By Shelly Brisbin | December 7, 2022 | 3:21 pm
“They were spiritual songs, funny songs, emotional songs. But she wasn’t trying to get a deal or anything. She was just doing it almost as therapy for herself.”
In 1992, Jo Carol Pierce was crowned Songwriter of the Year at the Austin Music Awards. A collection of her songs also won album of the year – and at the time, Pierce had never recorded an album of her own. The iconoclastic songwriter and playwright, who’s been called the most underrated Texas artist of her generation, died last week at 78.
Pierce hailed from Lubbock, where she was steeped in the culture of the plains, as well as the ethos of the “Lubbock Mafia” that included fellow singer-songwriters like Joe Ely and Terry Allen, and her first husband, Jimmie Dale Gilmore.
Michael Hall, Texas Monthly’s executive editor and also a musician, coproduced “Across the Great Divide: The Songs of Jo Carol Pierce,” the tribute album that won Pierce some of her first recognition as a songwriter. He told Texas Standard that Pierce didn’t begin her artistic career until her 40s, when she turned a lifelong interest in writing into a play/musical called “Bad Girls Upset By the Truth.” The project was turned into Pierce’s first album, several years later – after the tribute Hall made to her had gotten her noticed outside Austin. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: That album, you know, I think that went a long way toward cementing Jo Carol Pierce’s reputation as ‘the Patti Smith of West Texas’ – I believe that’s how she was known in some quarters.
Michael Hall: Yeah, she got a lot of nicknames, but that was one of them. The [tribute] record kind of plucked her out of obscurity.
What was it about that record? Could you say a little bit more about it? It featured a sort of a who’s who of artists, as I recall.
Yeah, it was 30 years ago, which somebody reminded me of the other day. That really was a kind of a snapshot of the Austin music scene in a much different time – just the fact that so many of us were drawn to this middle-aged, female, grandmother songwriter whose songs were so amazing and they touched people so much that we all were like, what can we do? Let’s make a record of her songs.
It’s interesting you mentioned grandmother. She got her start in the creative arts, at least as a lot of people would come to know her, after she’d had a kid, and she was moving to a new chapter in life, right?
Yeah. Jo Carrol was a hotline counselor for abused kids. She had done some guerilla theater in Austin and had basically been writing songs kind of on the side, but never performed them or anything. It was almost like therapy for her writing these songs. And so when she finally did go out and start playing them, she was a terrible guitar player, and her voice was kind of scratchy. But oh, my god, she performed them with so much heart and sincerity, and she was such an individualist. And then the songs were so great that everybody who went to see her was just knocked out.
The thing that drew me and most people in was “Bad Girls Upset By the Truth,” which was her – I don’t even know what to call it. It was part play, it was part monologue. It was songs. That was the thing that most people first saw and went, “oh my god,” because it was completely uncategorizable. It was all these things at once. And you can hear her writing in there. You can hear her voice. Jo Carol sounded like she was from Lubbock, you know, even up to the very end, her accent.
And then these songs, which were just so evocative and emotional – Troy Campbell a few years later put together “Bad Girls Upset By The Truth,” an album version of the show. And it’s a full album, so you hear the whole thing: You hear monologues, the writing, the songs. And it’s probably the best of best idea of what Jo Carol was like.
She grew up in Lubbock, and a lot of people have referred over the years to the “Lubbock Mafia” – the Flatlanders who came from Lubbock and sort of established a beachhead in Austin as part of a group of creatives. What was it that sort of drove her in that direction, not just of music, but also as a playwright?
That’s a really good question, not just about her, but all those amazing artistic weirdos who came from Lubbock. She was married to Jimmie Dale Gilmore. They all hung out – Butch Hancock, Joe Ely, Terry and Jo Harvey Allen. And then they all wound up doing so many things in so many different fields – partly up in Lubbock, but mostly once they got out into the world, out to L.A. or Santa Fe or to Austin.
Even when she was writing these songs, she never saw herself as a songwriter, like her ex-husband, Jimmie Dale or Butch or Joe. It wasn’t until many years later that she saw herself even as an artist. These were just things she did because she was Jo Carol. And there was something about Lubbock that brought that out of people.
In the subject matter that she would write about – sex, religion, mental illness – there was a certain rawness that could make people sort of uncomfortable. Given her approach, what do you think it was that motivated her when it came to songwriting?
She wrote a lot of those songs when she was in a monastery in New Mexico, where she was basically recovering from what she felt was a nervous breakdown. And it’s not like she was trying to get a publishing deal or anything. She was in her 40s and just writing these songs. And these were songs like “I Blame God” and “Does God Have us by the or Tw*t or What?”
They were spiritual songs, funny songs, emotional songs. But again, she wasn’t trying to get a deal or anything. She was just doing it almost as therapy for herself.
I’ll tell you the song that came to my mind when I heard that she had died. It’s David Halley’s version of “Loose Diamond,” which is on that tribute record we did. It’s just the way David sings. It’s one of her best songs. And David was really close to her, and he just gets at the emotion. I mean, the words are incredible. The melody is so haunting. But David really gets at the emotion at the heart of that song.