Sedona World Wisdom Days, held over Martin Luther King weekend last January, were magical. With the stunning red rocks and sacred landscape as a backdrop, attendees gathered to listen to the insights of such inspirational speakers as legendary TV producer Norman Lear, singer-songwriter Indie.Arie, and ABILITY’s own columnist, actress Geri Jewell.
Jewell and frequent ABILITY contributor, David Zimmerman, made the trek to mystical Sedona, AZ, where they connected with popular musician, Chris Hendricks. Later, they met up again in Jewell’s home in Los Angeles. Talking about his career, his life and his mission.
David Zimmerman: When I say the name Sedona, what comes in to mind?
Chris Hendricks: Freedom. Sedona means freedom to me. The essence of it is a relaxing, open atmosphere. I felt at home there.
Geri Jewell: I’ve known Glenn Scarpelli since the ‘80s; that was my connection. How did you connect with (conference co-founders) Glenn and Jerry Gilden?
Hendricks: I became friends with Glenn and Jerry at a Kyle Cease event in Los Angeles. We had dinner together, and they told me about World Wisdom Days, and who was going to be there, including India.Arie. I said, “I grew up listening to India.Arie! She’s one of the first people I studied when I picked up the guitar.” And they said, “Well, then, we have to have you in Sedona.”
Zimmerman: So how old were you when first started on the guitar?
Hendricks: During my junior year of college, I visited my dad in Wisconsin. I hadn’t seen him for years, but we had recently reconnected. Music had always been our bonding agent. He’s a country artist and born entertainer. I told him that I was interested in the guitar, and he took me down into his basement, which was like this ode to music. He had a guitar on this wall, a guitar on that wall, a banjo over there, a little piano over there… posters all over the place. I fell in love with the atmosphere. So he handed me a guitar, and taught me the C chord, D chord, and G chord, and left me there. It was like, “Good luck, Buddy!”
And it’s funny, I locked the door because I became obsessed, strumming those three chords. The biggest issue a guitar player faces is working through the pain in your fingertips, and how fast you can change chords. I was going at it for hours, and still wasn’t getting it. And at 4 in the morning, I’m yelling. My stepmom comes downstairs and says: “What is wrong with you? You’re wakin’ the entire neighborhood!” And I said, “I just don’t understand! My dad’s so good at this, and I suck!” I started blaming my condition, I was like, “Obviously because of cerebral palsy I’m gonna suck as a musician!”
Jewell: You were exhausted, so your body wasn’t cooperating.
Hendricks: I was totally exhausted and in a lot of pain. And my stepmom said, “Go to sleep, wake up the next morning, and see if your body learned something.” And I said: “That’s not how it works!” But that’s totally how it works, because when I woke up later that morning at about 10, I rolled out of bed, ran downstairs, and tried to play the chords again, and sure enough, I was able to switch.
Zimmerman: You kept at it.
Hendricks: I did, and then it clicked. I fell in love with the instrument. The first song my dad taught me on the guitar was “Let Her Cry” by Hootie and the Blowfish. I haven’t put the guitar down since.
Jewell: You didn’t take music in high school?
Hendricks: I was in chorus and band.
Zimmerman: What did you play?
Hendricks: I played—well, another reason why I didn’t jump to guitar until after college was that I wanted to play tenor sax. If I was going to be in band, I saw the tenor sax as the coolest thing on the planet. Plus, Lisa Simpson of The Simpsons played it, and she was always a badass.
Zimmerman: (laughs) Right!
Hendricks: But I was a soft-spoken kid, and to some degree I’m still that way around certain people. So I said once or twice, “I want to play the tenor sax,” and our band director really wanted me to play the baritone sax, because there were no baritone players in the band. As soon as I picked up the instrument and learned it, I realized why there were no baritone players in the band. It was the instrument with the least amount of sex appeal. At least if you played the tuba, you could brag about it being the biggest instrument. The baritone was like the tuba’s little brother. It’s a tuba with self-esteem issues. But our band director desperately wanted a baritone sax player.
Jewell: So there’s always a student who has to play it, regardless?
Hendricks: I’m sure that if I had really put my foot down and been like, “Screw it, too bad, there’s not gonna be any baritones in your band,” it would have worked out. But at that time I didn’t have my own voice. It took me a long time to find it.
Zimmerman: And you did find your voice, even writing your own songs. What was the first song you wrote?
Hendricks: The first song I ever wrote was called “Malpractice.”
Zimmerman: Where did that come from?
Hendricks: It was essentially a metaphor for what my condition had done to my life. My mom was doing the best she could, but she didn’t know how to help me find my wings.
