Pilgrim’s Progress (Project 5.5)
When Terri Hendrix calls her latest release a “country” album, it’s not in a wink-wink kinda way suggesting a playful misdirect. Truly, sincerely, she means it, explaining her uncharacteristic focus on one genre for a change as a gift of sorts for her father, who’d asked her for years to record an album of his kind of music. But it should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Hendrix’s 25-year recording career that the diehard DIY-er’s don’t-fence-me-in aesthetic remains unbowed. Pilgrim’s Progress may be a country album ostensibly made for her dad (who she even coaxed into sing harmony vocals on one song), but it’s still her record, and there’s no way a Terri Hendrix country record was ever gonna adhere entirely to any set of rules but her own. To wit: After the opening gambit of old-school Cindy Walker and Bob Wills/Patsy Cline, it only takes her four moves to get to the Waterboys.
Pilgrim’s Progress is the final installment of Hendrix’s “Project 5,” a collection of five thematically linked releases that she kicked off in 2016 with the albums Love You Strong and The Slaughterhouse Sessions and continued in 2019 with Talk to a Human and an EP, Who is Ann? The fifth album didn’t actually come into the picture until late 2020, though, after she called an audible and pushed a memoir she’d originally planned as the series’ closer to the back burner.
And yet despite that late substitution, nothing about Pilgrim’s Progress feels retrofitted or like an outlier, which is especially remarkable given that this is Hendrix’s first album made up entirely of covers. Part of that’s just smart curation, with all 10 of its tracks touching in one way or another on Hendrix’s core Project 5 themes of love, hope and resiliency — or sometimes even the inverse or loss thereof, à la “Faded Love.” But it’s also testament to the depth of influence that many of these songs and/or their writers have long had in charting Hendrix’s artistic journey. The John Prine, Dolly Parton, Jerry Jeff Walker and Kris Kristofferson songs here (“You Got Gold,” “Wildflowers,” “Little Bird” and the title track, respectively) aren’t necessarily their most famous hits, but every one of them feels right in step with the spirit, character and color of Hendrix’s own songwriting at its very best. “Faded Love,” meanwhile, can be traced all the way back to her early childhood: Hendrix recalls it being one of the first songs she and her father would sing and play together when he showed her her first guitar chords.
Like every other entry in Hendrix’s 20-album catalog — save for her 1996 debut — Pilgrim’s Progress was produced by her longtime studio and stage collaborator Lloyd Maines. That’s a helluva lot of mileage to put on any partnership without expecting some degree of wear and tear in the mix, but that’s certainly not the case here — and with good reason. Be it on the hardcore-traditional or progressive side of the spectrum, country music has always been Maines’ main wheelhouse, and his command of the genre is on exceptionally fine display here on both sides of the booth. Hendrix credits Maines with all of the arrangements, most notably for “Faded Love,” and the man’s renowned pedal steel gets its best showcase since his last time onstage with the Joe Ely Band or Terry Allen … or at least since his equally above-and-beyond contributions to the Flatlanders’ Treasure of Love earlier this summer. (Hey, when you’re hot, you’re hot.)
Meanwhile, not to be outdone, Hendrix leans full into the challenge of making each of these songs her own and delivers 10 of her hands-down best vocal performances in years, if not ever — all while battling the ultimate singer’s nightmare of a recently diagnosed essential vocal tremor. That’s not just “gold” she’s got inside of her, as Hendrix sings in the aforementioned Prine tune: It’s true grit. And if that ain’t country, well … you know how that one goes.