The other night I got to hear Terry Allen for the first time. Allen is a Texas singer/songwriter, a clique that includes Joe Ely (my personal favorite) the late Steven Fromholz, Lyle Lovett and Gene Autry (Gene Autry?).
Allen floored me, so I immediately set out to hear more. When I did, one thing that struck me was how much his songwriting benefits from the proximity of Mexico. In fact, if it weren’t for our neighbor to the south, I’m not sure what Allen and his amigos would write about.
To begin with, despite being close at hand, Mexico is mysterious. It’s wild and untamed. It hints at desperation and last chances – sort of like New Jersey, only with better weather and a less-corrupt government.
Mexican place names are exotic and add sabor to any tale. Juarez is one of these. The very name conjures up images of blazing sun, dusty streets, and dimly lit cantinas. Juarez also rhymes with Cortez. Any Texas bard who can’t squeeze a couple of verses out of those two names isn’t worth the worm in his mescal.
Mexico is also a great place for hightailin’ it down to. In fact, it’s hard to find a Texas song that doesn’t have an allusion to this activity. Our songwriters are so busy hightailin’ that it’s amazing they find time to actually write songs. The songwriter could always drive, but that’s a lame way to get there; driving is how you get to your Pilates class or your kids’ softball practice.
It’s unclear to me exactly where hightailin’ falls on the periodic table of locomotion. I picture it as being more urgent than the simple vamoose (“Ready for brunch, Buck? Let’s vamoose.”), and much more so than the relaxed-sounding mosey (“Me and Pecos Slim are gonna mosey over to Williams-Sonoma and check out their Cuisinart sale.”)
What else does Mexico have to offer the Lone Star versifier? Well, there’s federales. If you’ve ever seen The Wild Bunch or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, you’re familiar with the Mexican federal army that Texas singer/songwriters always seem to be one step ahead of. If not for federales, they’d be reduced to writing about running from IRS agents who want to garnish their wages for being late on their fourth-quarter estimates. Yawn.
The cantina is another of Mexico’s gifts to the Texas balladeer. Mexico is thick with cantinas, and our native songwriters would be in trouble without them. It would be hard to sing movingly about stumbling into a Starbucks in the middle of a hot, dusty afternoon (“Half-caff skinny iced venti, and keep ‘em comin’ ”), catching the eye of a sweet señorita, and having to shoot her jealous boyfriend dead.
Of course, like the rest of the world, Mexico is changing – and not for the better if you’re a songwriter. The conjuntos have cornered the market on singing about the cartels, and even Terry Allen would have trouble getting much mileage out of cheap Viagra or Puerta Vallarta time-shares.
Great column! Much like the classic comment about Steve Goodman and John Prine’s “perfect country song” You Never Call me by My Name, I think the perfect rendition of your theme may well be Pancho and Lefty by the late great Texas song writer Townes Van Zandt Moma crying, old Federales tales, the Mexican desert, biting dust down south, cheap hotels, poets telling how Pancho fell….and Willie and Merle telling you all about it. Damn its just perfect!
I need a shot of tequila por favor cantenero with lime and salt…..and a semi-clean glass while I squint out across the heat rising from the baking Sonoran desert daydreaming of Latin loves lost.
Catfish beat me to part of this, but this post immediately brought two songs, Towne’s “Pancho and Lefty”–All the federales say, they coulda had him any day– and Joe Ely’s “Behind the Bamboo Shade.” Both are favorites.
“Pancho and Lefty” was going through my head as I wrote this, in fact.
So true! Funny how few singer/songwriters benefit from their proximity to their neighbours to to the North. We’re pretty wild and untamed too 🙂
Very entertaining. BTW, even though Gene Autrey was born in Texas, he came to Oklahoma when he was four, so we claim him! Besides that, Will Rogers is the one who helped him get into big time show business.