Milking it

Terri Hendrix proves you can't keep a girl down on the Farm

Terri Hendrix is an apple-cheeked blonde whose beaming countenance and beatific smile wouldn't look out of place, golden wings spread behind her, atop the giant Christmas tree at New York's Rockefeller Center. An Austin critic once tagged her stage presence as a "basket of kittens," referring to the way she brims with delight in the spotlight. Such are the accolades so often heaped upon the San Marcos-based singer-songwriter, who gets better press than Mother Teresa. Look at the photograph above: Never has a performer so looked like the girl next door, if next door is the farm a few acres away.

But her hyper-positive attitude is matched by a steely determination; Hendrix's art was formed when talent and ambition collided head-on. She has released two albums on her own label, Tycoon Cowgirl Records, and has sold close to 10,000 CDs overall, many through her Web site (www.terrihendrix.com). She has no manager and books her own shows, making her way in the music industry like some Hill Country version of Ani DiFranco.

"I've never been a starving artist," she says proudly. "I've always made a killing, because I'm solo--low overhead. It's all a matter of choices."

If it weren't for one such choice--her decision to trade music (and life) lessons for mornings spent milking goats in the country--Hendrix might have been just another one of a million pretty girls with a guitar in the corner of some small cafe, singing with enough talent to show she could have been a contender, yet never will. (Austin has enough of those: Every business in that town doubles as a club.) Instead, Hendrix is a rather singular, charming, and rapidly ascending star on the Texas folk circuit who has spent the better part of 1998 on the road promoting and selling all hell out of her intimate, heartfelt album Wilory Farm, so named for Marion Williamson's Central Texas spread where Hendrix was raised, so to speak.

She actually grew up in San Antonio in a military family, but it was during a stint during her youth in Panama that she first stole her sister's guitar from underneath her bed. "I always knew I would do music, but I thought it was going to be more opera," Hendrix says. "I never really had a choice to do anything else. Even when I was a kid, I was making up songs."

She studied classical music at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, but after finding it "so damn anal," Hendrix transferred to Southwest Texas State in San Marcos. Waiting tables but wanting to make music, she took up an invite from a fellow waiter--"All Right Guy" Todd Snider--to get onstage at an open mike. She made 50 bucks her first night on stage; she played for four hours, and it beat all hell out of waiting tables. She says now she was "sold" on being a musician. "I was ruined," she says with a chuckle. "I don't know if I will do this in my next life, but for this life I am pretty much sunk."

Hendrix learned the essential nuts and bolts of being a musician and performer largely from Marion Williamson, a musician, composer, computer programmer, and behind-the-scenes Central Texas philanthropist who mentored Hendrix and helped instill an unshakable work ethic in her. She taught Hendrix how to set up her own speakers and PA, how to run cable, how to run the show from set-up to take-down; she also taught her how to read music and write chord charts. Williamson's farm became Hendrix's music school, where lessons came in exchange for hard work.

By the mid-1990s, Hendrix was steadily playing regular gigs in San Antonio and the Hill Country, succeeding at one of the hardest yet most basic challenges of the music game--making a living doing it, even though her set included originals and old country blues by the likes of Mississippi John Hurt and Big Bill Broonzy. But she had bigger ambitions than just making it on the local circuit. When her low-key first CD, Two Dollar Shoes, started selling from the bandstand, Hendrix started to see her way up and out. Her epiphany came as she sat on the stage at Biga, a popular San Antonio restaurant where she had a regular gig, and sipped red wine as she stared at the audience.

"I was seeing people that didn't work as hard doing wonderful things with their music," she recalls. "I started to feel resentful, and I started to not like the way I sounded to people. I started to really get on my nerves to the point where I said, 'I have to quit what I've been doing. No one's holding a gun to my head and making me go play five times a week loading my PA in and out. If I don't like it, I have to stop.' I knew if I stayed at these house gigs, nobody was ever gonna hear me."

So Hendrix commenced on a campaign to take herself to the next level. But just at the point where Hendrix was gearing up to make Wilory Farm and beginning to perform around Texas--these days, she's in Dallas more often than Mayor Ron Kirk--her friend Williamson died at the age of 52. Yet as one benefactor passed out of Terri's life, another arrived: Within weeks of Williamson's death, Hendrix was introduced to Lloyd Maines, who had produced albums by the likes of Robert Earl Keen, James McMurtry, Charlie and Bruce Robison, Terry Allen, and countless others; he also was steel guitarist for Joe Ely and Jerry Jeff Walker. Maines and Hendrix first spoke by phone, then became better friends. He convinced Hendrix to quit her gig at Biga and pursue a bigger, better audience.

When he first heard a tape of Hendrix's songs, "I just knew there was something special," says Maines, who has been playing with Hendrix when his busy schedule permits, joining her in a duet at some gigs or as part of a band that now includes such top Austin players as bassist Glenn Fukunaga (who has played with Joe Ely and Mason Ruffner) and drummer Paul Pearcy (whose credits include Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Tish Hinojosa). "I knew that she didn't make those songs up. It all was like it was absolutely real. Every song on the tape hit me in various positive ways, and I just loved her voice.

"Plus, I was really impressed with the way she accompanied herself on guitar. I really appreciate a girl that takes the time and the energy and the effort to learn to play good guitar, which she does. To get to the level where she's playing, it takes time. You have to learn to develop your own style, and she certainly has...She's totally unique."

Borrowing money from friends, Hendrix set out to make an album that was competitive in the larger marketplace. And indeed, Wilory Farm, with its smart color graphics, looks better than most every other DIY disc out there, and even rivals the professionalism of many indie releases. It also sounds like a big-league production, thanks to the involvement of Maines.

Wilory Farm is marked by Hendrix's supple yet strong vocals, clever wordplay, and a vast range of styles, from country-folk to Western swing to sitar-drenched rock-pop to Tex-Mex to jazz. Her cheeky, sometimes self-deprecating humor is matched by anthemic numbers filled with positive vibes, such as "Wallet" ("Bend like a willow, flow like a reed, live like a bird, change like a leaf") and "Wind Me Up" (as in, "Wind me up and watch me go / Baby, I'm gone"). With its loudly beating heart, rich musicality, and appealing intelligence, Wilory Farm is an impressive calling card that introduces an artist with the smarts and legs to make it past a promising today.

Though Hendrix's burgeoning career is no doubt the result of diligent work and a canny do-it-yourself ethic, she often talks of luck, as though someone can actually succeed by doing nothing more than stumbling forward. No, she is "raking it in," as she says, precisely because she's smart enough and talented enough to keep one eye on the cash register and another on the lyric sheet. She's proof that sometimes, ability does pay off--or at least it covers the bills and allows you to record another record, then another.

"Now, all [the money's] going out the door, of course, to pay for the record, but why would I want a record deal? I have one," she says. "For right now, I have this foundation, and if I don't spend too much money, the house can't fall down...I don't want to be like anyone else. I want to be the best I can be. That's why I got into this work. I'm not going to be half-assed about it. I don't want to be some half-assed writer who plays half-assed. For me, success is being the best I can be. I want to just nail it."

Terri Hendrix performs November 20 at Poor David's Pub. She also opens for Robert Earl Keen November 19 at the Gypsy Tea Room.

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