Terri Hendrix’s Cry Till You Laugh begins with a hell of a wail. Accompanied by nothing more than the lonesome, keening howl of her harmonica, Hendrix sings “Wail Theory” — two short, black-hearted Dorothy Parker poems stitched together in bitter matrimony — like a grand dame of the blues at her own funeral. “Joy has gone the way it came," she moans with chilling conviction, "that is nothing new." Even by her own eclectic standards, it’s unlike anything Hendrix has ever done before — from the stark arrangement and sentiment right down to the mournful, banshee cry of that last, quavering harp note.
But then, like a ray of sunlight lancing through the clouds, the next song, “Slow Down,” slides in with its ebullient mandolin, techno drum loop and rolling melodic bass line, and the album bursts to life. “I’ve been swimming in quicksand,” Hendrix sings, “and I’m coming up for air.” Part affirmation, part battle cry, it’s a rage-against-the-dark message that echoes throughout the rest of the entire album, from the exuberant rush of “Roll On” to the rise-from-dirt/catch-the-light resolve of the introspective “Come Tomorrow.” Listen close enough, and it’s even in the darkest corners, just like the Morning Glories heeding their call in the cold shadow of “The Berlin Wall.” “Every little thing is reaching towards the sun,” Hendrix observed in a video she made about the making of the album, which wrapped just in time for her to celebrate the spring. “Every living thing.”
Hendrix has always preferred to celebrate the light rather than wallow in the blues — but she’s no stranger to facing the dark head-on. “My brain broke when I was about 7 years old, and as I get older, it breaks more often,” she says of the new album’s “Einstein’s Brain,” matter-of-factly addressing the Epilepsy that she’s dealt with for most of her life. But as she puts it pointedly in another new song, “Hand Me Down Blues,” “Some things you don’t get over, you just get through.” Time and again throughout her career, even within some of her most effervescent and joyous sounding songs, she’s found ways to dig deep and address the not-always-cheerful truths about life, politics, society and the heart. “Sometimes people come to me after a show and tell me, ‘My face hurts from smiling,’ and other times, they’ve been crying,” Hendrix says. “I love when people cry and when people laugh. As a performer, I feel like it’s my job to get them to do both. And that’s my job as a writer, too, to get at the heart of the song.
“When I do a show,” she continues, “I want people to feel like, ‘Man, we just went on a ride.” And on both album and stage, that ride is as varied stylistically as it is emotionally. “Folk, pop, country, blues, Latin and country swing — none of it evades Terri Hendrix,” marveled the Chicago Sun Times in a performance review of the dynamic Texas songwriter, singer and multi-instrumentalist (guitar, mandolin, harmonica and, most recently, keyboards). Indeed, trying to pin her to a single genre is impossible, as Hendrix discovered herself when she set out to make what was initially supposed to be a full-on jazz record (working title: Territown.) “Don’t laugh,” she says. “There’s no telling how many hours I spent researching the songs I’d cover as well as write, only to find out that doing an entire record in just one style was not in the cards for me this year.”
In the end, Hendrix decided to let the songs choose their own path. The result is an album that sounds a lot like the “life’s too short for one genre” mix-CDs she loves making for friends by mining the shelves of her vast and eclectic record collection. Her jazz chops still get a workout (from the sultry crooner “Sometimes” to the Big Easy romp of “You Belong in New Orleans” and the brassy, scat-happy “Take Me Places”), but there’s equal doses of folk, pop, blues and even what can only be described as Americana-Gothic (“The Berlin Wall”).
But for all its variety, Cry Till You Laugh may also be the most cohesive album Hendrix has ever made, with a clear sense of purpose evident in each song and even more so in the thematic arc of the sequencing. Many of the same themes are further explored in Hendrix’s new book of essays and lyrics, released alongside the album and also titled Cry Till You Laugh. Along with writings directly inspired by the new songs, the book also draws from more than a decade’s worth of the “GoatNotes” journal entries that she’s shared with her fan base via her mailing list and website.
Hendrix knew the process of writing and publishing her first book would be creatively invigorating; but recording her tenth studio album proved to be every bit as challenging and rewarding. Although she teamed up again with acclaimed producer/guitarist Lloyd Maines (Joe Ely Band, Dixie Chicks) and a familiar cast of some of the best players in Texas (bassist Glenn Fukunaga, keyboardist Riley Osbourn, violinist Richard Bowden, clarinetist Stan Smith, drummers Pat Manske and John Silva, saxophonist John Mills, trombonist Mark “Speedy” Gonzalez and, on harmony vocals, Drew Womack), making Cry Till You Laugh was anything but business as usual.
“What’s different about this recording is that I feel I was able to capture the spirit of a live performance while the tape was rolling in the studio,” Hendrix says. “And I really strived to reach new directions artistically. I studied Charlie Musselwhite, Norton Buffalo and Mad Cat Ruth, and then applied what I learned from them when I played my harp parts. I used different styles of singing as well, from the way I approached scatting on ‘Take Me Places’ and ‘New Orleans,’ to the style in which I sang ‘Sometimes’ and ‘The Berlin Wall.’ I tried new instrumentation, too, writing quite a few of these songs with alternative tunings on my 12-string and hammering out new chord progressions on my keyboard. We also used more harmonies than we have in the past to create a wall of emotion musically.”
