Terry Allen’s Juarez is an Ode to the Road that this Musician Finds Unnervingly Accurate

Haley Fohr (Circuit des Yeux) finds the parallels between touring and Allen’s classic concept album.

Just two weeks ago, I found myself in a small town in the American Midwest in the state of Michigan. My gig ended early, and I ended up at 8 Ball, the local dive bar. It was accessible only through a very narrow alley, easily missed and forgotten. I grabbed my double whiskey rye and played pool with a twenty-two-year-old woman who went by the name of Sloan. With only one dollar in cash left to spare, I invested in the jukebox, picking the longest song. I headed back to the bar as Television’s “Marquee Moon” played over the speakers.

To my left was Sloan; to my right, a truck driver named Malcolm. I let them buy me drinks, and we talked. Malcolm and I chatted about life on the road, him as a truck driver, me as a musician.

“What keeps you going? Where do you find love?” I asked.

“Breaker 1-9, channel 19 and amphetamines,” he answered.

Sloan told me she was a college dropout with big dreams. We discussed her moving to L.A. to become a film director one day, and finally, she said, “I sleep with older women for money. Do you have a partner?”

“Yes,” I lied.

I walked out of the bar in a haze, found my way back to the van, and lay down in the back. As I drifted off to sleep, a few thoughts entered my mind: Americana, the big dream, the road, the risk, and what it means to be open and freewheeling. That night at 8 Ball, I felt like I was flirting with something wild and reckless. Something that I’ve only experienced before when listening to Terry Allen’s 1975 concept album Juarez, which was reissued this month. Despite the romance of that thought, I guess the truth of the matter is, unlike Allen and the characters he creates, I have an aversion to diving headfirst into the action.

I first learned of Terry Allen and his art through Juarez. The song “Cortez Sail” came to me at a time I needed it most — on a rainy bus ride navigating a solo tour through the Netherlands in 2013. Since 2012, I’ve spent the majority of my life on the road. In 2015, I played approximately two hundred live shows, mainly as a solo artist. I’ve come to know the road, and our relationship is ever-rolling. I’ve experienced the romance, the freedom, and the insight the road has to present a young woman like myself. But I’ve also lived through the wonder, past the desire, and found the challenging facets as well. The biggest challenge of them all might be finding and holding onto what most call “the real thing”: deep and unconditional love. There are few things greater in life than a place to call “home” paired with the love of a lifetime, a partner in crime, the one who really knows you best.

On Juarez, Allen grapples with both of these themes through the tale of two outlaw couples that eventually collide in a violent nature. Their meeting ends in murder. Guns, maps, trailer parks, dark bars, border crossings, newborn identities, love and displacement are all explored over the course of the record. “Cortez Sail” paints the open road as an opportunity for a couple on the run. “Border Palace” reinvents diaspora by way of Dos Equis beer in a dingy bar. “What of Alicia” quietly touches on the dangers of growing from child to adult in an environment seeded with criminal activity.

The story arc of Juarez reminds me of David Lynch’s 1990 film Wild at Heart and makes me wonder if Lynch might have picked up this album at the local record shop when it was first released. Aesthetically, think of Bobby Darin’s 1969 record Commitment or Circuit Rider’s 1971 fried-biker self-titled album in which he yearns for a woman to be his “baked-banana-beef-taco-sugar-ice cream-mama.” But where Circuit Rider utilizes searing guitar and a blown-out drum kit, Terry turns to something more mellow and Americana-inspired. Simple shoebox drumbeats, an occasional acoustic guitar and interspersed thunderstorm recordings accompany Allen’s beautifully performed piano melodies. The simplicity and timeless quality of Juarez’s instrumentation brings its tale to the forefront.

Lyrically, Allen paints a completely cohesive story about a very specific situation, all while presenting the existential question of the open road in a way that is remarkably relatable. Are we aimlessly searching — or are we following the thread? His ability to easily construct vivid scenes marks him as a notable lyricist. His talent for vacillating between grandiose truisms and comical one-liners canonizes Juarez as a classic. Light, almost laughable lines such as “Today’s rainbow is tomorrow’s tamale” from “The Radio…and Real Life” and “Fuck with me if you want to fuck” from “There Ought To Be a Law Against Sunny Southern California” are matched with deep passages such as, “See how the rain falls from the sky/See how the lighting makes tracks in your air,” as heard on “Cortez Sails.”

In “Honeymoon in Cortez,” when Terry sings about the “TV glowing in between our toes,” the image strikes me so vividly that it translates to a not-so-distant memory. Suddenly there I am again, hanging out in some generic sixty-dollar hotel after the show. Television light peeks through my feet and I wonder, “How many shitty hotel rooms and pixelated bad television will I see in succession before this is defined as my life?”

I don’t carry a gun, and I guess I use Google Maps, but I know the road, and I must admit, the tale of Juarez is unnervingly relevant to a young woman who has spent the majority of her twenties out there on the motorway.

My Top Tracks: “Cortez Sail,” “Dogwood,” “The Radio…and Real Life,” “There Ought To Be a Law Against Sunny Southern California”

Haley Fohr’s music strikes a unique balance between the personal and universal. As Circuit des Yeux, she creates music that embodies the complexity of human emotions. Fohr’s new project, Jackie Lynn, finds her creating an entirely new persona for herself, the mysterious “Jackie Lynn.” The album tells the story of this intriguing character, drawing on the real-life experience of Fohr as a rising singer, songwriter, and performer. Jackie Lynn is out June 10, 2016.

(Photo credit: Julia Dratel)