By Richard Skanse
For anyone who’s followed Terri Hendrix’s career as far back as her 1996 debut Two Dollar Shoes or at least back to her 1998 breakthrough, Wilory Farm, listening to her new album The Ring is an experience both revelatory and familiar. The familiarity stems not from a sense that you’ve heard it all before — fact is, the music on The Ring outdistances even her best previous efforts by miles, every hint of maturity of voice, craftsmanship and subject matter suggested by her last studio album, 2000’s Places in Between, brought here to dazzling fruition. But there’s also an intimacy to the album, a sense of nothing coming in between artist, song and listener that takes those that happened to hop onboard early enough all the way back to the just-the-woman-and-her-guitar-and-you honesty of her earliest professional gigs, perched on a stool and performing solo weekly before small but devoted crowds at cozy coffee houses and restaurants like Biga in her native San Antonio. So when the 34-year-old singer-songwriter talks about The Ring bringing the “first phase” of her career full-circle, it makes perfect sense — even though, technically speaking, the success she’s found in the interim has taken her places not in between but far beyond her wildest dreams. Over the course of the last six years, Hendrix has carved out one of the most phenomenal DIY careers in recent memory, steadfastly avoiding the lures and pitfalls of trying to land a major label deal in favor of managing her own career and releasing all her albums on her own label, Wilory Records. She’s been rewarded with one of the most loyal grassroots fanbases in Texas (and beyond), earned the respect and commitment of celebrated producer/multi-instrumentalist Lloyd Maines (who’s played with her almost exclusively ever since Wilory Farm) and consistently been a top draw on both the festival and dancehall circuit and the more listener-demanding environs of top-drawer rooms like Austin’s Cactus Café and Philadelphia’s celebrated Tin Angel.
She’s achieved all this to date through both a tireless work ethic and a catalog of songs alternately joyous and bittersweet fashioned out of an eclectic mix of styles (folk, country, pop, rock, Tex-Mex, bluegrass and not a little bit of jazz) that exemplifies the full breadth and diversity of Texas music. But The Ring, not unlike such career high water marks/turning points as Steve Earle’s Train a Comin’, Joe Ely’s Letter to Laredo and Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road before it, is the masterwork that says you haven’t heard nothin’ yet. And judging from where she says she now wants to take her music next, we still haven’t.
When Places in Between came out, you described it as a musical journey. What is The Ring to you?
Places in Between was a musical journey. When I wrote it, it was a little above my head. It took me a long time to learn to play what I had written. Basically I wanted to musically and lyrically catch up with this place where I wanted to be, and I had these concepts and wanted to see them fulfilled. And that journey was part of the process — like “My Own Place” was totally easy to write, but the bluegrass rhythm was totally new and it was something we needed in our set list. It took me awhile to learn to play it in the pocket and get the lyrics right where I could sing it live. With this album, I had more of a sense of “This is what I’ve liked that we’ve done, and this is what I haven’t liked, and this is what I want to do.” I had a real clear idea of musically what every song needed to be.
All of your albums before this one were so diverse in styles that they were like, “This is a taste of everything I can do.” But with The Ring, although there’s still a mix on there, the songs all seem both lyrically and musically much more focused. For one thing, there’s only one out-and-out “fun” song, “From Another Planet.” The rest of the going is pretty serious, and overall the songs seem a lot more inward looking and personal.
I didn’t want to make the same record that we’ve made before. It’s easy for me to write humorous but sarcastic portrayals on society, like “Clicker.” Those songs come to me all the time, because I’m really socially conscious — it’s the folk singer in me or whatever — but I’m always looking at things on the TV or in the newspaper that I have a problem with, and I write songs about them and they end up being humorous. One of my biggest inspirations was Tom Lehrer — he’s a prime example of using social situations for release. I’ll also do that with relationships, like “Consider Me” on this record — it was pretty easy for me to write, and it’s sweet but ended up being sarcastic. But songs like that are the easiest to write, and in doing this record I didn’t want to take the easiest route. I just wanted to really think about what I haven’t done before — what keys have I not sung before, what finger-picking patters have I not done before, what would add life to the set list. Every song was a questioned process. I wanted this album to wrap up what I started with Two Dollar Shoes. There’s been this journey happening, and this is the ending of this sequence of CDs. I kind of saw it like a set almost — like every CD had this set going on in it, and this was the completion of it.
The Ring reminds me of Two Dollar Shoes in that it’s the most intimate-sounding album you’ve done since then. It sounds really close to the heart, which seems in keeping with the whole coming full circle theme. Is that accurate?
