Five Questions: Ernie Hendrickson
Ernie Hendrickson admits he has an ulterior motive for booking his current tour swing through Michigan.
“To tell the truth,” the singer-songwriter says by telephone from his home in Chicago, “one of the reasons I booked this tour is because I wanted to see Todd Snider play in Grand Rapids. … That’s my plan.”
Like Snider, Hendrickson, who is touring his own solo acoustic show, has become a familiar face in Midwest venues since the release of his self-produced 2007 debut album Down the Road.
Born in Wisconsin and raised in Rockford, Ill., Hendrickson grew up on a deep well of American roots music, which he continues to draw inspiration from. Since moving to Chicago in 2003, the Americana singer-songwriter also has released 2010’s Walking with Angels, and his latest, 2013’s One for the Dreamers, recorded at Lamplight Studios in rural Primm Springs, Tenn., and anchored by producer-drummer Chad Cromwell. When he’s not on tour, Hendrickson can be found at The Harvest Room, a farm-to-table concept restaurant in Palos Heights, Ill., where he’s had a weekly Monday residency for more than a year called “Mondays with Ernie.”
“It keeps me motivated on a Monday, which isn’t always easy as a musician,” Hendrickson says. “They have a lot of regulars so you can’t just do the same songs every week. It’s been a good way for me to test new songs.”
Jeremy D. Bonfiglio: You’ve done past tours with a band and as a duo, but this time you’re playing solo. What can we expect from a solo Ernie Hendrickson show?
Ernie Hendrickson: I’m not your typical singer-songwriter. I bring two amplifiers so my acoustic guitar can sometimes sound like an electric guitar. I still try to go on some musical journeys to set myself apart from the heap. I’ve always thought of myself as equal parts guitar player and songwriter. … People tell me all the time that my live show is so much different than my records, and what I think they mean is better (laughing), which is good. I’m glad people think I have a strong live show. I think that comes from the influence of artists like Bob Dylan and Neil Young and Jerry Garcia, who never repeated themselves. I don’t usually do favorites. I don’t have favorite colors or foods or anything, but when people ask who is your favorite guitar player or main influence, I have to say it’s Jerry Garcia. I never tire of his melodic sensibility.
I’m sure there’s a little bit of Jerry’s influence on One For The Dreamers. So even though you don’t do favorites, is there a song on the album you think epitomizes what you’re trying to say as a musician?
“Citizen of Love” is the song I really wanted to be one of the cornerstones of that record. It’s a description of this imaginary place that I wish existed. To me, it’s what John Lennon was saying in the song “Imagine.” It’s that place where the divisive walls of political boundaries and religious boundaries and racial boundaries goes away, and you’re left with a place where everybody just wants to make the best out of what’s here. It’s the only message I have, and it’s one I really enjoy playing live.
Chad Cromwell, who has played with Neil Young and Mark Knopfler among others, produced One For The Dreamers. How did you meet, and what did he bring to the table for this record?
Since Walking with Angels, my 2010 release, was produced by Bo Ramsey, who is a guitar player, this time the idea of a drummer producing seemed appealing to me. We basically just stalked Chad in Nashville for a couple days. When we sat down together, he got it right away, and pulled in a great cast of people. We had Mickey Raphael, Willie Nelson’s harmonica player, on several tracks. He brought in Kevin “Swine” Grantt on bass, who was wearing his six-shooter on his hip during the whole session. The three of us tracked the record in two days. That is a fast pace for me. Then we took the rest of two weeks decorating it with Reese Wynans, who was Stevie Ray Vaughan’s keyboard player for 10 years, and Pete Wasner, who plays with Vince Gill. From the first note Chad played on drums, that boat was solid. Those guys have a way of committing in a way that makes you feel that everything is going to be supported. You just have to play the song. I’ve never felt that so strongly.
How did you get started playing music?
I was born in Shullsburg, Wis., just across the Illinois border. My parents, my grandparents, my great-grandparents were all from that little area. So by the time my parents had me, my dad wanted to get out of there. He moved us down to Rockford, Ill., when I was 1. Rockford was certainly a bigger pool for me to explore musically. I remember a toy guitar when I was about 5, and then there was a real guitar that showed up on my 10th birthday. I began writing songs on that guitar. I’d break strings and just keep on going. At one point I was down to two strings and that’s when I really started writing songs. At that point my parents put me in guitar lessons, and I was kind of bummed because I had to put all the strings back on the guitar (laughing). I was playing in bars in Rockford by the time I was 15. Once I started with music, it always felt like my main thing.
Have you been playing any new songs in your current set?
Oh, yeah. As soon as I write songs I start playing them live. That’s both a good and a bad thing. People tend to like what they know, so it’s a good idea to play stuff they know. And I do that, but as soon as I start writing something I get inspired to go and flesh it out at my gigs. The good part about that is you start to learn what is working and what isn’t working. I basically have an album’s worth of new material that I’ve been working into my shows. I’ve been sort of juggling influences for a while, but the music I’m writing now seems to speak to all of my various influences. I’m writing music that I like to play, and I feel like my next record is going to be my best one. It’s a difficult thing to explain. I just want to keep being an artist. I want to keep making music and keep doing what I do.
A version of this article originally appeared in The Herald-Palladium newspaper of Saint Joseph, Mich.