The Texas singer-songwriter and her producer Lloyd Maines “keep 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: Command Sergeant Major James Hendrix.
In the end, almost nothing about Terri Hendrix’s “Project 5” went the way she planned it, including the ending itself. But now that she’s crossed the finish line, it’s hard to imagine a more fitting — and satisfying — finale than her new album, Pilgrim’s Progress (Project 5.5). Recorded in early 2021 with her longtime producer Lloyd Maines, it’s unlike anything else in the prolific Texas singer-songwriter’s 25-year recording career, 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?’”
True as that may be, though, the significance of Hendrix deciding to not only “finally” get around to honoring her father’s wish but to record and release Pilgrim’s Progress as the capstone to Project 5 cannot be overstated. That’s because up until late 2020, the fifth and final chapter was supposed to be something else entirely. “Four thematically linked albums and a book” was how she framed it when announcing the project back in late 2015, noting that each piece of the “big picture” would be unique unto itself but share with the others the recurring threads of love, hope, and resilience. The albums would all come first in quick succession, and the book, a memoir detailing Hendrix’s experiences coping with a seizure disorder throughout her long career as a touring musician, would tie the whole package together with a proverbial bow. Oh, and she also originally intended to release all five components within the span of a single year.
Things didn’t quite work out that way. Although the first two albums, Love You Strong and The Slaughterhouse Sessions (subtitled Project 5.1 and 5.2, respectively), were released within a few months of each other in 2016, all manner of unforeseen circumstances made quick hash of the rest of her timeline. First a bout with double pneumonia pushed her deadline into 2017, and closing on the first six acres of her Wilory Farm in Martindale, Texas — and clearing the cactus and mesquite covered rocky land to make room for her nonprofit OYOU (“Own Your Own Universe”) arts center — moved it yet again. And then her whole world turned upside down on March 8, 2018, with the sudden death of her beloved older sister, mentor, and best friend, Tammi. The loss irreparably changed Hendrix and stopped her dead in her tracks.
“She was and remains part of my heart,” says Hendrix. “I walk around with half of a heart.” Tammi’s passing at age 52 — a year younger than her younger sister Terri is now — would have been devastating enough under any circumstances. But the manner in which her family was left in the dark until it was too late to even say goodbye compounded the pain immeasurably. “Both my sister and her partner of 23 years struggled with alcoholism,” says Hendrix. “My sister fell and did not get back up. My family and I were not told she was in the hospital. She’d been there almost three weeks. It was both a shock and a nightmare when I received the call, from her partner, that she’d passed. I felt like the grief and the anger were going to kill me.”
But in time she forced herself slowly onward, wading step by heavy step through waves of anger and sorrow knowing that though she’d be pushing against the tide for the rest of her life, stasis would mean drowning. So she packed her 2019 calendar with as many gigs as possible in order to be able to buy an adjacent plot of land and double the size of Wilory Farm, all the while balancing a full plate of OYOU workshops, concerts series, festivals, and retreats. She leaned full-tilt back into writing and recording, too, and that October released what she and her fans believed to be the final two audio components of Project 5: the defiantly open-hearted album Talk to a Human, and an EP-length, electronica-laced study in grief and courage intriguingly titled Who is Ann? (“Ann” being the closet techno-fanatic folkie’s middle name). Buoyed by her second wind, Hendrix optimistically reported that her memoir was on pace for imminent completion — blissfully unaware that in early 2020, the whole world’s world would be turned upside down by a global pandemic. With the cancellation of every gig on her calendar for months on end, she had to immediately pivot all of her creative energies into producing both a steady stream of online workshops for the OYOU and a monthly virtual concert series, “Live from Wilory Farm,” just to stay afloat.