Yeah, I think so. I do when I really think about it. Because Two Dollar Shoes I wrote all together without any other influences. With Wilory Farm it was different, with Places in Between it was different, and it was different with the live CDs. I think this one is kind of back to like … the song “The Fact Is” when you really think about it is kind of the crux to the whole album. It’s like, “Ok, I did what you said, I did what they said, and here’s what I say.” Everybody has an opinion and stuff, and I think it’s good to listen, but you have to do your own thing. That was what was cool about Two Dollar Shoes — I just wrote it without thinking too much, which is something that can happen easily, you can over-think things. I tend to do that. So yeah, this one’s kind of back to the basics. Though had it truly been back to the basics, it would have been more stripped down, and I’d like to eventually do a record like that. But, that’s not this record.
“The Fact Is” may be the crux of the record, but it’s the title song, about a ring for your mother that your father spent years fashioning out of a half dollar, retreating to his workshop to work on it whenever they got in an argument, that really takes the listener back to the beginning — it’s very much a companion piece to one of your earliest songs, “The Sister Song.” I first heard you play “The Ring” at Cibilo Creek Country Club way back in December 1997. Was that the first time you performed it?
I think it was. I did it once there, once in San Marcos and once in Austin.
How frequently would you go back to working on the song over the following six years?
Oh, a lot. Maybe once every two months. I just couldn’t piece it together. I just couldn’t figure out what was going on. That was one where I really did speak with Lloyd a lot, trying to explain what I wanted to say. I talked with my dad a lot about it on the phone, trying to get my facts straight on it. I just wanted to honor him and make it be an honest portrayal of what he did, and it took forever. “The Sister Song” was like that too. “Sister Song” was written in about the same amount of time — 1990 to 1996. And this one was written in the same amount of time, turning in the brain for years on end.
When you work on a song for that long, how do you know when it’s finished? You could keep refining it forever.
You could. You could refine it forever. But I mean, even now when we do it, I don’t know if we got it exactly right on the record, and it might get refined even more. I don’t feel like songs are finished until you finally tuck them away. There’s different songs I’ve written and then we record them live, and you realize, “God, there’s a better way to do this …” I feel like if there’s a better way to do something, you gotta honor it. But to get this song ready, I knew I needed to talk about how when we joined hands together to say prayers my dad used that time to cry a little, because he never likes to cry in front of us. I knew I had my beginning, my middle and my end, it was just a matter of wrapping it together. And Lloyd helped me solidify the chorus and make it more of what I really wanted to say. And then I knew, “Ok, there’s nothing more I can do to this — it needs to be done.” With “Sister Song,” when I sing “I saw me …,” people have a hard time understanding what I’m saying. “I saw me,” it sounds like “Isawme …” it sounds like a foreign language. It’s not exactly the most wonderfully written song, but there’s nothing else I could do to that song, and it was as best as I could do at that time. I think that’s what songs are. At least that’s what mine are.
How old were you when your father finished the ring?
Oh, middle school.
How big an impact did that have on you? Or was it something you didn’t really think about until years later?
I didn’t really think about it. And I remember when it happened — I was in Corpus, it was in 1996, and I was playing there with a bass player, and he had brought his wife, and we were visiting about our past. Just casual conversation before we played the show. And I brought up the ring just by a fluke. And then I was telling them the story, and next thing I knew all three of us were in tears. And that’s when I knew that this story has to be told. Not only for me, but for other people, this is a story that has to be told about love. About family, about love, about companionship, about anger, all these different things. It just seemed like it was a really important thing that I needed to get done. And then from then on out I never got a moment’s rest — not a week went by, and every two months I’d work on it. I remember one day I literally worked on it all day. There were so many different verses, and it just wasn’t telling the story, it wasn’t honest. It was whittling and whittling and whittling, until you finally get the results you want.
Have your parents heard it yet?
No, but they will. I think my dad is sick of it because I pestered him so much in the past few months. The funniest thing was me calling him up at the last minute and saying, “Now dad, they gave you the Soldier’s Medal and the Purple Heart …,” and he said, “Terri, they didn’t give it to me — you’ve gotta earn it!” [Laughs] I thought that was hysterical. He was pretty adamant about getting that correct.
Do you cry often when you write?
Yeah, I do. With “Spinning Off,” yeah. I was driving home, I was in a situation where I needed to be composed but I felt in a really bad place, that the people I was working with at the time didn’t appreciate what I was doing, like I was in such a negative environment that I couldn’t do the job I needed to do and I disappointed myself and I disappointed others by lowering myself to that level. And with the “The Ring,” most definitely. Sometimes I have to put it away. But like “Consider Me,” when I was writing that it was like sticking a knife in something. It was really fun to write, like “Flowers” where it was like boom. And with “Clicker,” I was pretty mad when I wrote that — I get so sick and tired of these people on TV exploiting the lowest common denominator of society — but I was laughing, too. But with “Goodbye, Charlie Brown,” I cried. Sometimes you laugh, sometimes you cry.
