An Interview with Terry Whitehead by Andy
Somewhere along 2007 I attended my first
‘Acoustic Night’ at the Adele Grage Cultural Center in Atlantic
Beach, Florida. The event, hosted by the multitalented Mike
Shackelford, presented a number of local musicians and singers
to an appreciative crowd. Near the end of the evening a solo
singer took the stage with an acoustic and proceeded to
absolutely kill Don Henley’s “The End of the Innocence.” He
owned the song with perfect vocals and understated, well-played
guitar. His performance floored me. I didn’t catch his name that
evening yet a wonderful covey of fates pushed us together. By
the the end of 2010 that singer, Terry Whitehead, and I had
recorded on albums together and played multiple venues around
the Jacksonville area, at MagFest and as far west as Taos, New
Mexico. A special moment happened when we shared the hollowed
ground of Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe. And if you will excuse me
for a moment of justified pride, Willie Mae, the group I was in
and Terry Whitehead nailed that tough, packed-to-the-rafters
audience (and the Bluebird’s seen-‘em-all manager, Barbara Cloyd),
to their respective chairs. All those Nashville cats, clean
as…well you know, dug our music. No question.
Backing Terry up with a stringed instrument in my hands was
always a joy and I am proud to call him a friend. As you will
discern, Terry is a man at ease with himself and that, kind
friends, is a great neighborhood to call home. He was happy to
answer numerous questions and follow-ups with patience and
perhaps a bit of hope he would have a day or two without an
email from me in his inbox. I trust you will enjoy this
interview and at its conclusion have a clear portrait of one of
Jacksonville’s premier vocalists and songwriters.
-- Andy Burke
AB: Hi Terry! So good to catch up with you. To get this thing
rolling, can you please confirm what Don Henley song you
performed at ‘Acoustic Night’ way back in 2007? And then
describe your upbringing in Jacksonville, Florida and musical
TW: It must have been “The End of the Innocence.” A funny thing
happened that same event when I sang that song Steve Piscitelli
told someone the “dude looks like Joe Walsh and sounds like Don
Henley!” I still get a kick out of telling folks that.
I grew up in somewhat of a rural setting in north Jacksonville
with 4 siblings in a small house. We were Southern Baptists and
very devoted church members. My song "Steeples" on my "Garden"
album was inspired by a nostalgic look back at my childhood in
the church. Dad was a very talented guitarist and also a country
& gospel singer loaded with twang. His picking style was similar
to Chet Atkins' which was based on the (Merle) Travis picking
style, but with 3 picking fingers and thumb for bass. Besides
Atkins and hymns he played bluegrass ("Orange Blossom Special"
was one I remember the most) and also Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb,
Jimmy Rodgers, etc. My two older brothers were starting to
play guitar and other instruments so between Dad and those two
there was a lot of music going on. Dad would get my sister and
me to sing with him some when we were little, but our singing
mostly developed in the church choir. I remember clearly the
first day of beginner choir the director went from child to
child and based on what she heard she would put us in the
soprano or alto section. I was designated alto and to this day
very grateful as harmony singing gradually became very intuitive
to me. I remember that my Dad bought a Buck Owens album that had
instrument-only versions on the second side. My sister and I
would sing all of the songs over and over, "I've Got A Tiger By
The Tail" being one of them. Somewhere in my early teens Dad
taught me my first guitar chords using the song "Had a Little
Monkey (sent him to the country)." Once he got me going I
learned chords on my own and started playing and singing songs
such as Dylan's "Blowing In The Wind" and other folk songs from
that era. Something I now regret as it would have obviously
been better to spend more time learning from him. He died of a
heart attack when I was only 17 so the time for that opportunity
ran out very quickly. I started singing solos with guitar in the
church when I was about 16. Dad told Mom, "that boy sure can
sing, but I wish he'd cut his hair."
AB: Sorry you lost you Dad so early…And I am guessing you
were not the only teenage boy to hear that gem about hair. How
did the British invasion affect your teenage years? What was
Terry Whitehead listening to in his bedroom at age 12?
