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BIRD SONGS: BORDER MUSIC, PT. 1: Terry Allen, Doug Sahm, Freddy Fender & Tex-Mex

It's official: your amigos over at the Bird Friend Family compound have gone digital. The idea was planted at a show a few weeks ago, after a discussion with an acquaintance over the dearth of physical media in the current DIY scene. In our early days on the ABQ underground circuit, the venues were practically choked with zines, CDs, patches, art, and all kinds of take-it-with-yous that could cement even the most poorly-attended shows in your brain for all time. Lately, it seems that even CDs are more of an expensive business card than a keepsake. In the intervening eight years since Bird Friend's stage debut (March 2014, at the Wagon Wheel in ABQ) social media has become a weird - and prominent - measure of creativity. Or maybe we've just become old and out of touch.

But some would say that old and out of touch is what we do best. Here at the Bird Cave, we're usually about ten to fifteen years behind the curve - so without further ado, we bid you welcome to our blog. In a world where physical media is more of a curiosity than a possibility, it appears we're forced to innovate, or become opaque and unintelligible. So we're going to blow it up and commit a cardinal sin: we‘re going to talk about our record collection.

At this very same event I struck up a conversation with Andrew (BF's longtime lord of guitars, production, and cosmic inspiration) about Terry Allen, whose 1985 record Pedal Steal was one of the chief inspirations for the found-sound experiments on our latest long-player Caroline Know. Pedal Steal seems to have started life as a soundtrack to a live dance performance - indeed, its fragmented, dreamlike narrative appears at first glance to be some kind of High Art, dense and difficult. But peel back the layers, listen by listen, and what you've got is... country music.

Inside, you'll find the story of Billy the Boy, a pedal steel guitar player who embarks on a damned journey across the American Southwest. The project evolved into a radio play, but the recording quickly bucks the established standards of drama and dissolves into a dream. Spoken word segments voice the inner lives of downcast, desperate people on the edges of civilization, and are interspersed with Native songs, desert atmospherics, and Allen's own tunes which appear like the moon on the surface of a pond and vanish just as quickly. His songs on this album are desolate, straight country songs whose clarity alongside the rest of the album is practically hallucinogenic. The whole thing is insane, beautiful, and a better introduction the the mythic realities of the Southwest than anything else I can think of except for maybe Paris, Texas or The Last Picture Show. I won't pretend that I know too much about the circumstances surrounding the creation of this thing - but in a way, it only strengthens the appeal, creates a kind of portal to another place. There are a few other Terry Allen radio plays out there, which I will not pretend to have heard yet.

Allen, a native Texan, is a sort of scholar of the Southwest, and a few years ago he curated a Spotify playlist in conjunction with Paradise of Bachelors that serves as a tour through Southwestern music from both sides of the border. His own music is represented there (most important are selections from Lubbock (On Everything) a record that is a giant in our collection and deserves its own post), as well as a few sterling examples of Mexican corrido music (folk ballads, for you gringos out there), South Texas country music, and norteño.

My first introduction to norteño and it's regionally-specific country cousins came as a teenager. During a record trade with a prodigious collector, I ended up with Sir Douglas Quintet's Mendocino, a link between Texas music and the heady 60's San Francisco stuff you used to hear on Classic Rock Radio. Sir Douglas - or Doug Sahm, depending on what record you have in your hand - was an ambassador of border music and embodied the particular cultural blend of the Southwest. Mendocino is a lynchpin, holding together strains of Mexican and Mexican-American music, 60s pop, country, and garage rock. While none of the songs on this record lean too far in any one stylistic direction, its most famous track, "She's About A Mover," is built on the DNA of Tex-Mex music. "She's About A Mover," was first recorded way back in 1965, when Mexican-American culture was still firmly segregated from the rest of the country. Mendocino is a classic - but lately I've been more into Together After Five, which sounds a lot like that record's lunatic bar band cousin.

Sahm later became a founder of the Texas Tornados, a Tejano supergroup that included country star Freddy Fender. Freddy Fender was a human representative of a Southwestern cross-cultural kaleidoscope that the Sir Douglas Quintet's music could only hint at. A Tejano superstar who began his career singing Spanish-language versions of early rock n' roll songs, Fender eventually released a number of dual-language number one country hits, one of which ("Before the Next Teardrop Falls") was the highest-played jukebox song in the United States in 1975.

Freddy Fender is a legend, too, back at Bird Friend HQ, and a band favorite - decked out in leisure suits or all-denim, singing bilingual country music to a huge audience, he represents what's beautiful and preposterous about American music. Arrested and incarcerated for three years after being caught with weed, he ended up releasing hit records that were barrier-breaking, genre-spanning, campy, heartbreaking, corny and poignant, often all at once. Plus, he had great hair. The following song sold over one million copies (and that's physical media):

All of the music above, of course, is descended from regional folk styles in the same way that much of American music is descended from Gospel. The stylistic roots of this stuff lie in rancheras, corridos, New Mexican Catholic religious music, honky tonk, polka... well, you get what I'm saying. And we'll get to it when I'm feeling like writing about it again, in part two of Border Music. If you feel like this is going to be your next obsession, you can check out Les Blank's documentary Chulas Fronteras, which deals with the direct ancestors of the music discussed in this post - most notably Flaco Jimenez, the legendary accordion player who was also a member of the Texas Tornados - and a few others who show up on Terry Allen's border music playlist, "Cross The Razor."


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