Zimmerman: You found them through music?
Zimmerman: How many songs have you written?
Hendricks: Hundreds. I was passionate about expressing myself and going my own way early on.
Zimmerman: You once mentioned at the Performing Arts Studio West that one of your favorite singers is Stevie Wonder.
Hendricks: He’s a huge influence. I first came across him around the same time that I came across Michael Jackson; they were both signed to Berry Gordy at Motown for a time. I saw Stevie Wonder as this amazing man who was blind, but in a matter of moments after he started to perform, his condition would vanish. It was almost as if it complemented his talent. It was the most beautiful thing to me.
Plus, I constantly move my head around, so looking at Stevie, and seeing him do the same thing, I felt like we had that in common. And obviously, I actually learned recently from you, Geri, that I move my head around so much due to cerebral palsy. But I used to tell people that it was just music in my head causing me to dance all the time. Which is absolutely true. I constantly have—
Jewell: —creative compensation.
Hendricks: Yeah, creative compensation. But again, I saw it as this sort of an abnormality.
Zimmerman: When did you realize that you had CP?
Hendricks: I was diagnosed when I was 4 years old. I had a lot of little operations when I was young, but I don’t think I realized that I had a condition that early.
Jewell: So it was never talked about?
Hendricks: My parents would talk about it and try and get me to understand, but I don’t even think my mom knew how to explain what I had. She did the best that she could, and she was really motivating. She would say, “You can do whatever you want, but you have this thing.” I didn’t really understand until somebody in my own age group pointed out that I was different.
Zimmerman: Did you feel different?
Hendricks: Not until somebody said something about it. That was the first time I felt bad about being different.
Jewell: How old were you at that point?
Hendricks: Kindergarten or first grade; I sort of hobbled in there with my walker, and somebody looked at me and pointed. And I felt this shift—eyes leaving whatever they were doing and falling onto me.
At first I thought, Well, this is interesting. Maybe it’s a positive thing. Maybe I’m memorable; out of the box. Even though I didn’t really know what that meant. Actually, I didn’t feel bad about being different until middle school and high school.
Zimmerman: Did you ever feel bad about it, Geri?
Jewell: Not until high school.
Hendricks: So you survived middle school?
Jewell: Well, don’t forget, I had a different experience. I was in special ed until high school; I wasn’t mainstreamed like you were.
Hendricks: And that’s an interesting point, because when I was in elementary school, I wasn’t in special ed, but I did ride the special ed bus for a period. So I spent time with kids who had both physical and mental conditions. And I would see how some of the adults would treat some of the kids with mental conditions, and it was appalling.
I remember one of the bus drivers had this dust rag that she would carry around, and there was a kid I used to always sit next to on the bus. His name was Scotty. I could tell he was desperately trying to express himself; he was a lovable character who knew the people around him didn’t get what he was trying to say. But as he got more and more frustrated, the bus driver or assistant bus driver would take that dust cloth and snap him in the face with it. I’d be thinking: What the hell is wrong with them? I remember going home to my parents and saying, “These people are idiots. Can we fix this?”
Zimmerman: I remembered riding the bus and being picked on myself. I had a nice upbringing. But I got picked on, too, for some reason. I don’t know what it was. But hearing you say that brought up a wave of emotion.
Hendricks: In middle school and high school, I saw CP as a dark shadow, this smudge on my life that I could not get rid of. It drove me crazy. I felt like it held me back. An embarrassment that I couldn’t get rid of or fix.
Zimmerman: What got you through it?
Hendricks: My mom. I get a little emotional thinking about it. ‘Cause even though she protected me so vehemently. And at least once, twice, three times a day, she would say, “You’re the greatest thing, you’re the best thing, you’re the most amazing thing that ever happened to me!”
Hendricks: She would drill into my head that I was the best, in the most loving, non-arrogant way a mother could love a son. So “Malpractice” was about how I felt like I was overprotected. But then again, if it hadn’t been for my mom and dad telling me that I could be anything, I don’t know if I would have been able to get through middle school and high school and my own insecurities.
Zimmerman: What brings you joy?
Hendricks: Love. The fact that we are love as people. The fact that we can receive love and give love; it’s always our choice to be that essence, to be love. If we make that decision, it can’t be taken away from us. We can’t choose what happens to us, but we can always choose how we respond.
Zimmerman: That’s gorgeous.
Jewell: One question I have is about what happened with your pants.
Hendricks: Right. You know how people say—in reference to a bad haircut—“I got into a fight with a pair of scissors and lost”? Well I actually got into a fight with a pair of pants and lost. Several months ago, an accident with a pair of Lucky brand jeans put me back in
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