TW: One of the few times I was able to stay home from church on
a Sunday night was when The Beatles made their debut on The Ed
Sullivan Show. I begged my Mom for days if I could stay home
watch the show and she was not giving in. Finally, my brother
who was a senior in high school at the time said he would stay
home and watch me and my sister - Mom relented. Still, I don't
remember becoming an avid listener until around age 12. I
started listening to WAPE pop radio every afternoon after
school. Sgt. Pepper was released and when I heard the songs from
it I became especially excited about The Beatles, but I was also
very much into harmony groups like Simon & Garfunkel, The Byrds,
The Beach Boys, and The Association. At 16 I got my first
part-time job, joined the Columbia Record Club and started my
music addiction. I would study the lyrics on the albums -
especially those that had more depth like Paul Simon and Bob
Dylan. That and playing the guitar encouraged me to experiment
with songwriting. My church ran a weekly coffee house series
that allowed us to perform pop songs and I remember performing
songs like "Solitary Man" (Neil Diamond), "Fire and Rain" (James
Taylor), "Teach Your Children" (Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young),
and "Ventura Highway" (America).
AB: When did you join your first band? As the lead singer?
TW: I feel like every band I was in for much of my life was a
collaboration until I unwittingly auditioned for lead singer in
an existing classic rock band. A friend and great guitarist that
I had collaborated with for several projects asked me if I
wanted to come and sing (jam - I thought) with a band he was
playing with. Sounded like fun so I came along and sang songs
with them just messing around. When I was done one band member
shook my hand and said I was better than the guy in the previous
audition and I was "huh?" So the next day I put together an
email to my friend that summed up to be something like: "I
didn't realize it was an audition, sorry, and that's ok because
I am probably not the right singer for the band I was more of a
James Taylor type anyway." He replied that the band thought I
did great and wanted me to be their lead singer. So, I
reluctantly, but curiously became the "front man" as they coined
it and it turned out to be a lot of fun as I learned how to
allow my voice to soar more than in the past. I never played
guitar in that band, but over time I found that when I sat down
with my acoustic to sing on my own I was singing differently -
with more expression. I appreciate what that experience gave to
me and the musical growth I had with "Coastal Raiders."
AB: Did you dream of being a music star or was
music more of a hobby? Did you, as a teenager or in your early
20s, think you could make a career of music?
TW: I imagined it in my teenage years and I think it was a good
thing to have that inside of me - to think I might be able to
shine musically. It was a part of me that never let music go no
matter what was to come of it. In my early 20's I was at a
crossroad to fish or cut bait after college and I had a myriad
of reasons why I could not pull the trigger - the main reason
being that I basically got a job offer right away and I was
tempted to make some money for a change. I've never been much
of a risk taker either. I think some folks have a catalyst that
makes them a risk taker and I had things that sobered me in
another direction. So, yes, playing music became mostly a
beloved hobby and it has always been my calming and fresh air.
AB: Many teenagers at the time found a fairly
wide generation gap with parents re: music. Did the Whitehead
household experience such a situation?
TW: Yes, we were no different, but there were always songs both
generations enjoyed together - the crossovers from country to
pop which happened more then. I remember playing around with the
song "Snowbird" and Mom especially loved Anne Murray at the
time. My Dad and oldest brother took me to a restaurant/bar they
knew had live music and Dad thought that might be a good part
time job for me ("Oh yes!," I thought). They talked the manager
into letting me sing my version of “Snowbird.” He was kind and
complimentary, but did not follow up as far as I know. Might
have been because I was only around 16 and still pretty green.
So, instead I got a job in a shoe store and earned enough money
for a used car: my first lesson in practicality vs. following
the dream. The manager of the shoe store loved what we now call
classic country and that was all that played so I learned to
appreciate some of it at the time and that was what my Dad was
listening to other than Gospel - he would have also listened to
Bluegrass if there was such a station at that time. Maybe there
was ... picked up from somewhere. After work my cousin and best
friend a few years older who had a car would go cruising and, of
course, we would crank up the early 70's rock. Now when I hear
songs like "Delta Dawn" and "I Never Promised You A Rose Garden"
I think back at selling the shoes and it is a fine memory to
have in common with my Dad's taste at that point in time when he
was about to leave us.
AB: Funny as I think we played “Delta Dawn” live together a
few times over the years. Great song for slide! You mentioned
being attracted to groups strong in vocal harmony. I am
currently going through my annual Beatles extravaganza and am
completely, as always, blown away by the vocals. From singer's
point of view which Beatle's songs impress you today?
