by: Thomas D. Mooney
Editor’s Note: #ThrowbackThursdays are album reviews of old Lubbock and Panhandle albums that, for one reason or another, need to further dissected. Maybe they’re hidden gems, overlooked mixed efforts, or shadowed by better works. Whatever the case, we’re (re)examining them every Thursday. This week, we’re tackling Terry Allen’s third album, Smokin’ the Dummy. Listen to it on Spotify below.
The obvious question when thinking about Terry Allen’s Smokin’ the Dummy is “How does one follow-up the masterpiece of Lubbock (on Everything)?” How?
There’s a complexity to that seemingly simple question that comes with the additional years since the release of 1979’s Lubbock (on Everything) and 1980’s Smokin’ the Dummy (and 1983’s Bloodlines for that matter). It’s easy to look back 35 years and state the obvious, with the obvious being, Lubbock (on Everything) is the definitive Lubbock and Panhandle record.
At 21 tracks, Lubbock practically covered every facet of West Texas life in the 20th century. A perfect reflection. It’s as relevant today as it was 35 years ago. But it’s easy to say that now. It’s easy to question every additional album from the Texas songwriter from then on–every album that’s had some claim to West Texas, the Panhandle, and/or Lubbock for that matter.
“You’ve painted your masterpiece, Mr. Allen. What’re you going to do next?”
I highly doubt Allen–or anyone involved in the project or Panhandle Mystery Band–was thinking about what folks were thinking about album or the idea of following up Lubbock with a flop or a double down masterpiece at the time. It was just making another record.
So when approaching Smokin’ the Dummy, you mustn’t compare it to Lubbock, Juarez, or what have you. You must also realize that a good handful of these songs were already written prior to the recording of Lubbock. In the few times I’ve had the pleasure to talk with Allen, Lloyd Maines, or Kenny Maines about the era, they all say Allen already had every single one of those songs written before even entering Caldwell Studios in the summer of ’78.
Then there’s of course Allen performing “Red Bird” on the ’60s variety show Shindig! long before Smokin’ the Dummy was recorded. The jury is still out on whether the young Allen was a teenage heartthrob back in his Shindig! days.
So, in a way, Smokin’ the Dummy is like an addendum to Lubbock (on Everything). It’s a little brother. It’s a “oh yeah, here’s some more that I forgot about.”
And hell, maybe had Allen had another nine or 10 songs written and ready, Lubbock (on Everything) would have been a double-double record with some 40 tracks on it. Who knows if that even ran across the mind of Allen–but for the sake of this series and Smokin’ the Dummy, let’s look at the 11 individual tracks that make up the record.
One thing is for sure about Smokin’ the Dummy. As co-producer, Lloyd Maines expands the arrangements on the album and makes every bare composition that Allen had into lush presentations with just the right amount of oomph to make them complete. Just about every song has a rock edge. Guitars are more fulfilling (You can credit those to Kenny Maines, Lloyd Maines, and most of all, Jesse Taylor). Horns come in sharp. Even Allen’s voice is thicker, richer, and more confident. There’s a grit that comes with Allen’s voice that is the epitome of West Texas voices.
It’s as told to me by Kevin Russell (Shinyribs) who was told by Doug Sahm: You either need West Texas dust or East Texas rust [when singing]. You could imagine Allen coughing up dust as he sings.
You even have more harmonized vocals from the Maines and company on the record. It’s nothing that comes close to the intricacies of “Lubbock Woman” or “The Pink and Black Song,” but they happen more frequently on the 11 tracks.
In short, there’s just a little more of a sonic punch.
The rambling opener “The Heart of California” sets the tone for the entire record. And like Lubbock (on Everything)‘s “Amarillo Highway,” it’s a highway song. It’s truck driving music– the 18-wheeler variety. As far as guitar playing goes, it’s right up there with “New Delhi Freight Train” and “Flatland Farmer.”
In a lot of ways, the aggressive nature of the guitar reminds you of what you’ve grown accustomed to on Joe Ely records of the late ’70s and ’80s–naturally, that’s because they share a guitar player in the aforementioned Jesse “Guitar” Taylor. That’s one of those little differences between Lubbock and Dummy. You’d have thought Taylor was all over Lubbock since he was the quintessential picker of his day. But he only shows up on for the guitar solo on “Flatland Farmer.” His fingerprints and notes are all over Dummy.
Songs that may have previously been more in the country ballad style have a bit more of a country-rock grit to them. A song like “The Night Cafe” has it. It’s first incarnation as a song was probably much closer to how the chorus is, which is similar to something of a vocal country trio or something. It’s swinging and smooth. But as it is, it makes an interesting turn each time. The way it opens, it feels as though it’s just going to open into a country rocking jam that could go on for six-plus minutes, but it just never does.
“Texas Tears” lays the foundation for what The Maines Brothers Band would go on and do on the song some years later. Obviously, it makes sense since The Panhandle Mystery Band was essentially The Maines Brothers Band. Richard Bowden’s fiddle opens the jangly country two-stepper. It’s a reminder that Allen and company, no matter how much they go down the rabbit hole of early alt-country in an eccentric and strange kind of way, Allen can crank out a sad cheating country tune with the best of them.
Allen shows on “Texas Tears” that you can have these confessing moments of despair mixed right in with anger and aggression. You have chorus lines of “With Texas tears failing down washing my life right out on the ground” followed by verses filled with lines such as “Damn you, you lying Texas woman.” It’s being victimized without acting like prototypical typical victim.
