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Bad Girl 

Jo Carol Pierce on the gospel, Texas, and 157 boyfriends

Wednesday, Jul 10 1996
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"They've outlawed Halloween and they've outlawed music in Buddy Holly Park," complains Jo Carol Pierce of her hometown Lubbock, Texas. "It was like a totalitarian state in Lubbock as far as religion was concerned. It's called 'The City of Churches.' There was too much that wasn't all right with them and too little that was."

I call her at her house in Austin, where she's in the middle of fixing cabbage soup, a last-ditch nod to domesticity before she hits the road for her first West Coast solo appearances. We talk about religion, womanhood, her job working the night shift for a crisis hot line, the songs her 4-year-old granddaughter has been writing ("Fly, Car Seat, Fly" and "Look Out the Window When You Can"), and her formative years in Lubbock running with a crowd that included rocker Joe Ely, acclaimed songwriter Butch Hancock, and country singer Jimmie Dale Gilmore.

"Really, we just thought all we had to do was live in each other's lives," she recalls, looking back on those times. "From age 18 to 28, all we did was congregate, socialize, get to know each other, have romances, and form bands." A friend's house, she says, became a "private nightclub." While the men she ran with started making records early on, Pierce kept her music to herself. "I was always secretly writing songs," she notes. What she doesn't -- and would never -- add is this: that even though she spent all those years writing in secret, she was the most talented of them all.

Pierce will perform her brilliant, blasphemous song cycle, Bad Girls Upset by the Truth, along with two guitarists at the Great American Music Hall on July 14. She'll be accompanied by her husband, Guy Juke, and J.D. Foster. Released as an album last year, Bad Girls is a complex but hilarious allegorical tale narrated in song and speech by its protagonist, a sweet-talking Lubbock girl who happens to be named "Jo Carol." Even though all is not well in her small-town world -- her mother is mentally ill and her father suffers loudly from Tourette's syndrome -- she makes the best of things by following her "spiritual path," a mandate from God that she shall come to know Jesus only by experiencing him through biblical contact with as many Earth boys as possible. Manifestations of the savior are many: "Jesus in a brown leather jacket. Or the kind of thuggy Jesus with the hooded eyes like Robert Mitchum. ... Or the Catholic Jesus. Or the Jesus who's so good in bed you think he's Catholic but really he's not." The tally climbs to 157.

Since the work has a semi-autobiographical ring, I ask Pierce if that part of the story comes from, ahem, personal experience. She laughs and says, "Somewhat yes, but that's hyperbole for dramatic effect. But there were lots of guys, and I was married quite a number of times." Hers is the first and maybe the last generation to be able to make comments like this one: "When I graduated high school, they invented birth control and set us free."

When he asked me for a date to the picture show, I said, "Well, what would you say if I told you I already had a husband and two boyfriends?" He said, "I would say that you have a great capacity for love."

In the seventh chapter of Luke, Jesus says of the woman washing his feet (who may or may not be bad girl Mary Magdalene), "Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much." But even though the women in Pierce's story love like crazy, they aren't asking for forgiveness and they sure as hell aren't washing any man's feet. In fact, they're pointing fingers up at heaven, forcing the Creator to come clean. In "I Blame God," Pierce calls him mean, claiming, "He's the only one original enough/ To make a mess like this." She spits out all her venom, however, in the work's most savagely sacrilegious song, asking "Does God Have Us by the Twat or What?" During the magic realist denouement in which the Virgin Mary appears at a Lubbock grocery store, "Jo Carol" facilitates the Second Coming by giving birth to Jesus -- but this time he's a she.

The gospel according to Jo Carol also includes some pointed social commentary, particularly at a time when "basic civil rights" end at the uterus. In one of Bad Girls' most riveting scenes, Dixie, the mother character, attempts to commit suicide because she's been refused an abortion. (These are pre-Roe vs. Wade days.) Pierce reveals that Dixie is "based on my friend's mother who I really admired. She got pregnant in her mid-50s, which is pretty elderly for lactating. She was not in good health and they would not give her an abortion." A loophole presented itself: Mentally ill people could have the procedure. "She got put into the hospital to see if she was crazy enough to run her own life. She tricked them into giving her an abortion, so she was a feminist hero."

Pierce's strength as a vocalist does not draw on the more traditional criteria of excellence. Hers is a small range, and she's not so much expressive as she is real. She tells stories as if drawing in charcoal, shading areas of the page softly and smoothly at times, occasionally bearing down hard and strong with all the force of her convictions. Watching her smile when she talks or hearing the catch in her throat as she sings, one thing is clear: Pierce is one of those rare individuals who has found her own voice.

She says, "I think a lot of women are late bloomers. In my 20s, I had one kid and helped raise another kid. ... I had a real female reality. My whole clan is really matriarchal. When we get together it's a real floating state, and the attention goes where it's needed. When my kids grew up, I could feel myself becoming more like my father, wanting to get things out there in the world, which is a really spermatozoic way of thinking. But there are strong mother hormones in my family and mother ways of living. And men are very mysterious and interesting to us."

She finds this influence seeping into her job, answering emergency calls throughout the night regarding child abuse, neglect of the elderly, and suicide prevention. "I never feel that my job is unimportant," she announces. "It really requires a lot more than I can ever give. So it's a lot like being a parent in a way." She sounds palpably irate when describing the mud divorced couples sling at each other in custody disputes. Pierce is only half-joking when she says, "I know I'm going to have to write a song called 'They're Dancing Naked at My Ex-Wife's House Again.' "

As for her old hometown, she concedes that Lubbock has made some changes for the better since her childhood: "The only time we ever saw kids of other races was on carnival day. Now you see kids of all different colors with their arms around each other. So there have been improvements. But they still don't allow music in Buddy Holly Park."

Jo Carol Pierce plays Sunday, July 14, at the Great American Music Hall, 859 O'Farrell, S.F.; call 885-0750.

About The Author

Sarah Vowell

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