Maines, who has recorded and toured with Hendrix for more than a decade, was the first to recognize exactly how high she’d raised her own bar. "I know how hard she worked on these songs, how she toiled over every word, every melody,” Maines says. “When I mixed these songs, I compared the mixed songs to several great sounding records by other artists, and every time a Terri song would come around, it just seemed to bust at the seams with emotion. There's a raw energy bubbling at the surface of this recording. I'd like to take credit for all this, but these songs take on a life of their own.”
It’s that same energy, coupled with Hendrix's charismatic stage presence and reputation for putting on an engaging live show that leaves her listeners feeling good and spiritually charged, that has attracted legions of followers to her music ever since her earliest restaurant and bar gigs throughout the Texas Hill Country and along the Riverwalk in her native San Antonio. From those humble beginnings, she’s cultivated a grassroots following that now spans the globe — though she still happily calls the tiny Texas college town of San Marcos (located halfway between San Antonio and Austin) home.
From the start, Hendrix has always gone her own way — adopting the “Own Your Own Universe” approach to life that has defined her art and set her apart from the crowd as one of the most original and proudly independent artists in the Americana/roots scenes. Long before the DIY approach became popular, she self-released her debut CD, Two Dollar Shoes, and has never looked back. Consequently, Cry Till You Laugh is the 14th album she’s put out on her own Wilory Records label, and she can proudly lay claim to being one of very few recording artists who have always owned their own masters.
Hendrix’s love of music and writing goes back long before she launched her performing and recording career. "When I was a kid, I often found escape in books and writing short stories,” says Hendrix, who was born and raised in San Antonio but also spent part of her childhood with her military family in Panama. “I wrote so often, that my Mom said she could find me by following my ‘paper trail.’ Then I stole my sister’s guitar, and once I began to write songs, the paper trail grew longer.”
She took a shine to singing, too, earning a scholarship to study voice at Hardin Simmons University in Abilene, Texas. In another universe, she might have been an opera singer; but her future in classical music was not to be. “Instead of taking notes, I wrote lyrics all over my music theory notebooks.” She eventually transferred to Southwest Texas State in San Marcos, but wasn’t long for school there, either. Instead, she found the most important mentor of her life in classical musician, teacher and organic farmer Marion Williamson. In exchange for farmhand duties (including milking goats, which explains the mascot Hendrix later adopted for her label), Williamson taught her not only the finer points of Mississippi John Hurt-style guitar picking, but how to book gigs and set up her own PA system. Williamson’s death, which came shortly after the release of Two Dollar Shoes, was devastating to Hendrix; but the invaluable education she received from her friend continues to guide her through both life and career.
One month after Williamson’s passing, Hendrix met Maines. Their first record together, Wilory Farm (named after Williamson’s property), garnered significant airplay and tour dates well outside of Texas, and Hendrix’s career has moved from strength to strength ever since. In addition to playing many of the most esteemed listening rooms, theaters and major festivals in the country (Europe, too), she has found considerable industry success without ever having to compromise her eclectic sensibilities. Her albums and live performances have received critical raves from such publications as Texas Monthly, the Boston Herald, Washington Post, Billboard, Harp and England’s Mojo, and she even co-wrote a Grammy-winning instrumental (“Lil’ Jack Slade”) on the Dixie Chicks’ multi-platinum Home album. Most recently, Hendrix was given the “Art of Peace Award,” from the President’s Peace Commission at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, for creating art in the service of peace, justice, and human understanding. She’s also getting her own star on the South Texas Walk of Fame in Corpus Christi, right alongside such Lone Star legends as Guy Clark, the Texas Tornados and Bill Haley. And, come early 2011, Hendrix will be returning to Hardin Simmons University — not to finish her opera studies, but to receive an Outstanding Alumni Award, which is given by HSU each year to three recipients who have attained outstanding achievements in their field of endeavor, community, state or nation.
She shakes her head, humbled by the honor but sincerely bewildered, too. And most of all, fired up. “Once that call came, I decided that I am going to finish my education,” she says emphatically. “I see a lot of little kids at my shows — we get folks of all ages — and I want to be a good example. I think education is good for the head.”
Deciding to go back to school may seem kind of odd for a successful recording artist and independent businesswoman who’s taught dozens of songwriting and music industry workshops herself over the years. But that’s Hendrix for you. She’s impossible to pigeonhole because she’s always going her own way, all the while writing her own soundtrack by setting every bump in the road and happy discovery to song. You can try to follow her little “paper trail,” but even she can’t tell you for sure where she’ll end up next because there are no maps or guidebooks for her kind of journey. You just hit the road until the road hits you back, and when it does, you Cry Till You Laugh and roll on.
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