Equal parts love and punk — Hburg’s music scene remembers Terry Turtle

This image of Terry Turtle, taken by Paul Somers, is part of the liner notes for the Buck Gooter album “100 Bells.” (Courtesy of Paul Somers)

By Calvin Pynn, contributor, with photos by Randi B. Hagi and additional reporting from the concert by Graham Schiltz

The first time I saw Terry Turtle perform roughly ten years ago, Buck Gooter was one of several bands playing a mostly local show at Jax in Blacksburg. I had never seen a performance like it before. 

On one end of the stage, Billy Brett — more than 30 years Terry’s junior — thrashed around and howled while shaking a tangled chain of bells hanging from his neck. Amid the chaos, Terry Turtle manned the other side of the stage with long braids flowing from his cap, playing a hollow-bodied acoustic guitar with the harshest distortion I had ever heard. Several years later, I landed a job at James Madison University working alongside Billy. We became close friends, and not long after, I befriended Terry as well. 

Under a gruff exterior, Terry Turtle was a kind, gentle soul who fully owned his eccentricities. He was never hesitant to share his life story with anyone he met and was always a faithful listener to others’ stories as well. His humor was dry and acerbic, and he saw the world from a perspective that only a life on the margins of society could allow. 

Billy Brett of Buck Gooter performs Thursday at the tribute to Terry Turtle at the Golden Pony. Grant Penrod described the first Buck Gooter show he saw as “the punkest and most Harrisonburg thing I’ve ever seen.” So, naturally, Buck Gooter played Penrod’s wedding. And Turtle, he said, was equal parts love and punk. “That was a dude who had so much love for children and for animals and for the environment,” Penrod said. “He had such a good heart, despite all the really hard things that he had been through. That’s part of it, but just the idea that a dude as old as he was was still playing what I considered to be punk rock music as long as he could.”

He channeled all of that through his jarring visual art and songwriting that, more often than not, prophesized impending environmental collapse and damned the suits responsible for it. Despite his own modesty, I hope Terry realized just how monumentally special that work was to the world and people around him. 

I will always remember Terry for the heart-to-hearts we would have in the green room before he donned his chain mail and wire-mesh alien mask and hit the stage; for his eye for oddities anywhere we went; and of course for always talking music — especially the occult rock giants of the 1970s who shaped him as a musician. 

Over the last two years, I was lucky enough to join him and Billy on their adventures as they shared Buck Gooter’s abrasive and primal sound with the world outside Harrisonburg. The last outing was a tour of the Midwest this summer, which tragically ended up being Terry’s final tour with Buck Gooter as he fell ill only a couple months later. 

The chain mail coif often worn by Terry was displayed on stage during Thursday’s tribute.
For Angela Carter, who attended Thursday’s concert, it was Turtle’s empathy and openness that she’ll most remember. “Emotion did not scare him at all,” she said. “He knew that was a part of the human condition … He was just such a wonderful guy.” Specifically, Carter credited Turtle with being such a strong force in the artistic community of Harrisonburg and beyond. “You wanna talk about a supportive dude — he supported poetry, music, artists,” Carter said. “He had no boundaries of who was in his circle. Everybody was a part of the circle.” 

None of us knew it at the time, but looking back on that incredible series of shows — most notably at the legendary Chicago venue known as “The Hideout” — it was a high note to end on if there ever was one. 

As we traveled across the country through several different underground DIY music scenes, it was clear that Terry had made a deep impact on the musicians and spectators in those scenes from their rigorous touring schedule over the years. 

At his age, it would almost be unthinkable to take on the rugged, road-warrior lifestyle that almost always involved crashing on couches after playing intense sets late into the night. Going by his endurance on those tours alone, I would have thought Terry would outlive us all. 

Terry Turtle has left behind a legacy of visual art, music, poetry and friendship that can’t be matched. As if that wasn’t enough, he also left a mic stand topped with a chainmail coif and a wire-mesh alien mask that reminds us that, while Terry is no longer with us in body, he will always remain on stage in spirit. 

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made towards the establishment of the Terry Turtle Memorial Fund, which will provide relief for children, animals and the environment.

Singer-songwriter Dorthia Cottrell performed during Thursday’s tribute to Terry Turtle at the Golden Pony. At the concert, Syd Deegan-Wise, one of Turtle’s coworkers at the Little Grill Collective, said it was Turtle’s happiness and demeanor that would be most missed. “He made me laugh all the time,” Deegan-Wise said. “He was just a really cool person to be around.”

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