Jo Carol Pierce: Songwriter
"My self esteem is almost up to normal," said the subject of 1992's brilliant tribute album
“We know a lot, but the angels know more.” - J.C. Pierce, “Buttons Of Your Skin”
She’d lived here a couple decades, the ex-wife of Jimmie Dale Gilmore, mother of Elyse and girlfriend of artist Guy Juke. But nobody knew Jo Carol Pierce could write funny, touching musical poetry until she was a grandmother. Embraced by younger singer-songwriters, who heard through her outsider delivery, Pierce was our new Daniel Johnston. But instead of working as a McDonald’s janitor, her post was the overnight hotline for Child Protective Services.
The Lubbock native had acted in plays, including every local production that aimed to be the next Greater Tuna, but it was her own Bad Girls Upset by the Truth, a funny and poignant mix of music and monologue staged at the Chicago House in 1989, that made Pierce a person of interest to the local, then national, scene.
If Austin singer-songwriters were grocery stores, Jo Carol Pierce was the haunted HEB on Oltorf, an adventure wrapped around a late night craving, just two blocks away. (Check out Jesus in aisle 6B!) The autobiographical Bad Girls, which asked the question, “Who are all these boys and what am I supposed to do with them?” was the weird and charming play that everybody just had to check out.
New to town from Dayton, OH, Troy Campbell went to Chicago House one night to see Bad Girls, and afterwards told Pierce his band the Highwaymen was interested in covering some of her songs. She didn't have a tape of her material, so Jo Carol went home and recorded 10 songs on a jambox, complete with homey introductions, and mailed it to Campbell. "That’s when I knew I’d made the right decision in moving to Austin,” he said.
When the Highwaymen decided to change their name to avoid confusion with the country supergroup, Campbell opted for Loose Diamonds, the name of one of the songs Pierce had recorded for him that night.
"Jo Carol's songs made me feel that I wasn't alone,' said Campbell. "She writes about emotions that we all have, but her lyrics just seem to break through to the truth… I thought, ‘Man, that's the kind of songwriter I want to be.’”
Another Bad Girls fan was Michael Hall of the Wild Seeds who covered “I Blame God” on his Quarter to Three solo debut. The Texas Monthly writer attended an “awful” JCP show at La Zona Rosa in Nov. ‘91, when he ran into an equally-disappointed Campbell in the men’s room.
"Jo Carol is best when it's just her and a couple of others onstage, but there must've been eight or nine people up there,” said Hall. "It's just not happening tonight,” sighed Campbell, as the pair stared dead ahead at their urinals.
"It wasn't a good time for Jo Carol,” Hall said. “Bad Girls had pretty much run its course, and the songs didn't work as well in a nightclub or rock 'n' roll setting.” The mission, which Mike and Troy shared without knowing it, was to save those songs by compiling a tribute album. Imagine a world without “Does God Have Us by the Twat or What?”
By the time they finished drying their hands, Hall and Campbell were partners in a project that came to be Across the Great Divide: Songs of Jo Carol Pierce (DejaDisc). There was no recording budget, but the pair were able to satisfy all that studio debt when the album became one of Waterloo’s best sellers for 1992. KGSR played several cuts, including the title track by Kris McKay and Lisa Mednick’s version of “Buttons Of Your Skin,” while the New York Times used the album as an excuse to write a lengthy profile of Pierce and other strong Texas women Jo Harvey Allen and Sharon Ely headlined “Deep in the Soul of Texas.”
"I've gone through long spells where I'm so depressed that I can't even get out of bed,” said Pierce, who used songwriting for therapy. "But since the record came out I've been so happy. It's like all these insane thoughts I've had have been legitimized. My self-esteem is almost up to normal.”
The album put Pierce up there with the celebrated songboys of her youth. They were Lubbock's first hippies, maintaining their friendships through the decades just by having something interesting to say to each other. Jo Carol was always the one they’d play their new song to. Her brilliant smile was a four-star review.
“I've never really been thought of as a songwriter in my circle,” she told me in 1993. “I surely never thought of myself that way.”
Some people are their own best work of art. They amaze us with their creativity in everyday situations: the way they order a pizza or wear things in their hair or tear off the cover of a trashy paperback to use as a postcard. These are the precious loose diamonds who don’t even have to try to be cool.
”You were beautiful forever right then” - “Buttons of Your Skin”
At age 18, Jo Carol broke her rule about not dating someone shorter and younger than herself and started going with Jimmie Gilmore, a junior. She loved the enthusiasm he took to required square-dancing. She became pregnant and they decided to marry, which is what you did in Lubbock in 1962. Jo Carol had a miscarriage, but the marriage plans didn't change. "Our parents knew that we had had sex, at least once, so it didn't matter that I wasn't pregnant anymore,' she recalled.
One afternoon they went to the house of a Baptist minister and asked him to marry them on the spot. He did, still wearing his pajamas, with his pesky Chihuahua barking all through the ceremony.
