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Jonathan Terrell Wanted to Pitch 'Highway' to Billy Ray Cyrus But Kept It For Himself Instead

Jonathan Terrell recorded "Highway" in Dallas with producer and Texas Gentlemen founder Beau Bedford.EXPAND
Jonathan Terrell recorded "Highway" in Dallas with producer and Texas Gentlemen founder Beau Bedford.
Ismael Quintanilla
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It's noon on a Wednesday, and Jonathan Terrell is at home in Austin doing vocal warm-ups and blending up a fresh batch of green juice.

"This one has beet juice, uh, and mango and strawberry," he says. "I don't think I'm a health nut. I'll eat a disgusting burger or chili dogs or Frito pie, but I'm pretty, I'm pretty aware of it. I'm pretty aware if I'm not going to be able to fit into my stage gear."

Terrell laughs. He's trying to keep healthy these days and not just for vanity's sake. His latest single, "Highway," hit streaming services on May 12, and he is preparing to take to the road to promote it — just as soon as his vocal cords have healed from a December surgery.

"I was in the studio with [producer and Texas Gentleman founder] Beau [Bedford] for like four days, and we spent those four days just like hitting it super hard," Terrell says of the recording sessions that included "Highway." "I came right out of the studio and then a long rehearsal for a show we had. The next afternoon, I just woke up from a nap, and the entire top half of my range was gone."

That was going to be Terrell's first show back after the pandemic lockdowns, and ever the professional, Terrell marched forward with plans.

"I was like, look, here's the deal," Terrell remembers. "We haven't played for anybody this year, and I lost my voice, so I'm not going to not do this show. It's going to sound like shit, but you know, we're going to do it, it's going to be super fun and we're going to make sure you have a good time."

But it was more than just a lost voice. In the days that followed, an opinion and second opinion showed that Terrell had developed a polyp on his vocal chord. The subsequent surgery has kept the singer off the stage since.

"It was pretty freaky," Terrell says. "This is my full-time gig other than DJing on the side. ... I think my surgeon really helped me feel a lot better. He was telling me, 'How you want to go through your treatment is up to you, but you can make a full recovery. So, I'm just like a hundred percent dedicated to only doing that."

Hence the vocal warm-ups, the green smoothies and temporarily passing on unhealthy burgers. Being able to fit into his stage gear is simply an added bonus for Terrell.

The musician's first show back will be on May 21, when he opens for Stoney LaRue at Cooper's Bar-B-Q in Christoval. While Terrell will be mostly healed by showtime, he'll have to tailor his stage show a bit to ensure that he makes a full recovery.

"We turned a corner a couple of weeks ago, where they think everything's healed and we need to start building my voice back up for shows," Terrell says. "So, the goal with my surgeon and therapists is to ease into [the show], so I'm not going to be like screaming or anything."

While Terrell has been out of commission as a country singer, he has gotten by in Austin working as a DJ, spinning a mix of honky-tonk and, believe it or not, disco.

"Everybody loves disco," Terrell says as a matter of fact. "If you walk into a party and there's disco playing, the girls are dancing. I don't give a shit about the guys dancing at all. If you can get the girls dancing, then that's all that matters, you know?"

These disparate tastes in music can be readily heard in Terrell's music. Rolling Stone heralded his August 2020 album Westward as one of "18 Great Albums You Might Have Missed in 2020," comparing the singer's songwriting to U2, Nick Cave, Mazzy Star and The Jesus & Mary Chain.

"We were using a lot of synthesizers, making like big ethereal pads underneath it to give it that kind of, like, woozy feel that you would get from like a new wave album," Terrell says. "My two favorite things about new wave is that drunk woozy vibe and that they're also pretty tough, you know. They're, like, kind of rigid and tough."

Terrell never got to tour for Westward, so when he makes his stop in Dallas on June 16 at Mama Tried in Deep Ellum, it will be his first time performing the album and "Highway" for a North Texas audience. The new song is inspired by the need many of us felt to get away from our places of shelter in the pandemic and from the noise that turned health and human rights into a political battleground.

"It was just kinda like one of those tunes that had been like haunting me for a while, but I couldn't, like, get away," Terrell says. "So I just drove to my buddy's ranch, and, I don't know, something definitely sparked. I could hear the whole thing, but I had to go to a quiet place to grab the lyrics."

The first of four singles recorded with Bedford, "Highway" was first conceived as part of a pitch for Billy Ray Cyrus.

"We were just like, no way, there's no way we're giving this song up," Terrell remembers. "There's a line in there that says, 'Was it all too much to handle / The rose ain't worth the bramble / and fairy tale ending don't come true,' and we just sat back and were like, man, that's a really good line, and I felt like it was just way more personal than we want to hand off to somebody that we don't really know."

While Terrell was still unable to talk or sing, he drove out to the West Texas desert for some alone time and shot a music video on an old, borrowed 8mm camcorder.

For Terrell, "Highway" is a song about getting away from the pressures of the world and reconnecting with yourself — whether you need to work on your mental health, physical health, or in Terrell's case, both.

"Just take care of your own brain for a little while and stop worrying about other people's, you know?" Terrell asks. "That song to me was like a reminder that I needed to step out of it. Nothing I was going to say on Instagram was going to change anything."

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