TW: Wow! - Beatles and harmony - a wealth to choose from. The
first song that pops in my mind is "Because." Who knows what
dubbing was going on, but it was a sweet product to me. They
respected harmony - especially in the ballads. "Sun King" too.
Going back to early Beatles it would be "If I Fell" and it gets
extra credit because it is, I'm sure recorded in analogue. With
all of the slight imperfections it still stands the test of
time. It also taught some of us like many 60's pop songs that
the first verse solo should introduce the melody and then the
harmony will sweeten it on the chorus if not the second verse.
From a singer's point of view of Beatles' vocals I think there
is still too much to choose from, but Paul's solo on "The Long
and Winding Road" showcased how he could sing a song with
passion which I didn't always hear that much in his voice.
John's voice could rock and had the girls screaming! His song,
”Imagine" is iconic and I appreciate that he wrote possibly the
greatest song of all time. Like many great actors who are
applauded for understated performances (not easy for the
expressionists) his performance of that song should be so noted.
It may have been a necessity just to get it done without
breaking down with the weight of all of that song offered. I'm
thankful he made it happen before he was taken from us.
Terry as a youngster on a horse with his
AB: How did you balance making/performing
music and maintaining a demanding career at CSX? Did you ever
consider shucking the career for music full time?
TW: As I got more into my career I became very conscientious to
the point of being a workaholic. I was always concerned that
pursuing music gigs on the side would make my real job more
stressful and exhausting than it already was. I always had a
salary job in Information Technology so working extra hours was
not unusual and I was always on call. If I had the kind of job
where I could work set hours and leave my work behind at the end
of the day I would have been more tempted to play more music on
the side like some of my musical friends who were able to enjoy
both worlds successfully. When I was very early in my career I
had thoughts that after getting some experience I would try to
get an IT job in Nashville, moonlight and test the music waters
so to speak. I was promoted to management just 5 years into my
career and I stopped even doing open mics because of the
intensity of the job. The Nashville idea just faded away. I
continued to sing solos in church, do weddings and collaborated
with musician friends for certain one-time events. I played in
company bands for their events and eventually was front man for
a classic rock band that played parties and paid gigs here and
there for a few years - that was good experience for me. In the
last year of my real job career I started playing out more to
promote my newly released debut album “Perfect Wave.”
AB: It would have been interesting if you had moved to Nashville
with the city’s numerous venues for singer/songwriters. Can you
describe the evolution from solo performer at events like
Songwriter Night at Adele Grage to ensembles such as Gates of
Eden, Red Afternoon and to your current duo SideTrack?
TW: Songwriters’ Night was very instrumental in bringing my
originals out of the closet so to speak. I was a fan of Mike
Shackelford and to have his encouragement and other fellow
songwriters gave me the boost I needed to record my work and
finally do more with my music - better later than never I
suppose. I started going to music jams and collaborating more
and more with this newly found tribe of songwriter/musicians. A
couple of years after the album ‘Perfect Wave’ was released I
formed the band Terry & The Willing Accomplices. Tamara Colonna
was singing backup in that band when not busy with the wonderful
duo Willie Mae. During Willie Mae’s downtime we began to
collaborate more and performed as Gates of Eden. Gates of Eden
became a band when we merged with The Willing Accomplices. After
finding out there was another Florida band with the same name we
renamed ourselves Red Afternoon. Since Red Afternoon had a niche
of being Americana with originals I started collaborating with
our lead guitarist Dave Knopsnyder on the side playing around
with a variety of cover songs that didn't fit in with the band
agenda. We decided to make a go of it as a duo and named
ourselves Side Track.
AB: I am guessing the name Side Track is a sweet
tip-of-the-engineer’s cap reference to your career in the world
TW: I do like that I am retired from the railroad and now
When the band that became "Red Afternoon" was looking at name
possibilities we were all throwing a lot of names out there. I
actually introduced the name "Red Afternoon," because Tamara had
loaned me her book "On The Road" by Jack Kerouac and I was
reading it at the time and that passage as well as many stuck
with me. "Side Track" originated as a name I suggested as a band
name because we were not doing mainstream music and it became my
favorite idea. Obviously "Red Afternoon" won out with the band
and that was great, but I kept "Side Track" tucked in my mind.
