The empty spaces of West Texas have proven a petri dish for the fashioning of powerful but unorthodox art. Music, of course, but also literature, theater and the visual arts pour from the souls of a few brave thinkers driven exiled out on the endless prairie. Outsider pioneers like Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Joe Ely, Terry Allen, David Halley, Amanda Shires, Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore…and, maybe most of all, a heretical spitfire by the name of Jo Carol Pierce.
If ever there was an artist immune to categorization, it is Pierce. Raised in and around Lubbock, where she met Ely and Hancock, and was briefly married to Gilmore, she moved to Austin in the seventies and began a life-long exploration of her endless creativity. Ultimately she would wear the hats of novelist, playwright, screenwriter and songwriter all equally well.
There are the plays: Falling, Papergirls, New World Tango, Bad Girls Upset by the Truth, and In the West, which was performed at the Kennedy Center in 1991.
Encouraged by Ely and Halley, Pierce took up songwriting in the eighties and began performing around Austin. In 1993, adoring local musicians cut Across the Great Divide: Songs of Jo Carol Pierce, a tribute to her work featuring interpretations by Ely, Gilmore, Allen, Halley, Darden Smith, Troy Campbell and the Loose Diamonds, Kathy McCarty, Gretchen Phillips, Rich and Kathy Brotherton, and others.
It is certainly plausible that plainness and desolation give rise to existential quandaries and soul-searching art. But then where are the profound messengers from, say, Las Vegas or Scottsdale?
Three things to know about Jo Carol Pierce: (1) she is life-long friends with Sharon Ely, wife of Joe, and Jo Harvey Allen, wife of Terry, (2) she and Terry wrote a play, Chippy, which resulted in the album of songs recorded by Terry, Ely, Jo Harvey Allen, Hancock, Robert Earl Keen and Jo Carol, and (3) she has more than a passing interest in the history of the Jacksboro Highway, the storied Fort Worth home of out in the open gambling, bootlegging and prostitution.