Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Spiritual Kind (Terri Hendrix)

If you’re inclined to learn anything at all about Terri Hendrix, all you really need to do is listen to "Acre of Land" — the centerpiece de resistance of her ninth and latest album, The Spiritual Kind. In a little under four minutes, you’ll come away with more than just the perfect introduction to the San Marcos, TX-based songwriter’s music at its absolute best. You’ll have a veritable map of her heart and a soul, a keen understanding of the philosophy by which she lives her life, and even the secret to her success as a wholly independent businesswoman.

To grow a garden / You’ve gotta have patience
You need to work in it every day
Mother Nature will give you the most resistance
But you can turn it into something anyway …

The garden metaphor carries over into the second verse: "Some throw seeds and cross their fingers/Some plant what they want in a row." And if her thumb "was just a little bit greener," she reflects, well, she’d surely have everything figured out by now. But she’s not afraid to ask questions, speak her mind freely enough to occasionally put her foot in her mouth, learn from her mistakes and sometimes — from the top, with feeling — repeat them all over again. And as the chorus reveals, she’s got a firm grip on the key to survival, be it in life or the music business: Find and nurture your own "acre of land," and, come hell or high water, stand your ground. "I’ve been through the fire/I’ve been through the flood," she sings in the final verse, "The sun beats me down, but I get back up."

The song is a tribute to Marion Williamson, the late philanthropist and gifted musician who took Terri under her wing in the 1990 and, as the oft-told Terri tale goes, gave the aspiring songwriter guitar lessons in exchange for goat-milking farm chores. But Marion taught her young protégé a great deal more than an appreciation for Mississippi John Hurt-style finger picking. She instilled in Terri the strength of will and confidence to weather storm after storm on her way toward building one of the most successful DIY music careers this side of Ani DiFranco. Marion died of cancer in 1997, less than a year after Terri self-released her debut album, Two Dollar Shoes. But 10 years and eight albums later, Terri insists that her late friend still finds ways to guide her. She named her record label Wilory Farm, after Marion’s own several acres of land. She follows the motto, "Own your own universe" — and does, being one of very few recording artists who can proudly claim to own all of their masters.

"Acre of Land" actually predates Terri’s previous album, 2004’s acclaimed The Art of Removing Wallpaper. It didn’t make the final cut for that record, she says, because it still "needed to be fleshed out live." But the fact that it’s been a fully formed highlight of her performances for going on three years now suggests that it was more a matter her knowing that the song’s message was worth saving for a more fitting, uplifting context. As a work of art, The Art of Removing Wallpaper was bold and beautiful — a worthy follow-up to Terri’s back-to-back triumphs with 2000’s Places in Between and 2002’s The Ring. But it was a dark record, too, characterized by songs with telltale titles like "Breakdown," "Judgment Day" and "Monopoly" (about the deregulation of the media) that painted a portrait of the artist staring hard at herself and the world around her, and not entirely pleased with what she saw.

If The Art of Removing Wallpaper chronicled Terri’s passage through fire and flood, The Spiritual Kind finds her celebrating the "get back up" with a palpable sense of hallelujah and rebirth. To call it her most personal record to date would be a disservice to a catalog in which she’s never shied away from the truth. But her most joyous, unguarded and, for lack of any better way to put it, "Terri-to-a-T" record? That sounds about right. In her own words, The Spiritual Kind is the first record she’s ever made where she felt like everything "just kind of clicked in gear."

A lot of that "clicking" had to do with her longstanding drive to continue to evolve as a songwriter and musician every time she steps up to the proverbial plate. It’s a fire Terri’s carried with her ever since she abandoned her classical music scholarship in college, hungering for a form of expression truer to her own heart than opera. Marion helped her coax that ember into an open flame, and for the past decade, it’s been fanned hotter and hotter through Terri’s fortuitous professional partnership with famed producer and multi-instrumentalist Lloyd Maines (Terry Allen, Dixie Chicks). Terri and Lloyd first teamed up to record her second album, 1998’s Wilory Farm, and they’ve worked together ever since, performing at listening rooms, theaters and major folk festivals across the country and Europe as either a crack acoustic folk-duo, or, when augmented by fellow Austin A-listers as Glenn Fukunaga (bass) and Paul Pearcy (drums), as one of the most exciting live acts to come out of Texas since the heyday of Lloyd’s alma-mater, the legendary Joe Ely Band. Playing night after night with the best in Texas, Terri can more than hold her own.

"Lloyd demands excellence," says Terri. "And when you’re constantly put in a position where you have to be at a certain level for things to fly, I think it makes you better. I could really tell in the studio this time around that I was a better musician than I was on Art of Removing Wallpaper. I could feel it. I just felt a lot more confident." That’s especially evident this time around in Terri’s evolution from harmonica neophyte into a full-blown (pun intended) harp freak. "It’s such complex, beautiful instrument," she enthuses. "What intrigues me about it is that it can sound like so many things: a voice, a fiddle, an accordion, even a percussion instrument. It’s become more and more important to my music with each record, to the point that now I really wish I could just take time off and be able to master it." Judging from her inspired solos on songs like "No Love in Texas" and the Jimmy Driftwood cover "What is the Color of the Soul," she’s getting mighty close.

