen’s first album of new material in seven years. It’s a remarkable late-career high point for an artist who, at 76, seems thrilled to be bringing new songs into the world after a recent period of reflection on his life’s work.
Last summer, the L.A. Louver Gallery, which has featured many Allen exhibitions in the past, presented a show called "The Exact Moment It Happens in the West," a retrospective of drawings, sculptures, video installations and audio excerpts that surveyed the breadth and depth of Allen’s work since the 1960s. Meanwhile, Paradise of Bachelors gave new life to several of Allen’s albums, reissuing his landmark 1970s classics "Juarez" and "Lubbock (On Everything)" as well as an extensive "Pedal Steal + Four Corners" LP/CD set featuring long-form songs, stories and sound collages from various phases of Allen’s career.
ALL THAT LOOKING-BACK is valuable for a legend who has so much of value to look back at — but it can cut against an artist’s natural impulse to create new things. "I felt like I was crawling deep down into memory lane, because it was dealing with so much of things that I have done," he said. "I really wanted to do some new songs."
Enter his current cast of collaborators, which Sexton has lightheartedly dubbed "the Nuevo Panhandle Mystery Band." A 2017 Paramount concert celebrating the "Juarez" and "Lubbock" reissues turned into something more when Tim Crowley, who owns the renowned Crowley Theater in Marfa, invited Allen and his cohorts to set up shop at the theater later that year and see what might happen.
The invitation was an outgrowth of a 50th-anniversary bash Allen and his wife, songwriter-playwright Jo Harvey Allen, held in Marfa a few years earlier. Crowley suggested they make it an annual event.
"We said, ‘No way, this whole thing’s impromptu. We’ll never live through it if we keep doing it every year,’" Allen said with a laugh. "So he just said, ‘Well, look, I’ll give you rooms (at the nearby Hotel Saint George) and I’ll give you the theater, whenever you want it to work.’"
The inaugural retreat went so well that Allen invited everyone back in December 2018, which is when the material for the new "Just Like Moby Dick" album began to take shape.
"I kind of set it in my mind that I wanted to do all new songs the first set of that Paramount show" in January 2019, Allen says. "It was nerve-wracking from my point of view, because I’d never done that before. But we were so happy with the response, and the way we felt about the songs, that we immediately started making plans to put a record together."
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Indeed, the new songs, which took up the entire first set of last year’s Paramount show, were something special. The major revelation was just how much collaboration was going on. Though all of the material carries the unmistakable stamp of Allen’s personal identity and perspective, he opened himself up to extensive co-writing, and he turned over some vocal leads to McNally and Sexton.
"We just treated it like an open workshop," McNally said. "If somebody had an idea or a song, we would work on it as a group. Which was a little foreign to all of us, and I wouldn’t try that with too many groups; I can’t imagine it going well.
"But this is not like any other (collaborative) process I’ve ever been a part of. This feels like the Gershwins, or writing with Doc Pomus, or something where you’re almost like writing classics that feel like they existed beforehand. It’s a very exciting process, and that comes from really knowing each other. It comes with a whole lifetime of relationships, and the peace of mind to be able to squeeze it and see what comes out."
MCNALLY GOT INTRODUCED to the Allen family a few years ago by Bukka, but she’s been a longtime friend of Sexton, with whom she recorded the 2006 duo EP "Southside Sessions." Sexton, who co-produced "Just Like Moby Dick" with Allen at Austin’s Arlyn Studios last May, said the collaboration was a long time coming.
"Terry is someone I really respect as an artist, in all the mediums he works in," Sexton said. "Being involved with the Panhandle Mystery Band is really cool, and I wear it like a badge of honor for sure."
In the studio, he adds, "Terry and I would just look at each other, and we didn't even say anything, but we said everything. There's a lot of unspoken stuff that happens, and we’re blessed to have that."
Sexton recalled the challenge of recording the tracks mostly live at Arlyn, with Allen and Sexton joined by McNally and Maines in one room while Bukka, McLarty, Fukunaga, Bowden and Standefer laid down their parts in a room on the other side of a large glass window.
"That's a lot of people on the floor," he said. "But it's not a popularity contest on the job. It's more like, how do you frame what’s going on, and what's important to the artist you’re working with?"
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Framing the album took some time, but ultimately the material settled into three distinct groupings. Fittingly for this multi-platform artist, the LP version will feature three sides of music plus Allen’s drawing of Moby Dick etched into the vinyl of side four.
Side one begins with two Allen compositions he’d been working on separately from the Marfa writing sessions, "Houdini Didn’t Like the Spiritualists" and "Abandonitis." McNally’s presence stands out on both tracks; she sings harmony on the latter and takes a solo verse on the former. Terry and Jo Harvey Allen worked together on the next song, "Death of the Last Stripper," with an assist from Grammy-winning California songwriter Dave Alvin, who attended the tail end of the 2018 Marfa retreat.
Allen, Sexton and longtime friend Joe Ely co-wrote "All That’s Left Is Fare-Thee-Well," one of two gorgeous tracks that put the vocal blend of Sexton and McNally in the spotlight. The other, "All These Blues Go Walkin’ By," leads off side three and involved three Allens (Terry, Jo Harvey and Bukka) as co-writers along with Sexton and McNally. It’s the most collaborative track on the album, and perhaps not coincidentally, its crown jewel, sounding like a long-lost outtake from the Band circa 1969.
Yet another Allen got a co-write on "City of the Vampires." "I was instructed by my grandson Kru what should happen in that song," Terry says of Bukka’s son, who also contributed "hisses" on the track, per the album credits. And Jo Harvey brought an evocative jazz-tinged tune titled "Harmony Two" to the table fully formed, gifting the lead vocal role to McNally.
Side two is dominated by a triptych of songs collectively titled "American Childhood" that considers the consequences of war from several angles. "Civil Defense" and "Little Puppet Thing," two older tunes Allen had never recorded, bookend "Bad Kiss," a newer song about a female soldier fighting in Afghanistan.
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Allen says "Just Like Moby Dick" finally locked into place for him when they placed the ruminative "Sailin’ on Through," which features the album’s title lyrics at the end. "I was originally calling it ‘Silence of the Night,’ which is a line in the ‘Houdini’ song," he says. "But it just didn’t encompass the idea of the record in the right way, for me. I see the record as pretty much about endurance, about getting through these kinds of tensions and desperate forces that everybody has to go through."