- Brad Buchholz Special to the American-Statesman
For more than 10 years, singer-songwriter Terri Hendrix has been performing a song called “Breakdown.” It’s one of her signature tunes, focused on the theme of vulnerability — and owning up to the truth of our own frailty.
“I had a breakdown … in a small town … and no one knew a thing,” Hendrix sings in the first verse. She describes hiding feelings of emptiness behind a smile. But sooner or later, “the day’s gonna come when you have to face what’s underneath it all.”
Terri Hendrix has epilepsy. And this song — written around the time she suffered two terrible epileptic seizures in one night in October 2003 — reflects her personal story. These back-to-back “grand mal” seizures could have killed her. Their severity forced her to acknowledge the fragility of her own condition.
By her own admission, Hendrix hadn’t been honest about epilepsy before the seizures. Though diagnosed in 1989, at age 21, Hendrix denied it to herself, concealed it from friends and colleagues. She quit taking anti-convulsant medications against her doctors’ advice. After the big seizures of 2003, however, Hendrix has had to take an honest accounting of epilepsy’s impact on her life and her art.
“My path was altered in 2003. Getting sick changed things forever. It scared the wits out of me,” says Hendrix, sitting at the kitchen table of her home in San Marcos. “I’m very lucky, I feel like, because what happened in 2003 could have proven fatal to me. I didn’t take epilepsy seriously. But when you do face health head on, and you really go through something head on, it does forever alter you.”
Terri Hendrix is one of the most accomplished singer-songwriters in Texas — and despite epilepsy, at 45, she’s at the top of her game. Her music is joyful, genuine and affirming, even in its determination to go deep beneath the surface of things. A devoted nonconformist, she lives close to nature, surrounded by open land and a yard full of dogs. And so it is that her songs exude a kind of plain-spoken independence that comes from time in the light, hands in the soil and space for spiritual reflection.
Hendrix’s credo has long been “Own Your Own Universe.” She’s released 15 albums and a book of essays over the past two decades — all of ’em on her own label. She revels in doing things her own way. Hendrix charts her own career, books her own shows, holds the property rights to all her music. For years, she toured vigorously, building an international fan base by blowing from town to town “like a tumbleweed.” She took pride in playing a gig in Terlingua, near Big Bend, then driving all night to perform the next day in San Antonio.
Sadly, the seizures of 2003 — and their enduring aftereffects — have changed all that. Epilepsy makes it hard for her to travel on airplanes, making long-distance touring impossible. First, she eliminated European shows from her calendar. Now, it’s a big deal when she plays 100 miles beyond the Texas border. High altitude bothers her. She can’t push her body too hard; consistency in diet and rest are paramount.
Hendrix owns a car but doesn’t take it on the highway because she’s the seizure risk. Her collaborator of 17 years, Lloyd Maines, drives her to most shows. Epilepsy has left her extremely sensitive to fluorescent lights and overhead fans. Sometimes, without warning, Hendrix experiences flashes of memory loss on stage that cause her to lose place in songs.
“You know when you’re on a bike and the chain comes off? That’s what it feels like sometimes,” says Hendrix. Consequently, she carries “cheat sheets” — color-coded index cards with lyrics, chord changes and arrangement notes for every song in her repertoire. Pink means harmonica solo. Just in case.
“I want to be seen as an artist. I don’t want to be seen as an epileptic,” Hendrix says constantly. “But every now and then, it (epilepsy) just takes me and slams me to the floor. Literally. Literally. It has the capacity to take me from this world — medication or no medication … and it’s hard to explain the severity of that.”
Independence defines Terri Hendrix as an artist. Yet there is no life with epilepsy outside the notion of dependence. “My mind goes one way — and my pride and my body go another way,” she says. “They fight!” This duality, long at the heart of Hendrix’s songwriting, has become the defining story of her life.
The Virgin of Guadalupe
Is on a candle by my bed
If you wanna see a scary movie
Just look inside my head
— “Slow Down,” 2010
Terri Hendrix had her breakdown, in a small town — Friendswood, near Houston — on Oct. 18, 2003. It was unusually hot for October. Hendrix and Maines had played live shows in two different cities. Throughout the day, Hendrix had been experiencing auras (the sensation of smelling sulphur, or cat urine) which sometimes foreshadow a seizure.
After unloading their gear at their hotel that night, Hendrix began to feel lightheaded. Maines, who had no idea she was epileptic, thought “maybe her blood sugar is messed up.” He left to get her a Sprite and some crackers. When he returned, Hendrix was in the midst of seizure.
“It was unlike anything I’d ever seen,” recalls Maines. He’s a big man, road-hardened, raised in Lubbock, the son of a farmer. Still: His voice quavers a little as he tells the story 10 years later.