Dave went along with it when I suggested it as our duo name.
Ironically we swim down the mainstream quite a but in our gigs,
but live up to our name with some choices I sneak in and
especially when we play listening venues and include my
AB: What mix of instrumentation do you prefer backing you live?
TW: My most practical preference of backing instruments in
addition to my acoustic guitar (Gibson J-45) is electric guitar
for leads/fills, keys, and drums. With that said I had cello on
9 out of 14 songs on my second album ‘Garden’ so obviously I'd
like to add that beautiful sound anytime it is practical.
AB: What advice would you give a young
musician on whether they should choose a career in the corporate
world or pursue life as a full-time musician?
TW: Well, just because I went in one direction I would not
encourage or discourage either way. The main thing I would say
is that if one is setting out to be a full time musician know
what the fallback plan will be if things don't work out well
enough to keep going full time. I would think they should be
self-dependent in terms of being well skilled on accompanying
themselves and being an effective one person show when needed.
It appears to me they should consider moving where the action is
- whether they think it is Brooklyn or other N.Y. Scenes,
Austin, L.A., Memphis, Nashville or wherever the music scene is
large and they can make connections to further their career. If
they want to keep a local presence it seems that they still need
to arrange tours to make money playing, expand their fan base to
sell more music - house concerts, venues, or both depending on
what type of music. Most of all, I think they should be able to
take weighed risks and make sacrifices economically.
I would also tell them it is possible to have both worlds as I
know folks who seem to have managed staying local, working a
steady job and gigging steadily as well.
Finally, I would tell them what I like in retrospect about the
path I chose. My case has no regrets and I don't think about
what-ifs any more. My plan worked out for me and I am having fun
playing music semi-professionally at a steady, but non-taxing
pace for my age. I did not foresee that I would be singing for
folks like this at this point in my life, but it is very
rewarding that enough folks seem to enjoy what Dave & I in Side
Track are doing enough that we can continue for awhile longer.
AB: Tell us your ideal gig.
TW: My ideal gig would be one where my band and I stroll in to a
listening venue, a guitar tech hands me my guitar and we start
playing to the sold out room during which Bonnie Raitt joins me
for a duet and plays a killer slide lead…Oh but wait. My ideal
gig already happened! It was my CD release concert for ‘Garden.’
It exceeded my expectations and I have the memories for the rest
of my life. It made every music decision I ever made feel right.
What made it even sweeter was that I only thought just a few
folks would get what I was doing and even like the album; I.e.
that folks would really want to listen to me doing that concept
- that mix of themes. It was my strange, selfish, unexplained
risk, because I knew I was making enough money with gigs to
eventually pay for it. Having those wonderful, gracious
musicians backing me up and all the friends and even strangers
that filled up Mudville Listening Room exceeded my expectations
- it is still hard for me to believe.
AB: It seems we Boomers just keep ticking along on despite
advancements in the mirror. If you look at the evolution your
songwriting has undergone, where would you like to take it over
the next couple of years?
TW: I have actually been writing more material very steadily,
but I have to qualify that. I've been pretty prolific with ideas
and thoughts for songs and have accumulated quite a few folders
that may or may not get used. I also have a decent file of
music ideas that I have recorded when the notion strikes (often
at dawn and I have gotten less patient about getting up and
recording those - especially before the sun comes up - ha!).
Where I have been a slacker in the past several years is the
process of pulling the ideas together and actually composing
songs. Although it doesn't seem practical for me to write
breakup songs or other themes you hear commonly on the radio, it
is fun occasionally to put on an actor's cap and write out of
character. Going forward I do hope to create less "heavy" songs
and produce more light, soulful, upbeat songs - it would be fun
to rock it more for a change, but I just have to see where the
songs take me. I don't want to ever try to be someone I'm not.
AB: “I don't want to ever try to be someone I'm not.” An
excellent goal Terry. ..Thanks for taking the time for this
interview. I wish you continued success and fulfillment as you
navigate the years ahead.
TW: Andy, this has been fun and I appreciate the kind wishes
which I send back to you and Roy Peak like a boomerang. I
enjoyed the conversation and the time you put into it. Many
thanks to you both.