Meanwhile, in that same span of time she was also diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia and an essential vocal tremor. She was told by doctors it could have happened from overuse (from her heavy workload that year) or possibly even trauma (her sister’s death). Whatever the cause, the ramifications were serious. Through years of trial and error with different prescriptions, diets, and alternative treatments (including, most recently and successfully, a CBD tincture from the Austin-based dispensary Texas Original Compassionate Cultivation), Hendrix had long since figured out how to manage her focal 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 finally reach her 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 instead, something beautiful happened. 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 loved her strong again. “My friends and fans sent cards and encouraging words, and when I lost all of my shows and workshops and the OYOU lost every single grant due to the pandemic and quarantine, their voluntary tips during the live streams and donations for the online workshops literally saved the farm, the OYOU, and me,” she says. “My fans latched on and did not let go, and they pulled me up and out of the darkness. And without them? Who knows ...”
Little by little, her hope began to spring anew, just like the “Earth Kind Rose” she’d written about on her Love You Strong album in 2016. And with it bloomed an epiphany: that the best way to finally close the proverbial “book” on her Project 5 was to bring the cycle about love, hope, and resiliency full circle back to where it all began. Back to Love You Strong’s title track, a song she wrote about her father and his unwavering devotion to being her mother’s full-time care giver. And then, all the way back to her early childhood, sitting on the edge of her bed holding the guitar she’d “borrowed” from her older sister while her dad taught her the handful of chords he knew. Then they’d figure out how to play and sing some of his favorite country songs together, like “Faded Love.”
Soon, Terri would begin writing her own songs, inspired by her hero Dolly Parton, and her wildflower muse would lead her music far afield from her dad’s tastes. But they would always have Patsy Cline, and nearly five decades on, the unrepentantly progressive hippie folk singer and the staunchly conservative Korean and Vietnam War veteran have been known to still duet on the odd country classic when inspiration strikes. So in January 2021, the month that Command Sergeant Major James Hendrix celebrated his 88th birthday, his daughter at long last got to work on making a record devoted to his kind of music.
Or at least close enough. “It’s still not totally country enough for him,” she says with laugh. “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. “Kind of magically, really,” she marvels. “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 like, 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.”
But 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. 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.”
Needless to say, she wouldn’t have gone through all that effort just to sing a bunch of songs she didn’t believe in. There’s not a song on the record she doesn’t flat-out feel, making it every bit as revelatory, honest, and heartfelt as each of the four albums that preceded it in Project 5 (to say nothing of her dozen-plus releases on her own Wilory Records label that came before that, going back to her debut, Two Dollar Shoes, released 25 years ago this summer.) “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 (making her second appearance in the Project 5 suite, after “Don’t Meddle in My Mood” on Talk to a Human.) 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 gets to sing on that one himself.
“That was a really beautiful experience, getting to sing with my dad on the record,” says Hendrix. “To me that’s what really made this the perfect bookend to the whole Project 5 journey. 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 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. 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.”
But there’s a reason why Kristofferson called the song a pilgrim’s progress, and why Hendrix in turn picked it as the title track for the last leg of a five-year marathon she thought would never end. Because as relieved as she is to finally have Project 5 in her rearview, she knows she still has a lot of goals on her journey yet to accomplish. Goals like expanding on community programs for the OYOU, and continuing to overhaul both the property and the art space on Wilory Farm now that it is back open (post quarantine) for on-site classes, workshops, and kids’ songwriting camps. Goals like conquering her vocal issues with therapy so she can return to live performances this August. Goals like writing more songs, and yes, goals like still finishing that book.
“I’ve been writing a whole lot lately and just about have the songs for a new album of original material,” she reports. “And truth be told, I have the chapters to be able to finish the book, too, but it would have been disingenuous to have tried to force it just to finish Project 5. That wouldn’t have ended up doing anybody any good or being something I would want to put my name on. Making it something I can feel proud of is very important to me, because I really feel like this book, that I started way back in 2003, has great potential to help other people who may be dealing with the same health issues as me. And, now that I’m not under the gun and trying to rush it, I know I can do it right.”
Mind, she’s not saying she expects it to be easy, nor will she say how long it may take her. All she knows is that she can, because where there’s a will (or Wilory!), there’s a way. And no matter how hard her resilience may yet be tested going forward, like every song she’s ever written or sung and like every hour she’s ever devoted to the OYOU, it’s all, at heart, 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 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.”
Photo Credits: (1ff) Terri Hendrix (unknown/website).