“I thought she was choking. I thought maybe she found something to eat and had swallowed something and was choking. (Consequently), I did all the wrong stuff, because she’d never told me, ‘Hey, you’re not supposed to touch anybody if they’re having a seizure.’ It’s a no-no. … Instead, I tried to shake her and get her out of it. … I tried to arch her back … I tried to lay her down … I tried to set her up … I was beating her on her back, you know?
“I noticed her jaws were clenched. And because I was unaware what was going on, I tried to get her jaws apart because I could tell she was kinda chewing her tongue a little bit. It never dawned on me, man. It lasted — it’s hard to say — maybe three minutes. But it seemed like three hours. I was terrified.”
Hendrix tumbled in and out of consciousness for hours. In a moment of lucidity, she instructed Maines not to take her to the hospital. Her voice slurry, Hendrix told him she’d had seizures before. She implored him to let her “sleep it off.” Then, at 4 a.m., it happened again. A second massive seizure.
“Nothing has been the same since those seizures with Lloyd,” she says. It took her a year to transcend the physical and emotional trauma. Even now, doctors tell Hendrix the epilepsy has a stronger foothold in her body because of her aversion to taking meds as a younger woman.
“I was wrong not to tell him,” Hendrix says today, sitting across from Maines in her kitchen. She talks easily, but this level of directness is rare for her. “When I think about all the gigs we had through the years, being in Europe, all the things that could have gone wrong … it was inconsiderate. Absolute denial. In capital letters.”
Maines was shaken by the incident. But in the end, it has only strengthened their extraordinary friendship. Today, Maines makes sure they have adjacent rooms — an open door between them — whenever the two musicians travel on the road. He wants to hear if anything goes wrong.
At home, Hendrix phones Maines and his wife Tina every morning to let them know she made it through the night OK. If the Maines family doesn’t get the call — and it has happened, every once in a while — Lloyd and Tina drive to San Marcos to make sure she’s all right.
“Frankly, Lloyd has been a saint. This is a horrible responsibility to put on anyone,” says Hendrix. “If it were not for Lloyd, I would not even have this career right now with this condition. There is no possible way.”
As Hendrix points out, Maines is a busy man, always in demand, with an impressive reputation. In fact, he’s appeared in more episodes of “Austin City Limits” than any musician in the show’s history. Longtime fans of Austin music know him as the ace steel guitar player in Joe Ely’s band in the 1970s and 1980s … and a star session player as well.
Over the past 40 years, Maines has produced some of the most acclaimed records created in Texas: “Lubbock (on everything)” by Terry Allen; “Home” by the Dixie Chicks (featuring his daughter, Natalie); and “Hills and Valleys” by the Flatlanders. He’s also produced every Terri Hendrix album since 1998. Through the years, he stepped up as her friend, critic, songwriting partner, mandolin teacher, accompanist, stage foil, arranger, chaperone, financial adviser.
“Her work ethic just blew me away,” says Maines, recalling his first impression of Hendrix from 1996, 1997. “Man. She would haul her PA in, set her PA up — and her bandmates at that point were giving her no help. She was hauling everything in, setting everything up.
“After one of her gigs, we got together to work on one of her songs — and I noticed her fingernails were dirty from rolling up cords and hauling gear. It wasn’t a matter of hygiene. She was working. Terri doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty. So the fact that she didn’t look at herself as too good to do that told me, man, this girl is not afraid to work.”
Maines and Hendrix — either as a duo, or fronting a band — put on a great live show that features strong musical interplay. Onstage, they’re surrounded by almost a dozen string instruments: acoustic guitars, dobro, mandolin, banjo. The stage version of their song “I Found the Lions” — in which Hendrix’s vocal rises to gospel intensity — is as musically sophisticated as anything within the singer-songwriter genre. The song begins with a kind of tribal beat, nods to rock and soul and rap, then spins into an expansive guitar interlude with Indian and Middle Eastern patterns.
Hendrix, who swaps instruments with Maines throughout a set and also plays harmonica, credits Maines with teaching her the ropes as a stage performer and helping her discern the “good guys” from the “bad guys” in the business. Maines notes the partnership with Hendrix gave him the chance to stretch beyond his “steel guitar” identity and grow as a stand-up acoustic musician. He clearly admires her.
“When all of this happened to her in 2003: Man. It put her down; it affected her mentally and physically; it just cooked her brain,” says Maines. “But the songs she wrote during that period, and after, for the (2004) record ‘The Art of Removing Wallpaper’ are brilliant. If you go back and study those lyrics, they’re genius. Some of the strongest writing she’s ever done. …
“I tell ya’ man … I feel totally compelled to help her through this time. But at the same time, I’m humbled just by the fact that she gets up there and does it. The (epilepsy) has to be on her mind all the time. Yet she still pulls it off. I’m asking myself: If I was in the same shape, would I even attempt it? Probably not. I’m totally humbled by the fact that she gets up there and still lays it down.”
