“I knew Jimmie Dale Gilmore since before he was shorter’n me,” Jo Carol Pierce is saying. Her dulcet twang sails over the telephone line from the residence of an aunt she’s visiting in her hometown of Lubbock, Texas. The Austin singer-songwriter is reminiscing about another Austin singer-songwriter, the tall and graceful Gilmore, her first husband. “I met him at square-dance class in high school. They put the boys’ and girls’ gym classes together, and he was the only boy who wasn’t too cool to square dance.” Lubbock, which Pierce loathed (and still does), was a strict and intolerant place, but who can account for the talent it produced in the late 1950s? Favorite son Buddy Holly had just died at 21. Pierce and Gilmore’s circle included Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, and Terry Allen. (We’ll leave Mac Davis out of it.)
All eventually wound up in the more forgiving confines of Austin, and all have gained some measure of fame in the years since. Gilmore’s archaic, quavering voice and luminous songs have earned him wide regard as something akin to a national treasure. Ely is a raucous interpreter and composer, Hancock a celebrated songwriter, Allen a subversive songwriter and respected performance artist. But Pierce had never performed publicly. Then in the last few years locals began talking about her songs, and she put on a musical theater piece or two. Outsiders’ only sense of her came from a 1993 Pierce tribute album assembled by fans in the Austin music scene and her participation in a group tour the same year. Last month, at 51, Pierce finally released her first real album, Bad Girls Upset by the Truth. On the evidence of it Pierce can beat all of her more celebrated friends at their own game–and may be the most important artist of the lot. She makes her first solo performance in Chicago at Schubas next Friday; the show is a sit-down affair with only a limited number of tickets available.
The record, which is based on her stage show of the same name, is difficult to classify. Her idiom is country, essentially, but it’s probably closer to the truth to call her a postmodern folk artist, using folk in the time-honored sense of the word as “music played by folks.” Most of the songs are delivered in Pierce’s quavery conversational style, though David Halley sits in as her hapless suitor Joey for two mournful torch songs, and producer Troy Campbell lends his clear tenor to the character of Jesus’ spotlight turn, “Apocalyptic Horses.” Musically the record encompasses Cajun, rock, balladry, novelty songs, and Dylan-esque song-poems.
But her compositions and monologues are shot through with so much other stuff that you can’t really classify her as merely a songwriter. The record is the picaresque autobiography of a woman who grew up in Lubbock and happens to be called Jo Carol. “It’s all absolutely true,” Pierce insists, “though some of it’s not literal.” Indeed: Bad Girls begins with a suicide and ends with a birth; in between is a vast and intensely metaphorical epic almost without precedence in rock and perhaps best compared to absurdist novels by John Barth or Joseph Heller. In the telling it’s a bawdy tale of magical realism, populated with randy women, silver-tongued men, UFOs, various celestial figures, and prairie dogs, and including along the way extraordinary profanity, some 150-odd sex acts by Pierce’s own count, and blasphemy enough to curl the toes of any God-fearing person within earshot.
The sheer theatricality of the record is captivating. One-liners carom out of the characters. (“Jo Carol,” wails Joey, “why do you think they even call it premarital sex? What are you going to call it if you don’t get married afterwards?”) She has a striking ability to set a mood with just her voice, whether it’s the charged eroticism of a high school girl getting baptized in a stream, the high comedy of Jesus, the angel Gabriel, and the Virgin Mary appearing in the local supermarket, or the ineffably romantic moment when Joey drags a diamond across Jo Carol’s windowpane to demonstrate its genuineness.
But after you’ve been caught up in Pierce’s storytelling charms, you begin to get a sense of what’s hidden inside her tale: a sobering familiarity with female victimization, mental illness, and suicide. The last, particularly, Pierce confesses no little familiarity with.
“It was a big issue for me until my 30s,” she says. “I always thought if I can’t stand it tomorrow I’ll commit suicide. I would then go take a shower, and I would think about how good the water felt on my shoulders. I would see things in a whole new light. When I got close enough to it I got through it.” It is this somewhat liberating approach to the issue that Pierce’s character on record endorses so heartily; in her hands the brutal act loses some of its power.
It is typical of the record’s complexity that suicide appears in another form as well: a living suicide, which Pierce saw previous generations of women living through as she grew up in Lubbock. “I think that way of living is suicide,” she says. “The way women were brought up before me, the way my momma had to live, was suicide.” In the record, her mother shocks onlookers in the grocery store by downing a package of rat poison. “She’s just making true what was already true,” Pierce comments.
More on Pierce next week.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Todd V. Wolfson.