There seems to be a definite display of assertiveness on this album, more so than ever before. A lot of your songs in the past were kind of about you being stuck in a situation and not knowing really how to move forward — “Walk on Me,” “Wish,” “Places in Between.” But on this one, song after song you’re saying “I’m taking control.” It’s in “I Found the Lions,” “The Fact Is,” even “Goodbye, Charlie Brown.”
Yeah. I’m hoping everything is like that, because that’s really what the purpose was if I really think about it. You know, “Charlie Brown” I think is basically … what I loved about Charles Schultz is so many people tried to get him to change what he’d been doing, and he stood by it and had a purpose. That’s what the whole song is about – sticking by your purpose. If you have a purpose success will be on your own terms, and that’s what the song is about. It’s about, “yeah, you may never hold the hand of the little red headed girl, but screw it. Goodbye, Charlie Brown.” I love Charlie Brown, but I didn’t want to be Charlie Brown. I like Snoopy better. Charlie Brown was the kid everybody liked but everybody picked on. “Damn the soul that shoots you down / ‘cuz they don’t have the guts to try / You kick that ball and you hit the sky.” For once it would have been great if he could have achieved what he wanted. But I don’t want to be Charlie Brown, and that’s why I wrote it. If I could have been anybody I would have been Charles Schultz, the creator of the whole piece, because it’s very genius. It’s good for kids and good for adults.
What did it take for you to reach that turning point, the decision to take control on your own terms?
I think it took getting my teeth kicked in. This industry is a roller coaster. One day it’s really good, one day it’s really bad. One day your plane’s on time and the next day it’s late and you’re bailing off the plane and you’re trying to get train tickets so you can make your gig on time. It’s rewarding in that I’m getting to work for myself and hopefully bring joy to others in the process. But as with any career, you’ve got your ups and downs. I think control is maintaining a positive attitude and listening to the opinions of others but in the end make your own decisions and accepting the consequences.
Has there been any one period that stands out as a low point across the board in terms of inspiration and self-confidence?
Last year, for sure. I kind of reached this point where I didn’t know what I was doing anymore. It was like, “Ok, what’s going on here?” I really didn’t have a clue. I felt like it took me forever to get to that point in my career and once I got there I just didn’t know what I was doing any more or what I wanted to do.
Do you feel like everything is clicking again now?
Yes I do. I like where we’re going musically. I’ve just got to woodshed on this new material so I can start performing these songs live. Stagnation and myself have never been friends.
I want to jump back for a bit — way back. Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
Yeah. It was something about a cat — a gun and a cat. I got in trouble for it.
You got in trouble for it?
Yeah, I did. Because the cat was obviously my parents and my sister, and I thought that you could call a cat a “bitch.” Anyway, that was dogs that you could call a bitch, not a cat, and I got in very bad trouble over that one.
You played it for the family?
I sure did, of course!
How old were you?
Oh, it had to be around second grade.
You were already playing guitar that young?
Yeah, kind of. Like poking through the chords.
Moving forward a couple of decades — do your days playing the Riverwalk and places like Biga seem like ages ago, or can you still distinctly remember those gigs?
Oh, very clearly. I look back on those times with fondness. I can remember it as if it was yesterday. There was a simplicity back then that I appreciated when it was going on, I had a great time, and I appreciate it now that it’s not going on. I would have never thought that it was going to become a business like it has now. I didn’t think that then. I really didn’t. I hoped that it would, but I also knew that … I don’t know, I just kind of knew how hard it was.
Once things started to progress after you made Wilory Farm, was there a part of you that thought you still really needed to find a record deal?
Oh yeah. That didn’t stop until after Places in Between. I kind of always secretly harbored this hope that maybe something could happen with a record company. But then after Places in Between came out and several months passed, I started thinking about it and I didn’t think that that would ever make sense for me. At least with the body of work that I’ve done. Who’s to say what could happen in the future? But Places in Between is too across the board and so is this new one. Any label, it would be suicide for someone to try and market something like this, unless as a fluke it took off somehow. But I don’t even think about that anymore. I don’t even think about radio anymore. I have radio plans, but everything’s not based on that. You have to think of it like, there’s no fault with major labels. I think that contemporary music is a wonderful thing. That’s how we have Sheryl Crow. But Colgate, you can find it on the shelf. Colgate comes in one package, and you know where to find it at HEB when you want your toothpaste. And you know where to go in HEB when you want your meat, and you know where to go when you want your potatoes. To me, artists that sell best on major labels are easily marketable artists, and your artists that are not easily marketable I don’t think prosper on major labels. But you can prosper on your own label by being an indie and doing harder-to-market music.
