Terri Hendrix: A Spiritual Kind of Outlaw

When I first heard Terri Hendrix perform about 10 years ago at Gruene Hall, one of Texas’s historic dance halls, I didn’t know who she was, but I was quickly struck by her beautiful vocals, broad and youthful smile, signature custom-designed bib overalls, and the heart and soul she poured into her performance. At first glance, though, nothing about this San Antonio-born, San Marcos-based folk singer-songwriter, who had just self-released her debut CD, Two Dollar Shoes, conjured up outlaw images in my mind. In the ten years and eight CDs since then, however, Hendrix has been on an incredible spiritual musical journey – a path less traveled  that she sings about in her latest CD, The Spiritual Kind (Wilory Records, 2007), set for release on August 28. Along the way, she, like Ani DiFranco, has bucked a male-dominated industry to keep complete control over her music as a highly creative artist and successful independent businesswoman–a true outlaw in the musical sense who has adopted the motto: “Own your own universe.”

In the mid-1980s, Hendrix accepted a classical music and voice scholarship at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, but left school partly because the university’s Baptist religious orientation and policies, including mandatory chapel, clashed with her own spiritual beliefs. Besides, she failed musical theory, and classical music training didn’t scratch the creative itch in her or speak to things of the heart. After moving to San Marcos and changing her major to attend Texas State University in late 1988 or early 1989, she waited tables at a local restaurant, where she overheard fellow workers, one of whom was Todd Snider, talking about a songwriters’ night at a local honky tonk, Cheatham Street Warehouse. “I was terrified to play in public,” she recalls, but she finally got up the nerve to go there to perform. Fortunately, she stepped into a nurturing atmosphere of camaraderie, not cliques and cutthroat competition, among the songwriters who were there.”Even though I was an absolute beginner,” she recalls, “I was still treated with respect and it enabled me to have a starting point to grow.”

Ask Hendrix about Marion Williamson’s influence on her development, and you might seen a tear well up in her eyes. At a time when Hendrix was just “drifting” in school and couldn’t seem to find her “calling” in life, she met Williamson in San Marcos. Williamson gave her guitar and vocal lessons, taught her self-discipline, and instilled a commitment to hard work and perseverance in the face of life’s tragedies and setbacks. In return, Hendrix milked a few of her goats and worked on Wilory Farm, one of Williamson’s organic farms. As a spiritual mentor, Williamson’s holistic philosophy had a life changing impact on Hendrix, as evidenced by the song, “Acre of Land,” one of the cuts on The Spiritual Kind. The song, built around a garden metaphor, expresses Hendrix’s philosophy of life and pays tribute to Williamson, who died of cancer in 1997. Hendrix named her second album, Wilory Farm (1998), and soon changed her record label from Tycoon Cowgirl Records to Wilory in honor of her.

In 1997, Hendrix teamed up with Lloyd Maines, one of the most respected producers and multi-instrumentalists (guitar, dobro, mandolin, papoose, pedal steel) in Texas and the father of Natalie Maines, of the Dixie Chicks. Hendrix and Maines have a very productive musical and business relationship, feeding well off each other’s creative instincts. They often tour as a duo or with other band members Paul Pearcy (drums and percussion) and Glen Fukanaga (bass), playing to sold-out audiences around the country, including the highly acclaimed Newport and Philadelphia Folk Festivals as well as the Blue Highways Festival in Utrecht, The Netherlands. Hendrix and Maines have been featured twice on the Center for Texas Music History’s “Texas Music History Unplugged” annual series at Texas State University-San Marcos. In 2003, Hendrix won a Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performance, “Lil’ Jack Slade,” which she co-wrote for the Dixie Chicks’ Home album (Sony, 2002).

It was Places in Between (2000) that gained Hendrix a national folk audience, and her critical acclaim has increased with each subsequent release–Live in San Marcos (2001), The Ring (2002), The Art of Removing Wallpaper (2004), and a CD for kids, Celebrate the Difference (2005). She now hosts song writing workshops, sends out her newsletter, Goat Notes, to a mailing list of at least 53,700 fans, and has really blossomed on the harmonica, guitar, papoose, and mandolin. For Hendrix, music is a “calling” with a deeper purpose, and she feels a huge responsibility to entertain and keep honing her skills on the instruments she plays. She and her sizzling band put on one of the most exciting live shows in Texas.