The songs themselves reveal a leap in confidence, too. Stylistically, The Spiritual Kind is typically — by Terri standards — all over the map, jumping deftly from folk to pop to blues to swinging jazz with the anything goes, free-range eclecticism of her live shows. But even her most seasoned fans are in for a few surprises. "The way we approached the record was, anything that we’ve kind of done structurally in the past, we just tried to deviate from that," says Terri. "There’s not one song on here that has a pattern that we’ve done before. The idea was to venture into new territory."

Case in point: "Jim Thorpe’s Blues," saved for late in the record, like a live show’s dizzying, pre-encore climax. Arguably the catchiest song she’s ever written, it’s also one of the most probing and socially charged; clearly, she’s picked up more from Woody Guthrie in recent years than the fierce cover of his "Pastures of Plenty" that graces the first half of the record. Unlike "Acre of Land," "Jim Thorpe’s Blues" probably would have sounded right at home on The Art of Removing Wallpaper — except that Terri admits she could never have written it two years ago.

"I wouldn’t have even known how," she laughs. "But I know more of what I want in my songs now. I feel really proud of ‘Jim Thorpe’s Blues’ because I worked really hard on that song, wanting to achieve a certain goal, and I wasn’t going to settle for anything less. When I started writing it, it was more factual, more like a biography. But I didn’t want it to sound like a book report. What fascinated me most about Jim Thorpe’s story in the first place was, why was I unaware of not only him, but also the fact that his daughter was fighting to keep nuclear waste from being buried on Indian land? That’s what really struck a chord with me, and I wanted to personalize the song to reflect these issues.

"For me, that’s really what makes this record different," she continues. "It’s about awareness, and it’s a tribute to things and people that too often go overlooked." For Terri, that means people like Jim Thorpe, or the migrant workers in "Pastures of Plenty." It’s friends and mentors like Marion and Lloyd, and Austin jazz cat Stanley Smith, whom Terri thanks in the album-closing "Mood Swing" with the same reverence as Anita O’Day, Louis Prima and John Coltrane. And it’s people like guitarist Jesse Taylor and club owners Clifford Antone and C. B. Stubblefield, three late greats of the Texas music scene who collectively inspired more people from the side of (or behind) the stage than any legendary household name. Fittingly, all three are honored in The Spiritual Kind’s title track."

The people that have mattered the most to me in my life and career have been those that are spiritually based," she says. And "the spiritual kind," she explains, are those who strive to sow more joy than sorrow on their own acre of land, and, however possible, share their harvest with the world. By that definition, Terri’s thumbs are a lot greener than she gives herself credit for. "For the past 15 years, my life has revolved around the discovery of music, and the joy of music," she concludes. "And to get the opportunity to do what I do for my living ... how beautiful is that?"

For me, the thrill of a new discovery is unparalleled - I'm fond of repeating the saying that "the teacher appears when the lesson is ready to be learned"... and it's amazing that I can cross paths with something for years but only when I'm finally meant to *get it* does the Epiphany Light Bulb illuminate.

Such is often the case with music recommendations - someone can make a suggestion and I say "yeah yeah yeah" and go along my merry way. When I finally pay attention, because my heart was in the right place, I am in awe of the rightness of the situation - such is the case with today's CD, mentioned to me by Michael Stock, our local folk and acoustic DJ, months ago (actually, on my birthday, when I went on his show to promote our concert series). He raved about Terri's newest recording, and I filed it away in my brain under "someday" - when he played the title cut a few Sundays ago on his program, the line about the jacuzzi leaped out at me and I had a Meg Ryan "yes, yes, yes!" moment (I'll have what he's having... :-)

I immediately ordered The Spiritual Kind, it arrived Monday, and I've been listening to it in my car non-stop - in fact, it's so good that I've come close to disappointment at arriving at my destination. I love the musicianship, her voice and most especially the that's-exactly-where-I-am (or strive-to-be) lyrics - although I'm spotlighting one particular tune, do yourself a favor and read the words to all the songs (If I Had a Daughter is particularly weep- and smile-worthy).

SONG: The Spiritual Kind by Terri Hendrix

Leap! What Will We Do with the Rest of Our Lives? by Sara Davidson

POEM: Some October by Barbara Crooker

Some October, when the leaves turn gold, ask
me if I've done enough to deserve this life
I've been given. A pile of sorrows, yes, but joy
enough to unbalance the equation.

When the sky turns blue as the robes of heaven,
ask me if I've made a difference.
The road winds through the copper-colored woods;
no one sees around the bend.

Today, the wind poured out of Canada,
a river in flood, bringing down the brilliant leaves,
broken sticks and twigs, deserted nests.
Go where the current takes you.

Some twilight, when the clouds stream in from the west
like the breath of God, ask me again.

QUOTE: "Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love." ~ Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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