Singer-songwriter and multi-talented instrumentalist Terri Hendrix releases Pilgrim’s Progress, September 3. She is “keeping it country” on her first all-covers album, featuring songs by Kris Kristofferson, Dolly Parton, John Prine, and Jerry Jeff Walker — and a very special cameo by her first guitar teacher, her father, Command Sergeant Major James Hendrix.
Recorded in early 2021 with her longtime producer Lloyd Maines, it’s unlike anything else in her 25-year recording career, she says, and not just because she didn’t write a single word or note. It’s the first album she’s ever made for which she curtailed her famously eclectic, all-over-the-map disregard for genre lines in a concerted effort to stay in one lane, start to finish — but only by very special request.
Her father asked her if she could please make a record of his kind of music: country music. For him. And as Hendrix notes with a smile, he didn’t ask just once, either.
“He’s wanted me to do that forever,” she says. “And I was finally like, ‘Ok, why not? And, why not now?’”
It took a while to get here Hendrix says as she dealt with the loss of her sister, Tammi, then the pandemic hit in 2020 and on top of her battle with focal epilepsy over the years, she was also diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia and an essential vocal tremor. Hendrix had long since figured out how to manage her epilepsy well enough to perform and even tour. But a brand new condition that could literally cripple her ability not just to sing but to even talk? That was enough for her to reach a breaking point.
“I grew increasingly depressed and hopeless, to where I wanted to just quit. I fell into a very dark place,” Hendrix says with no hint of exaggeration.
But soon, something beautiful happened, she says. At the point where she felt her resiliency at a critical all-time low, the unwavering patience and support of her fans, friends, and family brought her through and in January this year she got to work on making a record devoted to her dad’s kind of music, or close enough.
“It’s still not totally country enough for him,” she says, "but he’s really happy with it. And to see him really happy with something that Lloyd and I have created makes me happy.”
It all fell together remarkably quickly, too, she says.
“Kind of magically, really. Part of that was just because I was really familiar with all of the songs and didn’t have to stress about the lyrics. Normally when I do a ‘regular’ record, with my own songs, I’m making edits up to the final minute. But with this one I just had to work out my vocal lines, and for everything else I completely, 100 percent handed the reins over to Lloyd. He took the whole thing and just ran with it, and he really shines in so many ways on it besides just playing (about) 90 percent of the instruments. Like with ‘Faded Love’ — I mean, I grew up singing that song with my dad, but I didn’t want to record it at first because Patsy Cline already did the definitive version. But then Lloyd came up with this new arrangement for it that I think is a masterpiece.”
That doesn’t mean Hendrix herself phoned anything in, though, because singing an entire album while working through, around, and with a vocal tremor is no cakewalk, she says. Maines’ meticulous notes on phrasing helped, but every note still demanded a physical toll, like having to use her stomach muscles to control her voice.
“I also drank whiskey, which relaxes the central nervous system and subdues the tremor enough to enable me to sing,” she says. “It’s not long term, but I dosed it like medicine for this project, and it got it done. But believe me, when you have a forced ‘happy hour’ at 10 a.m., it’s not fun.”
She says she wouldn’t have gone through all that effort just to sing a bunch of songs she didn’t believe in.
“Every song on here, I’ve lived and breathed the lyrics,” Hendrix says emphatically of Pilgrim’s Progress. “They’re in my DNA.”
The 10-track collection opens with the disarmingly playful, fiddle-sweetened (courtesy of Dennis Ludiker) lament of “Me and the Moon Aren’t Speaking,” from the pen of native Texan and Country Music Hall-of-Famer Cindy Walker. That segues into the mournful but beautiful ache of “Faded Love” (written by Bob, John, and Billy Jack Wills), which in turn is followed by songs representing three of the best American songwriters of the last 60 years — two of whom sadly passed away in 2020: John Prine’s exuberantly uplifting “You Got Gold,” Dolly Parton’s free-spirited, trio-era “Wildflowers,” and Jerry Jeff Walker’s exquisitely reflective “Little Bird.”
Flip the digital-only record over, and “side two” kicks off with a nod to the proverbial “old country” via the Celtic/gypsy sway of “Fisherman’s Blues,” a knockout showcase for Maines’ majestic pedal steel chops that’s been a Hendrix fan-favorite ever since the Mike Scott/Waterboys classic was featured on Terri’s first live album, more than 20 years ago. Some of her earliest fans may recognize her cover of the Bottle Rockets’ “Get Down River” from bygone live shows, too. And though Hendrix admits that both of those tracks might take some liberties with the album’s whole “keep it country” mandate, she makes it up to her dad in spades with the easy loping shuffle of the Delmore Brothers’ “Blues Stay Away from Me.” In fact, James Hendrix even sings on that one himself.
“That was a really beautiful experience, getting to sing with my dad on the record,” Hendrix says. “We wanted him to be on the album from the beginning, and it just seemed like a no-brainer to have him sing on that particular song, because it’s something he definitely relates to, being a full-time care giver to my mom. It’s a song we both feel, as a team, based on our personal experiences these past few years and from the way we’ve grown even closer since (my sister) Tammi’s passing. That’s why we actually changed the lyrics a little bit. The original line in the verse he sings goes ‘Life is full of misery,’ but I changed it to ‘life is full of mystery,’ because we try to stay positive. And no matter what, we face it.”
Hard as it may be to top that, it’s with the last two songs that the album reaches peak poignancy, Hendrix says. Tennessean Sarah Pirkle may not be as well known as the other songwriters represented here, but Hendrix has been a fan for years and with good reason. Pirkle’s unforgettable “Piney Rose,” a portrait of an elderly woman determined to spend her last days on earth with stubborn but dignified grace and purpose, is the equal of any top-shelf classic by the likes of Prine, Parton, or even Kris Kristofferson, whose “Pilgrim’s Progress” closes the set. The Kristofferson song is a masterclass in restless soul searching, tellingly written not back in the legend’s white-hot early 1970s prime, but for his 2006 album This Old Road, released when he was a stately 70 years old. And though Hendrix herself is still nearly two full decades away from that particular landmark, her first-hand connection to the song is unassailable.
“To me, ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ is a code for life,” she says. “And it’s timely, too, with all the division going on in this country today. When the song asks, ‘Am I young enough to believe in revolution?’ — I get that, because I know what it’s like to feel so old that you don’t believe you can still matter. But there are people right now who, no matter their age, they still go out every day and put their life on the line for the better of humanity. So it doesn’t matter how old you are. I just believe in unflappability, in having an unflappable approach to living life.”
There’s a reason why Kristofferson called the song a pilgrim’s progress, and why Hendrix in turn picked it as the title track. She knows she still has a lot of goals on her journey yet to accomplish.
“I’ve been writing a whole lot lately and just about have the songs for a new album of original material,” she reports, and she’s working on building an arts center, and writing a book she thinks has great potential to help other people who may be dealing with her same health issues. It’s all a labor of love sustained on faith, hope, and especially gratitude.
“Profound gratitude,” Hendrix says emphatically. “For my friends, for my loved ones, for all of those who have been with me from the get-go or who just came on board in the last year by way of the livestreams. Because of them, I can continue to live a life I love in the performing arts, finish this book, build this arts center, and hopefully make a difference in this world long after I’m gone. It’s not a me thing. It’s a “we thing.”
Visit www.terrihendrix.com to order the new album and to learn so much more about the ways Terri Hendrix makes the universe better.