Nearly every album post-Smokin’ the Dummy, Allen would re-record a track from his stripped down studio debut Juarez. It’s a way to see just how the songwriter matured and progressed in style, voice, and probably most importantly, in equipment. While not exactly the same, Dummy does have an example of such maturation with “Red Bird.”
First off, he slows down quite a bit. In that Shindig! performance, he gets in word-wise quite a bit for just around two minutes of air time. This time around, he ends up saying a whole hell of a lot more with few words. There’s a few changes in verse between the two that change the entire dynamics of the song. It goes from somewhat of a novelty piece by a young Allen–who is, by my estimate, either in his late teens or early 20s at the time–to a full-fledged story about unfortunate jailbirds. Of course, you see him skip out on a couple of kazoo solos and opting for a polished mandolin line, which is probably for the better, but come on, who doesn’t love a kazoo?
Another aspect of Smokin’ the Dummy that you can miss out on, depending on whether you have the CD compilation of Smokin’ the Dummy and ’83’s Bloodlines or the record version is the songs “Cocaine Cowboy” and “Cajun Roll.”
With “Cocaine Cowboy,” Allen doesn’t blend any lines or send any mixed messages. It’s an old west rag piano line about, you guessed it, snorting cocaine. There’s more than a few sly lines in reference to cocaine, but he’s also rather blunt with the whole subject–he literally uses the line, “me, I guess I’ll just snort cocaine.” But the most audacious and comical is Allen’s snorting here and there.
While it is understandable to a degree to cut those two songs when you’re throwing together two full-length albums as a compilation, it does feel like you’re a little cheated on Smokin’ the Dummy‘s full charm and story. You’re missing two full songs.
You do lose some intimacy here and there on the album. Songs like “Roll Truck Roll” and “Feelin’ Easy” aren’t bad songs per say, but they lack that Terry Allen detail and humor that have become his signature. Rather than calling them filler, they’re probably a little better described as small vignettes on Panhandle life while songs like “Texas Tears,” “The Night Cafe,” and “The Lubbock Tornado (I Don’t Know)” dive into the ethos of West Texas.
Course, that’s all made up by the fact that “The Lubbock Tornado (I Don’t Know)”
could be is the greatest song about Lubbock ever by iconoclastic Lubbock songwriter. You have an apocalyptic telling of the F5 tornado that struck Lubbock in 1970 that has Allen preaching from his piano pulpit. Allen’s vocal take maybe the most sharp and poignant of his whole career. It has this gravel edge to it that cuts with every word.
It’s as Lubbock as you can possibly get with references to Buddy Holly, Prairie Dog Town, haboobs, the Lubbock Lights incident of 1951 (a UFO sighting), The Great Plains Life building, and of course, the ever-present influence of Christianity and conservative values–some would say in Biblical proportions.
It’s the outsider conspiracy theorists that sound extreme, but appropriately Lubbock nonetheless. You can see every corner church in ’70 blaming the tornado on the wrath of God with just as many dive bar logicians throwing their two cents in as well. In a way, it represents all of the loons in Lubbock.
It’s a masterpiece in more ways than one. The production value is unparalleled. It’s built around this pounding Allen piano rhythm that matches punches with Allen’s sharp and slick-witted lyrics. Outside of that though, Maines and company bring in these little ascents that put it over the top: the tornado siren, the call and response bits between Allen and the Maines, the guitar licks that are almost unnoticeable, but fill the spaces of the song.
Smokin’ the Dummy isn’t nearly as expansive or charming as Lubbock (on Everything). But, it certainly isn’t any less Lubbock for Allen.
And that’s really secretly one of the most interesting things about Allen as an artist and songwriter. We love to think of him as Lubbock and The Panhandle’s brutally honest and authentic narrator–which he was. He’s talks Lubbock. He’s writes Lubbock. He plays like Lubbock. He is Lubbock in more ways than anyone else and he’s more Panhandle in ways that everyone already was. Allen tells us things about ourselves in a real way that’s never patronizing or pandering.
It’s these short stories in song that show every facet of Lubbock life–but that’s really the thing. Other than Lubbock (on Everything) and Smokin’ the Dummy, he kind of moves on to other subjects later in his career.
Sure, there are references to life in the Panhandle, but for large chunks of other studio albums, he’s gone on to the much more expansive subjects. Later songs could be about Lubbock subjects, but they’re not nearly as specific to The Panhandle the way Smokin’ or Lubbock was–which is perfectly OK. For every “Flatland Boogie” and “Peggy Legg” on later albums, there are many, many more songs about various other subjects and themes that enter even stranger and weirder realms.
Still, we think of Allen as chief amongst Lubbock songwriters and artists. That’s really a testament to Lubbock, and to a smaller degree, Smokin’ the Dummy. It’s within those 30 something songs that Allen was able to connect with people on a level that warranted their attention for the next 35 years, which is pretty amazing to say the least.
Smokin’ the Dummy Tracklist
01) The Heart of California
02) What Happened to Jesus (and Maybellene)?
03) Helena Montana
04) Texas Tears
05) Feelin’ Easy
06) The Night Cafe
07) Roll Truck Roll
08) Red Bird
09) The Lubbock Tornado (I Don’t Know)