"We found us a cheap one-room apartment with just a bare light bulb hanging down, and as soon as we moved in, Jimmie said, "Now we're free.' It was a very happy time,' she said.
The freedom was short-lived for Ms. Pierce, however; she became pregnant again, this time having a daughter, Elyse. After six years with Jimmie on the West Coast, in Austin and back in Lubbock, the marriage finally fizzled into friendship, and Jo Carol went back to her high school-era hobby of collecting mysterious boyfriends, who weave their way through Bad Girls like synthetic threads on a $20 sweater. “Flying through the roadblocks like they ain’t real/ Is it you I want or that automobile?” - “Secret Dan”
Pure poetry: lyrics from Bad Girls Upset by the Truth
Jo Carol’s got a weary songwriter’s voice- think of Lucinda Williams if she was really from Texas- and plays the guitar like the neck's constantly moving, but those songs! In reviewing the 1996 LP debut of Bad Girls Upset by the Truth, esteemed Chicago critic Greg Kot called Jo Carol, “one of the most gifted songwriters ever to emerge out of Texas.”
Would that album have been released if not for the tribute record that pulled her out of the post-discovery doldrums? What especially impressed Jo Carol was that Across the Great Divide was made at all. "I've usually been involved in Lubbock projects, which never seem to get off the ground,” she said, “so I wasn't holdin' my breath.”
Also, the producers told her right upfront that they didn't have any money. This album was going to have a bread-and-water budget until they found a label (DejaDisc of San Marcos). "We had to lie to the studio (Ben Blank Audio) several times so they'd front us the time,' Campbell said, "but they were cool about everything. That's one thing about the whole project: People really wanted to do these songs. They wanted it to happen, and that's one of the reasons it did.'
During the recording, Jo Carol worked her regular 10 p.m.-to-6 a.m. shift on the children's abuse hotline, taught writing classes part time at Austin Community College and baby-sat her granddaughter Riane 20 hours a week. She wanted to see how her songs were being interpreted by a mostly younger generation of local musicians, but she didn't have the time.
When she heard the finished product she was blown away. "I'm just so proud of every cut on the album. Everybody did a great job,” said Pierce. "The other day I was making some sort of order over the phone, and after he asked for my name the guy said, "Jo Carol Pierce? Jo Carol Pierce the songwriter?' I went to bed feeling really good that night, and when I woke up the next morning, I still felt good.”
"It's good to commit suicide first thing in the morning. Then you'll feel better all day. Do it your first day on a new job. The next day you can call in dead. Do it early in a love affair, just to get it over with.” - Pierce monologue from Bad Girls.
The more you get to know Jo Carol Pierce, whose second album Dog of Love came out in 2008, the more you realize her commentary about taking your own life is really about taking stuff out of your life to make yourself more free. Social work was not just her occupation, it’s her calling.
Here’s a great little film from Texas Monthly. Jo Carol is now 77, married to Guy Juke, still living in South Austin. But that HEB has been torn down.
Former NYT writer Karen Schoemer on Jo Carol Pierce:
I guess it was 1992? John Porter I think had told me about Jo Carol and knew I would love her. I arrived in Austin from New York in the middle of the Austin music Awards. I remember she won something (maybe songwriter of the year) and came onstage in a skintight royal blue rhinestone dress. I was from a weird, repressive Connecticut background and I literally had never seen anything like her. The red hair, the smile, the cleavage, the hips. The absolute truth emanating out of her: this is who I am and I'm having a great time. I don't remember all the specifics of meeting her. I can't remember if I came back the next year to do that story about her and Sharon and Jo Harvey Allen. But I know that at the end of the trip where I first saw her, John asked me how I liked Texas. I said, "I fell in love at South by Southwest with Jo Carol Pierce."
I was enamored with the Flatlanders guys--the romance of them as troubadours and bad boys, essentially. And Jo Carol, when I spoke to her for that story, demystified the scene. I remember her telling me that in the early 70s, it was the guys in the basement writing songs and the women in the kitchen cooking. She wasn't bitter about it, she was telling it like it was and putting her own struggle to express herself and come into her own into context. It's incredibly hard in this world to break out the easy ways to please people and in fact even irritate them with your insistence on being more yourself and less what's expected of you. By that I mean, I can understand why it was so hard for Jo Carol to write and perform her songs, and give herself permission. Men are not subjected to the same critical eyes. Jo Carol's voice has the humor and character and roughness that listeners crave in any great singer, whether it's Dylan or Kristofferson or Bill Monroe. Her contradictions are epic in scope, like Texas itself. But she still has to fight for legitimacy, as if whatever she achieves is a fluke.
Anyway, I felt that the Austin I discovered through her and Elyse was all the Austin I ever needed. The tiny side streets, the scrubby landscape, Mexican restaurants dim as churches. The extended family vibe, the openness. I was very glad and lucky they all took me in!
The first time I saw Jo Carol was in the little backstage area of the Continental Club, 1983. She was sitting on Jesse Taylor’s lap and proclaimed, “ I always loved Jesse best!”
The first two B&W photos in this article are (c) Martha Grenon.