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A Practical Angel

With all the pre-millennial hooey about angels, let's not forget that real life, as screwy and base as it can seem these days, does indeed have its angels. I'm not talking about divine apparitions announcing virgin births or offering words of salvation to help those near death somehow survive; if I meet one of them, then I'll believe. But there are those flesh-and-blood temporal angels, those people who do good for no reason other than the inherent goodness of doing so or to encourage and share the things in their lives that they love.

I'm reminded of the programs from my twice-annual childhood trips to the local opera, where up in the top of the pantheon of contributors to the company were the generous folks listed as "Angels." As the mystical types will tell you, angels walk in all realms of this existence and, similarly, so do the real-life human angels.

Just ask the San Marcos-based singer-songwriter Terri Hendrix. If it weren't for one angel, her recently deceased friend and mentor Marion Williamson, 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 that she coulda been a contender, yet never will. Instead, Hendrix is a rather unique, charming and rapidly ascending starlet on the Texas circuit, assisted by yet another blessing from producer/musician Lloyd Maines, who oversaw her album Wilory Farm (named for Williamson's Central Texas spread where Terri milked goats in exchange for guitar lessons) and who has become her invaluable musical foil.

To wit, Hendrix is something of an angel herself: a healthy, apple-cheeked blonde whose beaming countenance and beatific smile wouldn't look out of place atop the giant Christmas tree at New York's Rockefeller Center with golden wings spread behind her. One Austin critic and wag tagged her stage presence as "a basket of kittens" for the way Hendrix brims with delight in the spotlight. But her hyper-positive attitude is matched by a steely determination. She's 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 herself, making her own 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."

Hendrix grew up in San Antonio in a military family, but it was during a stint in her youth in Panama that she 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," she recalls. "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 on stage at an open mike.

When Terri later started doing it seriously, her die was cast. "My first gig, when I made 50 bucks for playing for four hours, and I wasn't waiting tables, I was sold -- that was it, 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."

In order to do what she felt she must, Hendrix learned the essential nuts and bolts of being a musician and performer, thanks in large part to meeting Marion Williamson, a musician, composer, computer programmer and behind-the-scenes Central Texas philanthropist who helped instill an unshakable work ethic in Hendrix. "She said, 'If you know how to set up your own PA, and you know how to set up your speakers and work your chords and everything else, you'll always have a job,' and that's true," says Hendrix.

"She taught me how to read and write and do chord charts. I learned more from her than I ever learned in music school. But for her to keep teaching me, I had to do the 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. "I always played what I wanted to. I always lucked into great people to play for. I did country and folk and originals and a lot of country-blues -- Mississippi John Hurt and Big Bill Broonzy."

But her ambition was greater than just to be a secure local artist. When her low-key first CD, Two Dollar Shoes, started selling like hotcakes from the bandstand, Hendrix started to see her way up and out. "I was sitting there at Biga [the noted San Antonio restaurant where she had a regular gig] with a glass of red wine and just looking out into the audience, saying to myself, Is this where I want to get off? I can always come back here. I can always buy another PA. I can always do this again. But I'm going to sell my PA and be scared again.

"I carried my PA up and down so many stairs, taking that PA and loading it into various cars and hitting deer in various automobiles with my PA in back. And then I was seeing people that didn't work as hard doing wonderful things with their music. I started to feel resentful, and I started to not like the way I sounded to people," Hendrix confesses. "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 began a campaign to take herself to the next level. Borrowing money from friends, she set out to make an album that was competitive in the larger marketplace. And 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 Lloyd Maines, producer of Charlie and Bruce Robison, Robert Earl Keen, James McMurtry, Terry Allen and countless others, and steel guitarist for the likes of Joe Ely and Jerry Jeff Walker. When Maines first heard a tape of Hendrix's songs, he knew they were special. "I knew that she didn't make up those songs; it all was like it was absolutely real," he says. "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."

Like many folks, Maines found something refreshingly distinctive in Hendrix. "There's little bits and pieces of maybe people she's listened to over the years, but for the most part, she's totally unique," he says.

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 like "Wallet" ("Bend like a willow, flow like a reed, live like a bird, change like a leaf") and "Hole in My Pocket." 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 in the long haul.

But just at the point where Hendrix was gearing up to make Wilory Farm and reorienting her performing calendar to start cultivating a statewide audience, her friend Williamson died at the age of 52. Yet, as one angel passed out of Terri's life, another arrived.

"What's weird is that Marion passed away, and then within a few weeks I was talking with Lloyd on the phone," Hendrix muses. "Lloyd came in my life right when Marion left my life, and he really helped me to quit my job at Biga and move forward with my music."

Maines has also 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 work with Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Tish Hinojosa). But as much as Maines is helping Hendrix come along, she's also granted him an opportunity to brush up on some musical skills. "It's actually given me a chance to get to be a better guitar player and Dobro player," he says. "It is something I've really enjoyed doing, because I've played steel with so many people, and that's all I've done."

Though Hendrix's burgeoning career is no doubt the result of diligent work and a canny, do-it-yourself ethic, she feels really lucky. "We're raking it in," she says. "Now, it's all going out the door, of course, to pay for the record. But why would I want a record deal? I have one. For right now, I have this foundation, and if I don't spend too much money, the house can't fall down."

Hendrix knows that it takes perspiration as well as inspiration to make her mark in music, especially if she wants to follow her muse with as much integrity and honesty as she can muster. "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," she concludes. "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.

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