Terri Hendrix's second album, Wilory Farm, isn't due until June, but already the San Marcos-based singer-songwriter is busy pondering a trio of heavy questions: What is focus? What is success? And who decides? Obviously, these aren't questions with easy answers - here in Austin, or within the music industry at large - but with an upcoming release that will no doubt bring with it a lot of hype, plus some criticism that she's too unfocused musically, who can blame Hendrix for asking? After all, she's made this album her life. "When you're a musician, people ask, `Can you do anything else?' and the truth is, I can't," says Hendrix, 30. "For nearly 10 years, music has been my living and my love. I love it more than men, more than relationships. I could care less about marriage or kids. I just love music. I love playing, love meeting the people, and love meeting the people's babies. It just does something to me."
That "something" may be intangible, but Hendrix is nonetheless chasing it with complete dedication, hoping it eventually pays off by making her the complete singer-songwriter. Already, she can sing, write, and deliver compelling live performances, and even if you do confuse her range with a lack of focus, that Hendrix has such a firm grasp on both country and pop may actually be her best calling card. Except for her stage presence, that is.
A shameless talker and storyteller, Hendrix's energetic and immediately likeable stage persona would be the focal point of her live performances were it not for the fact that they capture her songs so well - as does Wilory Farm. In fact, a month before it even hits stores, one music critic at The Dallas Morning News has already dubbed Wilory Farm "one of the best albums of this young year."
If all this is true - which it is - why isn't Terri Hendrix a local household name like Ana Egge, Trish Murphy, and Kacy Crowley? Perhaps it's because until relatively recently, Hendrix has intentionally flown below Austin music's radar, working her way in from the outskirts of town. Since 1990, she's turned San Marcos, New Braunfels, and San Antonio (where she's recently won three San Antonio Current awards, including "Vocalist of the Year") into solid markets for her gigs and albums. San Antonio is also where Hendrix was born, the youngest of three children in a military, but generally stationary, family. After high school, she accepted an opera scholarship to the Hardin-Simmons School of Music in Abilene.
"The music school took this really anal approach to music and I hated it," says Hendrix, who admits she was always more interested in Dolly Parton and Pat Benatar than Luciano Pavarotti. "After two years, my grades weren't good, I was losing scholarships, and school just got too expensive."
Dropping out, Hendrix transferred to Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos and majored in alcohol - consuming it in excess and serving it as a waitress. Before long, a waiter at the same restaurant and another struggling San Marcos musician with similar interests, Todd Snider, invited her to a local songwriter's night. "I tried to play a song I'd written and couldn't play though it," she says. "I got so frustrated I knew that I needed guitar lessons."
Through some mutual friends, Hendrix found a teacher, Marion Williams, a Hill Country songwriter and composer, who taught music from her Wilory Farm in Stonewall, Texas. "Marion said, `You have a choice. You can stay in school and fail, or you can concentrate solely on music,'" says Hendrix, who did just that. "I knew I had to quit school and quit drinking. I couldn't afford it."
On the farm, Williams taught Hendrix the basics: how to read music, how to construct chord charts, and how to set up PA. Not only was it everything she didn't learn in music school, Hendrix also asserts that nothing could have been as valuable as a series of "record tours," in which Williams selected and assigned Hendrix chunks of classical, popular, and folk catalogues to digest and absorb.
"I don't need to be Bach, because popular music isn't as complicated," says Hendrix. "But I was taught classical music anyway and was encouraged to take it just as seriously as our tour of Texas singer-songwriters."
With a new musical vocabulary, Hendrix took 20 folk songs to Landa Station, a small New Braunfels bar, and landed a $50-a-night residency. Before long, she had dozens of similar gigs, stacked two or three a day. In fact, it wasn't unusual for Hendrix to jump back and forth between New Braunfels, San Marcos, and San Antonio during weekends.
"It's kind of stupid, but you could conceivably play a coffeeshop in New Braunfels, head towards the river and play for the tubers in the afternoon, go to San Marcos for an evening gig, and head for San Antonio late night, because San Marcos shuts down at midnight and San Antonio goes until 2am," explains Hendrix.
That kind of schedule kept Hendrix busy and away from Austin. "For years, I was kind of scared of Austin. There's so many incredible musicians in the Hill Country that I know will never come here. I think they should, but they figure they can play in Wimberley, Canyon Lake, and San Marcos twice a day. For a while, I too thought it didn't make sense for me to come here and struggle, because I was busy [in the Hill Country]. And once people get to know you there, you don't have to call the clubs, they call you. I didn't need a demo tape or press kit. All you need is to be a solo act and have your own PA - those are the secrets."
