home     who?     sounds     gigs     studio   radical notes  discography    contact




An Interview with Terry Whitehead by Andy Burke  

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
Bend, Oregon


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 influences.

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." 






"My Dad's Band in the 40s (before I was born mind you!) - Dad is the one on the far left (he was not as short as it looks - the musicians to the right are on a platform and he was on the floor.)" --TW


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."




Terry, far right, with the band 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 dad.



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 of trains…

TW: I do like that I am retired from the railroad and now "sidetracked" so-to-speak.

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 originals.

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.



Terry Whitehead can be seen in several Jacksonville venues weekly, playing his soulful tunes along side his musical partner, Dave Knopsnyder, in the band Side Track. His albums can be purchased on the internet at iTunes and CD Baby.

An earlier interview with Terry Whitehead by Roy Peak can be read here.







Andy Burke (r) with Phil "Hump" Hamilton, post Experience Music Project Museum. Seattle, Washington.

Born in Nashville, Andy Burke is a writer and musician who first saw the light at age eleven during a post-hurricane Dora, 30-minute long Beatles’ concert at Jacksonville’s Gator Bowl. He lives in Bend, Oregon where he studies music theory and jazz piano.