Despite a heavy touring schedule, Hendrix has kept control over all phases of her music business, including booking, touring, and distribution. She fills internet orders through an e-commerce store in her home, and she has chosen to keep her independent record label. Practical business sense led her to turn down offers from record labels. She recalls how happy she was when she sold 3,000 copies of Two Dollar Shoes for $10 each and made $30,000 in 1998: “That was a lot of money to come through my doors that year.” Then, when some labels offered $15,000 for the Wilory Farm masters, “I couldn’t do it,” she remembers. Given the fact that she made $30,000 on her own, she responded:  “Why am I going to let you have it for this?”

Once described by RollingStone.com’s Andrew Dansby as a “Texas square peg,” Hendrix challenges the misconception that if you don’t have distribution, you can’t get your music out there. After all, many artists give their masters away to get distribution, but often don’t get much distribution if their music doesn’t fit neatly into a category. In her case, she argues, “If you’re too pop for country and too country for pop, and you fall all into weird categories, and my music definitely falls into this weird category, it’s best marketed by myself.”

Without a doubt, Hendrix maintains a disciplined schedule to juggle all of the things related to her business and still have time for song writing. She sets aside certain periods of the year for business planning and others for song writing, but she constantly has a song in her head. When she and Maines are on the road, she at times puts words to melodies created by him as they drive along. “I think keeping the brain open and writing all the time, keeping it alive, and finding things to keep the soul alive is the way to keep it all going,” she says, ” keep, keep the music bubbling.”

For Hendrix, song writers usually fall into two categories: those with a true passion for writing who have songs in their head all the time, and those who approach song writing like a job, some of whom make a lot of money doing so. She doesn’t put down those who approach song writing like they would a job, but she doesn’t believe that method would work for her: “They labor at it and they’re great songwriters, but they approach it totally different; they labor over it and they wake up and it’s like a job. They write totally different. To me, both ways are great, but I do know that for me, I try to never co-write with anybody who’s in that other category.”

“I’m a folk musician through and through,” Hendrix asserts, but she doesn’t see herself as a purist. There are eclectic, diverse influences in her music, including gospel, blues, R& B, country, bluegrass, Tejano, jazz, and rap. On “Mood Swing” (The Spiritual Kind), a swinging jazz song, she acknowledges the influences of Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Hoagy Carmichael, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Anita O’Day, and Austin’s Stanley Smith, of the Jazz Pharaohs, and she honors the late Clifford Antone, Jesse Taylor, and C.B. “Stubbs” Stubblefield.

Along with a critical perspective on threats to free expression and diversity, whatever the source, a broad humanitarian philosophy has guided Hendrix on her musical boogie ride. Positive, upbeat messages often characterize her songs, but she doesn’t shy away from tackling the darker side of life and more politically controversial subjects. On The Art of Removing Wallpaper, “Monopoly” criticizes deregulation of the media for the threat it poses to diversity on the air waves. Her deepening appreciation for Woody Guthrie is obvious by her haunting cover of “Pastures of Plenty” (The Spiritual Kind). In “Jim Thorpe’s Blues,” which is also included on The Spiritual Kind, she not only personalizes the struggle of a great Native-American athlete who mainly because of racism was stripped of his medals won at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, but she also sings about his daughter’s fight to prevent the burial of nuclear waste on Indian land.

Hendrix sees the internet as an important way to reach a wider audience. She doesn’t accept that songwriters have to “dumb down” their material in order to sell their music.  “I feel like a true mistake,” she insists, “is to underestimate the American people, underestimate our need for more intellectually stimulating material. And the internet levels the playing field.”

With her ninth CD about to be released, Hendrix looks back and laughingly recalls the warnings of a promoter back about 14 years ago when she was age 25 that she had just about reached the age by which every artist had to have “made it” in order to “make it” in the music business. She has also defied those who told her that without national distribution she’d fail. “I’m not gonna lie, it’s a hard gig,” she concedes, “and I’ve seen this industry go through many changes in the decade since I started my label. But, I’ve also found that the two things that first inspired me to follow this crazy path have stayed the same: namely, all the fans that support music because of their genuine love of the song, and the songwriters out there who continue to put what’s in their soul to music.

For more on Terri Hendrix, visit her web site:

http://www.terrihendrix.com

~Doctor G

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Doctor G (otherwise known as Dr. Gregg Andrews) is a multitalented singer/songwriter and storyteller. He’s an accomplished labor historian and the author of Nationally Awarded books like City of Dust: A Cement Company Town in the Land of Tom Sawyer and Insane Sisters. But he’s most comfortable when he’s raisin’ hell against the system or delivering his Swampytonk music in his Mississippi-mudded snakeskin boots.

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