Amid the noise,
Amid the haste
May your soul take root
In open space
– “Joy or Sorrow,” 2000
Terri Hendrix takes each day as it comes. She’s enjoying life as a performing artist. She’s careful about her diet. The medication regimen seems to be working. But she does not delude herself. She’s learned, from experience, that epilepsy affects everyone differently — and in different ways over time. Especially when hormone levels change.
Hendrix has a sense of the finite. How long can this gypsy life as a professional traveling musician go on? How long should it go on?
“The ‘Tides of Time’ are pulling me toward a whole new adventure,” she says. “I know I can’t book a bunch of events and try to perpetuate this dream I had before 2003, which was to compete with my peers at the top level of (this) music and go neck-and-neck at all these music festivals. That’s the big lesson of 2003. It doesn’t mean that I quit. It just means it’s time to re-evaluate and think about my purpose.”
For the past four years, Hendrix has been raising money toward the creation of an “Own Your Own Universe” community arts center in San Marcos. The nonprofit’s mission: To bring “music, painting, pottery, dance, nature, etc.” to people whose lives may be enriched by it. This may mean children, or seniors, or the disabled, or fellow epileptics.
“The OYOU arts center is a place where people are going to come, play music, and get answers,” says Hendrix. “We’ll have classes on diabetes. Classes on wellness, nutrition, music, clay therapy, dance therapy. (We’ll) get women that have breast cancer and team them with women who have been through breast cancer. We’ll have ‘Epilepsy and You’ meetings.” The aim is to unite “different people who have never been in a room together. That’s what an arts center is.”
In so many ways, Hendrix’s “Own Your Own Universe” arts center honors the spirit of the late Marion Williamson, who died at age 46 in 1997. Williamson was a free spirit, a free thinker, a keeper of goats, “the most important person I’ve ever met in my life.” Hendrix was in her 20s — and unsure about her future — when she started working for Williamson at Wilory Farms, near San Marcos in the early 1990s.
Marion Williamson gave Hendrix her first guitar lessons. She instilled in her a love of jazz. She taught her to think independently. She taught her how to milk goats, how to appreciate their stubborn ways. Knowing that Hendrix grew up in an ordered, military family in San Antonio, Williamson encouraged her to honor an independent spirit and listen to the voice within.
“Marion raised me like a wolf-child,” says Hendrix, who named her label “Wilory Records” in Williamson’s honor. “She was a true nonconformist who never married. … Her eyebrows never saw a tweezer; her legs and underarms never saw a razor. … She taught me how to look at my own behavior, how you don’t have to ‘follow suit.’”
In other words: “Own your own universe.”
“It was something Marion said a lot,” says Hendrix. “To me, it means: You can’t change the world, but you can create the universe you want. Not in the way of being narcissistic. But more like: If you’re tired of the education system, then teach!”
Hendrix has carried this spirit with her always. She’s taught music to kids with disabilities, performed at senior centers, played for in infusion rooms for cancer patients in chemotherapy, performed for children in social service rescue programs. Hendrix knows, from her own experience with epilepsy, that music can aid healing. And she wants to share this awareness with others.
“I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t had music — or chords to learn — to help my brain heal itself,” says Hendrix. “I believe the more people who love music, the more people who play guitar, the less bickering and moaning there will be in the world.”
Marion Williamson lives deeply within Terri Hendrix. She’s alive in her songs: the affirming spirit, the emphasis on earth, the propensity to dig deep. Hendrix’s favorite metaphor of tearing away the wallpaper in our lives and looking hard at what’s underneath — on topics ranging from health to relationships to the state of our democracy — is the very extension of Williamson. And so is the devotion to service.
Twenty years ago, Hendrix told her mentor about her epilepsy. “You’re going to have this long enough to experience memory loss,” Williamson told her. “So you need to start studying how to counteract that, write memory logs, so that you can somehow make a disability into an ability, so that it doesn’t affect your livelihood.”
The memory of it all makes Hendrix sigh: “I wished I would have listened to Marion, years ago. Perhaps I would have been better prepared. I thought she was just being alarmist.”
Once upon a time: Terri Hendrix had a breakdown, in a small town, and no one knew a thing. But she’s not hiding any longer; she faces her own vulnerability. As she sings in her own song: “If you put yourself in my place, you’d be able to see we’re all just skin and bone. We’re not made of stone. We’re all just skin and bone.”