The other secret, according to Hendrix, is her mastery of stage patter. Whether it's buying time to fix a broken string or simply taking a breather between songs, a little between-songs chatter goes a long way. Like Snider, or even Robert Earl Keen, Hendrix's ability to tell a story has become almost as important as the songs themselves. In fact, when you're playing up to three times a day and in many of the same rooms a couple of times a week, the raps are what makes each show different and what makes people come back to something new. At the same time, Hendrix admits one has to be careful about addressing an audience.
"I've had to work on my stage raps," she says. "It was turning people off, because I don't think people take you as seriously when you're talking a lot. It's a fine line. I want people to enjoy the show, because it is a show. But stage raps work only if you're not rambling or giggling like some crazed lunatic. I've done that a lot, and it's okay in a smaller and more intimate room. I think I've made mistakes trying to talk in too big of a venue that have put the music in jeopardy."
Stage raps aside, Hendrix says there was also a time where she put her music in jeopardy by becoming complacent with her busy gig schedule and growing mailing list. "I love to play and if I wasn't more careful I'd have done that string of small gigs forever," says Hendrix. "That can be a dead end. Playing any ol' gig is fine, if that's your deal, but there's something wrong when you want something more and settle for less. I was playing for any Tom, Dick, or Harry that would call with $50, and I think I forgot my path and forgot why I started. By 1995, I was really wanting a career again. Before that, I was just playing for the sake of playing. I suppose I was taking it seriously, but I didn't have any goals."
It was during this period, of course, that Hendrix recorded her 1996 debut, Two Dollar Shoes. By the singer's own admission, she put out the album mostly as an offering to her growing mailing list. Yet if the album accentuated Hendrix's relative inexperience, the good news was that its selling over 3,000 copies allowed Hendrix to phase out many of her residencies and instead concentrate on cracking Austin and recording a follow-up. She enlisted Lloyd Maines to remix and remaster the album's second pressing, and a year later, in September 1997, Maines and Hendrix began recording Wilory Farm, an experience she says was the opposite of the sessions for Two Dollar Shoes.
"This time, I knew what I wanted it to sound like," explains Hendrix. "I knew what songs I wanted and how to sing them, and I had fun recording it, because I was finally a good enough player to keep up with the big boys - guys like Lloyd, Gene Elders [fiddle], Rick Ramirez [bass], and Paul Pearcy [drums]. I was good enough to go in there and whip it out. It gave me self-esteem."
For Hendrix, the boost of confidence couldn't have come at a better time. In the time since Two Dollar Shoes, Hendrix's sister had been bounced from the military when it was discovered she was gay, and her brother suffered a heart attack. Perhaps the most damaging blow for Hendrix was the death of her mentor, Williams, who passed away February of last year after a sudden bout with cancer. As a result, Hendrix began a period of heavy songwriting that resulted in an album that not only pays tribute to Williams on the title track, but also her sister on "Sister's Apartment."
"I was so mad and depressed that everything became almost funny," says Hendrix. "There's a lot of dark humor on this record."
In truth, there's a lot of everything on Wilory Farm. Along with the obvious pop and country numbers, there's swing ("Albert the Perfect Friend"), folk ("Hole in My Pocket"), Tex-Mex ("Lluvia de Estrellas" [Rain of Stars]), and at least one genuine rocker, "Gravity."
"I always thought diversity was good, but I guess there was a point where I started to freak out over it," she says. "Lloyd and I played it for people who called it unfocused. I never saw it that way because it was all from the heart. I said to Lloyd, `Maybe we ought to pull this or that off and make the album either more pop or more country,' and he said, `Why do that if those are the songs you write and that's the way you perform them live?' That's when I started asking about what is focus and who defines it."
After having Maines shop Wilory Farm to some of his many industry connections, Hendrix met with labels like Sugar Hill and Sony's Lucky Dog imprint (on which Bruce and Charlie Robison have upcoming releases), opting to go it alone for now and release the album herself on her own Tycoon Cowgirl Records. She says she fully intends on shopping the album more after its release, but Hendrix says her decision to go with local investors instead of an independent label was in part financial: "No label can do for me right now what I can do for myself," she says.
"I've always believed in customer service," says Hendrix. "We're like a restaurant, people come into the diner and you come out and meet them. You have to make people glad they're there, because they're the whole reason I'm able to play. If it weren't for them, I wouldn't have a job or be able to hire Lloyd and the musicians I need. It's business, but it's fun and grassroots.
"More importantly, I totally, 100 percent, believe in it. If I didn't, it would be very hard on me right now. If somebody doesn't like it, I don't care. In that sense, I'm already a success. What a gift it is to do what I wanted to do and make the record I wanted to make. How many people can say that? If a major label wants it, I'll be happy. If they don't, I'll still be more than happy. It's my life."
Wilory Farm comes out June 16.