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Austin's Warped Sweetheart, Part Two

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The bizarre parents who belong to the character Jo Carol in Jo Carol Pierce's country song cycle, Bad Girls Upset by the Truth, are different from her real ones, she admits. "My momma wants it known that she is not that character," Pierce laughs. Small wonder: On the record Dixie is an extravagant and well-known local wacko (actually based on a friend's mother); the father is a man with a truly unique way with profanity ("Fuckin' twat king of the heinie orchard!"). The pair are merely the starting point biologically and thematically for Pierce's funny and caustic bildungsroman, which sees her character cutting a furious swath of impish irreligion and enthusiastic sex through an unprepared world.

Pierce will be giving her first Chicago performance of the album cum theater piece tonight (Friday) at Schubas. She's also doing an in-store performance at one this afternoon at Hear Music on Rush. As I wrote last week, her personal story begins in a west Texas town she hates. ("Our motto was, Forget Hanoi, Bomb Lubbock!") She grew up in a classically liberal family: her parents were journalists and political activists, supporters of Senator Ralph Yarborough, the prominent civil rights champion.

Her real mother, Pierce says, balanced her convictions against the pressures of the time and place--Texas in the late 50s and early 60s: "I was always made to go to church, not because we were religious but so that I would fit in," she says. "My father was an atheist, but my momma thought it would be good to go to church to be social." This experiment ended, Pierce says, when the preacher, a local slumlord, argued that there was a scriptural support for segregation. "I never had to go back to church."

Pierce didn't fit in anyway. "I remember one of the boys saying to me, 'Jo Carol, if you would quit being so mad about your male-female stuff your titties would grow,'" she says. "It was the way we were raised. No one questioned it besides us girls. Gender was your destiny. I said to Jimmie [Dale Gilmore] one day, 'I want to be a pilot.' He said, 'Women aren't pilots.' I did some research and found out it was true."

After high school she and Gilmore married, had a kid, and headed off to Los Angeles "to make Jimmie's fortune," as she puts it. "We thought we were going to the Garden of Eden." It was actually something else, as the pair discovered when they talked to their hotel clerk, who noticed where they were from. "She said to us, 'Guess you feel about niggers the way we do,'" Pierce says. "That's when we knew we might have made a great big mistake."

Gilmore's career went nowhere (it would be 25 years before he made a name for himself) and they moved back to Texas. When the couple split up Pierce took her daughter back to California. She got a job with the state welfare department and ended up helping families in the same labor camp immortalized by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath. Then she headed north, to the Haight-Ashbury, just in time for the Summer of Love. "Jimmie came through and visited," she says. "We were still an item off and on, until he got a girlfriend I didn't want to help him cheat on." She went back to Texas for good in 1970 and concentrated on raising her child and continuing her career in social work, which she continues to this day. She currently works nights on a domestic-abuse hot line in Austin.

As I mentioned last week, the bawdy episodes and absurdist settings of Bad Girls disguise some rather more serious themes, among them mental illness; Dixie is a sometime resident of the local asylum, and the high jinks of the Jo Carol character have her schoolmates speculating aloud about a similar destination for her, as she does herself. "I was afraid I was turning out to be crazy like momma," her character says matter-of-factly at one point.

Here Bad Girls verges on the autobiographical: Even at work, "they would always give me the schizophrenics; they said I could talk their language." Joking aside, this was once a source of real concern. "I was very volatile, very agitated, and extremely unhappy when I was younger," she says. "I worried so much about it"--she laughs at the thought--"and everybody else did too."

Eventually, she found, "A lot of the things that I thought were symptoms of mental illness I discovered were signs of creativity. When I read Jung, I learned that all these images weren't images of mental illness necessarily. They could be valuable. That was a turning point for me as a writer." And the writing, in turn, made things better. "I was in such bad shape. Writing is the only clue I've ever had," she says. "Therapy is great, but writing is better."

Today she lives in Austin with either her third or fourth husband ("the second one was less a marriage than an experience"). He's an artist and guitarist named Guy Juke, part of the three-piece band she's bringing with her to Chicago. Texas has finally changed a little bit, she says. "We just went and saw the Lady Longhorns, whatever they call 'em," Pierce says. "I cried, I really did, at this whole facility with all these people screaming for those women down on the basketball court. I'm choking up right now. It's a different world."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Todd V. Wolfson.


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