What are the downsides to running your own label?
Well the downside is you see everything. You see everything that’s negative and you see everything that’s positive. I think when you’re this much hands-on every now and then your hands freeze and every now and then they scorch the hell out of you. And those are the same hands that you have to pick up your instrument with and love it. Because the day I stop playing and loving music will be the day I stop running a label. I really do love music. I’m a fan of music, every music. It makes me breathe, it makes me happy, it makes me want to dance. It’s everything to me.
As an artist running her own label, do you ever feel underestimated? And if so, does that give you an edge? In “I Found the Lions,” you sing about how you “let them keep their claws” but not before taking a few of their teeth. The predators — the naysayers — got more than they bargained for.
Yeah, I definitely think sometimes I do feel underestimated, but who doesn’t get underestimated? No matter what your job is, I think everybody probably wrestles with that. It’s just politics. And lunatics and places in between. [Laughs] That’s what it is. It’s just the way things go. I think I’m a blue-collar worker. I’m a blue-collar singer, and my fans are blue-collars. The people that come to my shows work hard, and I’m a hard worker. Even when I ran track in high school, it didn’t come easy. I always had to practice real hard to get on the varsity team. So I’m always going to have to work hard, and it definitely gives me an edge because nothing was ever given to me. Had I not been as hard a worker as I am, Lloyd would have never committed to me the way he has. I think it just shocked the pants off of him that I worked hard. So I think it definitely gives you an advantage.
What about the perception your own fans have of you? Going all the way back to your first album, but particularly on The Ring and Places in Between, you’ve had some genuinely heavy, thoughtful and even dark songs — but people that have only seen you at festivals might walk away remembering you best for the sunny and “fun” songs, like “Wind Me Up.” And they may love you for those songs so much they might not really like the deeper stuff.
Yeah, that’s true. But really that’s the decision of the listener and not mine. And I know “Wind Me Up” isn’t going to put me on the musical map as far as artistic credibility goes, but that song makes people smile. And to me, that makes me happy. But, we also used to do this song called “Big Bamboo” and I took it off the set list and I’ll never do it again, because I didn’t want to get trapped into doing that song. I play the songs I want to and hope for the best, and I retire songs when I want to and hope for the best. And what people think of me isn’t any of my business as long as I’m doing my best. It’s about the music. I think it’s easy to lose focus when you work hard and run your own label, because maybe the last thing that somebody might see is your music has to have substance. That’s the whole backbone of the foundation for the house that you’re building. Perceptions and estimations can change.
You talked about The Ring representing the completion of a set. What do you want to do next?
I want Lloyd to do a CD, and I want to help produce it. I’ve got a really good idea about it. I want to do that this year and I want to do it on my label. It’s a goal, and I’m going to have to really stick to that goal to get it done because he stays so busy. And I’d also like to do some other music as well. A techno record, and possibly a children’s record. I want to do a record that’s not only a children’s record, but a record about celebrating the fact that we’re all different. I think as children we’re all raised to be the color that we are, the sex that we are, and this record will be about a different approach to all that. It’ll be more like a developmental record than a children’s record — almost an educational record.
It would probably shock the pants off a lot of people to hear you’re a closet techno junkie. How long have you been a fan of that kind of music?
I can’t remember not. I really can’t. Most of the music I liked as a kid was electronic music. A lot of Spanish music is electronic music; not authentic Spanish music — there’s a difference. I love the rhythms. And I like ambient music. I like world music. I’ve been a world music fan since 1997, and now I’m branching on into Celtic music. I like instrumental music a whole lot. I like the way they merge more classical music into it, but they’re not so set in classical music. I like music without words.
With all that on your plate, do you see another album more along the lines of what you’ve been doing for the last decade in your near future?
I don’t think so. I really don’t. There’s a lot of other songs that I haven’t written that I want to learn, that I just want to learn technically because there’s something in the instrumentation that I want to do. It will make me a better artist. But like coming up with another record of songs, who knows? Maybe something will hit me over the top of the head and I’ll start coming up with a bunch of stuff. But I definitely want to just keep moving forward. I feel like this is the end of the first phase … from Two Dollar Shoes to The Ring, I feel that that wraps up that segment of music.
That could involve pretty much starting over, couldn’t it? From the fanbase on up.
Yeah. Well, I don’t want to start all over, because I’m fortunate to have the fans that we have. I think you have to play to your fans and everything, but you also have to be happy and musically satisfied. Like I said before, stagnation and myself have never been friends. I love what I’ve done to date, but I do feel this album is kind of like the bookend for where I was, you know? Now it’s my hope to keep my fans and go musically places I haven’t been before.