Opened Doors: Ernie Hendrickson, January 21 at the Redstone Room Print
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 13 January 2011 08:45

Ernie HendricksonOn his 2007 solo debut, Down the Road, Ernie Hendrickson tried to make everything perfect.

“Literally, by the time I was finished with that record, I was familiar with every single note on every single song,” the Chicago-based Hendrickson said in a phone interview this week.

But the unintended consequence of sweating over every element of the album was that it became something he could never replicate in front of an audience. “If you listen to that record closely ... you can really sort of hear how it would be impossible for people to play what goes on those songs in a live setting,” he said.

And not being able to reproduce a song in a concert is a refusal to acknowledge a critical aspect of a musician’s life. (For an emerging roots singer/songwriter such as Hendrickson, it’s actually a refusal to acknowledge the main source of his livelihood: shows.) “A song is a song,” he said, “and it still has to be performed.”

Hendrickson will play a show January 21 at the Redstone Room, where his shift in thinking should be clear. He used to bring a looper to his solo shows – trying to build as full a sound as possible, but often at the expense of a connection with the audience. “You’re up there and you’re getting a lot of blank stares if you don’t engage an audience,” he said.

And his 2009 disc, Walking with Angels, is further evidence of his evolution. As he prepared to record that second album, he planned to take the same approach, “to really labor over every little detail.” But producer (and roots-music icon) Bo Ramsey persuaded him to try something different.

He recalled what Ramsey told him: “You’re going to lose some of the visceral quality of music if you get it under the microscope too much.”

Ramsey is a “man of few words,” Hendrickson noted, but his method doesn’t require a lot of verbal direction. Just assemble a group of good musicians, set a positive tone, and hit “record.”

“He doesn’t have to say much,” he said of Ramsey. “Having him there says a lot.”

Walking with Angels features Hendrickson, producer/guitarist Ramsey, and largely musicians with whom Ramsey has previously worked, and only the parts of guitarist and pedal-steel player Brian Wilkie – who will be joining Hendrickson for his Redstone Room show – were overdubbed. “I don’t think I’ll ever record any other way ever again,” Hendrickson said.

But Walking with Angels remains eminently polished and professional, and because of Hendrickson’s songs and singing, there are few apparent rough edges. The tone of his voice can bear an uncanny resemblance to Tom Petty’s, but it – and the songs Hendrickson writes – are unfailingly gentle and pretty; “Heavy Times” is delicate enough to be a James Taylor song. His genre is less alt-country than roots soft rock, but “Young Man” approaches rock and shows that the singer/songwriter has a range that he’s only begun to explore.

The 33-year-old Hendrickson said that he does have a dark and rough side that comes through when he covers other artists’ songs, but he’s had difficulty mining it in his own writing.

“That’s something that I do struggle with as a writer, is to get at some of that – which is in me,” he said. “What comes out a little bit more naturally is some of the softer side of things. And I’m aware of that, and in fact it’s an issue for me. ... I don’t want to put people to sleep.”

That’s not really a danger unless mellow on its own makes one drowsy, but Walking with Angels does beg for more variety. Yet while the album as a whole feels too tonally undifferentiated, the individual tracks are compelling, and Hendrickson’s and Ramsey’s team expertly pulls them off.

Hendrickson said the album has gotten radio play in 40 states, and he acknowledged that Ramsey’s presence had much to do with that.

“I think working with Bo has opened some good doors for me,” he said. “Some people have said, ‘Bo got you in the door, but you’ve stayed in on your own merit.’ It’s better than the alternative.”

Ernie Hendrickson will perform on Friday, January 21, at the Redstone Room (129 Main Street in Davenport). The show starts at 8:30 p.m., and the bill also includes Chicago Farmer and Jason Carl. Tickets are $8.

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