It’s Wednesday, and Jonathan Terrell is day-drunk from “two little margaritas.” He’s marveling at their power and grateful that tequila has taken the place of cigarettes in graveling up his voice. Not a bad way to prime for a show at Sam’s Town Point, an Austin relic adored for its divey 80s patina.
Terrell was born at the dawn of that decade, to a pair of musicians who fled their European cult for the remote woods of East Texas. Mom filled the house with The Supremes, The Mamas & the Papas and anything classical, and Dad worshipped The Beatles, Mark Knopfler, and everyone in The Traveling Wilburys. Terrell says his best friend growing up was Tom Petty’s voice on a Walkman.
“Tom Petty was almost a spirit guide out there in those woods, [telling me] to persevere, to get out of that small town and go do something else.”
A recent promo shot casts the 37-year-old Terrell as a sad-eyed cowboy you’d never guess rocks out with a taxidermied peacock sometimes, and always digs a glowing disco floor. And jean shorts. So many jean shorts.
He swears it’s the law to wear them in Austin (“Willie Nelson wore ’em in the 70s!”), where his singer-songwriter cred is substantial. On the Nashville scene, he’s pitching songs to the gatekeepers of country artists at the highest level, all while shaping a stockpile of 37 tracks into an album tentatively called Westward.
It will be his third full-length after 2008 debut Trials and Stimulations and 2015’s Past the Lights of Town, and right on the heels of dreamy EP Color Me Lucky and a soulful cover of Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You” featuring brilliant slide guitar work by Tony “Doggen” Foster of UK neo-psych band Spiritualized (thanks to a chance meeting while Terrell was touring in England last year).
With a crazy quilt of influences, Terrell’s sound fights description. One minute he’s singing about haulin’ cattle, the next he could be a young Bob Dylan making a harmonica weep. Retro connotations are rooted in his mother’s love of 60s vocal groups. And after years of fronting freak-out rock band Not In The Face, he can summon face-melting energy so honky-tonk songs really “shake some asses.”
“I guess I’m such a big fan of so much music that I just write what comes out, and unfortunately it doesn’t sound all the same so people can go, ‘Oh, that’s ______.’ It’s probably been the best and worst part for my musical career,” Terrell says of genre bending. “It’s hard to pin down, but I mean, I wouldn’t do it any other way.”
He easily inhabits the emotions of songs, or maybe he’s possessed by them. And his lyrics haunt, painting the human condition and the Southwest with a fine brush.
Terrell has bad memories of trying to get booked as an “introspective Americana” artist during the explosion of frat-boy country, but Westward “truly is an American album. There’s some bloody rock ’n’ roll, some real heartbreaker honky-tonk stuff, some loose R&B. It’s kinda gritty and sandy, and it’s got some twang. … Wherever I take it in the world, I want people to get a visual of where I’m from.”
Where he’s from presents opportunities and pitfalls for an artist like Terrell. He stands out from the blur of contemporary country because of the hand-hammered authenticity of his music, but he defies certain character expectations of the genre. On Instagram, for example, he worships its icons with the same obvious love he applies to taking the piss out of its tropes. He is, and is in on, the joke.
He’s also liberal, a gun-owning progressive in a state and musical tradition with strong ties to conservatism.
“It’s really important for me to hear out both sides,” says Terrell, whose own family falls into multiple camps. “And it’s really important for me to have an opinion and a belief and back that belief up, but understanding where I am as an artist and how easy it is to immediately divide people. … My music is for everybody and I want everybody to enjoy it, whichever side you’re on. I don’t want that to be a factor of why you like it or why you don’t. But it can be a slippery slope real quick.”
Terrell nods to Dolly Parton, who dodged every political question in an early-March interview on Nightline and finally said: “I’m not in politics. I’m an entertainer.”
Still, he lets it rip when he’s moved, whether calling then-candidate Donald Trump #doucheface when the infamous pussy-grabbing audio leaked, or joining Austin’s Women’s March for choice and equality in honor of his mother and four sisters.
The day after Trump was elected, Terrell wrote a song called “Love Can Find You Anywhere,” about protestors on opposite sides who fall for each other in the light of a car fire. “I just want to keep introducing the idea of unifying people just for the good of humanity. And also, if they have questions for me, step over to my merch booth and ask me all the questions and buy two T-shirts,” he says with a laugh.
His booth was at SXSW last week for his official showcase, and April 8 Terrell will be at the inaugural Emerge Impact + Music festival in Las Vegas on a lineup with Kevin Morby, Chloé Caroline, Gold Star, and Liz Cooper & The Stampede. He’s stoked to unleash a pumped-up live show on crowds that won’t see it coming.
Terrell isn’t with a label, but Peter Blackstock, co-founder of alt-country magazine No Depression, recently dubbed him “the most signable act in Austin right now.”
If the chance does come, Terrell says, the right label won’t try to mold him into someone who doesn’t wear “super-fuckin’ tight jeans” and let songs unfurl from fated moments, like sitting on Evel Knievel’s 1976 XR-750 Harley-Davidson (“Color Me Lucky” was painted on the gas tank).
“I never thought I was gonna be a big Nashville superstar, but I believe in what I’m doing,” he says. “And now I think some Nashville people are starting to turn their heads, because I think they’re getting a big dose of dishonest music right now that’s just getting churned out. And I think they’re craving a little bit more grit.”