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From the Dead Skunks to the Terry Family Band


When Jim Terry heard about an upcoming concert by singer/songwriter Dar Williams, he went straight to her website. Williams has been a favorite of the Terry family for years, and he wanted to secure good seats. While on the site, he noticed a place to register for a week long songwriters workshop hosted by Williams in the Hudson Valley. Jim did a double take, immediately clicked on the link, and without hesitation, signed up. This was an opportunity he wasn’t going to miss.

When Jim was only four, his Dad gave him a banjo/ukulele. As soon as the youngster held the instrument in his hands, he knew he wanted to be a musician. Self-taught, Jim played constantly, usually in a closet so as not to annoy the rest of the family. When his parents became concerned that their son was serious about pursuing music as a livelihood, his dad strongly discouraged him. The senior Terry was a physician, and had several patients who were musicians – and basket cases. It was the early 70’s, after all, and music meant drugs, long hair, decadence, and a downward spiral. Jim respected his father’s wisdom, and charted a different course for himself, going to law school instead. While at UC Berkeley, he auditioned for and was hired to be the music director at UC Berkeley’s Lair of the Bear summer camp for families, where he met and later married Debbie. After that, he still picked up the guitar, the instrument he first began playing while at Berkeley, but only occasionally.

The good news is that Jim is an excellent attorney. A senior partner at Dickenson, Peatman, Fogarty, he has practiced law in Napa for almost forty years, and is well respected in the community. Music still tugged at him, and he and his late-wife Debbie raised their three sons to play. “I gave James a violin when he was three. When his younger brother Clark turned that age, he got that violin and James got a new one. Same thing when our third son Graham came along. James was eleven before he realized that not everybody played violin.” The boys formed a band, performing the Loudon Wainwright III song, “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road,” over, and over, and over – and soon became known as the Dead Skunks. The Terry family played together from time to time, playing folk songs they loved and original tunes the sons wrote as they developed as musicians. All three boys majored in music at different UC schools, and all three had stints as music director at the Lair of the Bear. Jim felt like he had, through his sons at least, realized his music dreams.

Until, that is, he visited Dar Williams’ website, and attended the workshop.

To say the least, that was a unique experience. Jim wrote a song during the retreat - which he shared with the other attendees on the last day. “I was trying to capture the feelings of being a first timer, the anxiety of it all,” he said. “It was a story of being a stuffy old man coming into a group of 25 year-olds all of whom looked like Dar with their hair ‘pinned up in a palm tree top’ and holding hands in song circles. I was so concerned with that image I nearly jumped off the train and into the Hudson River.” Jim’s song “All the Little Dars” was well received, “The hook of course was that I transformed into a little Dar. Everybody laughed, cried, and gave me a standing ovation. And that’s when I knew I could do this. It was a band-camp moment, to be sure, but one I’ll never forget.”

After that, songs poured out of Jim, some serious, some humorous, all of them from his heart. “The workshop reminded me that if my music doesn’t connect with other people on some level, I have failed. The trick is to write from a place of emotional vulnerability, and when you do that, the audience knows it and connects, because it hits that same place in them.”

Following the workshop, Jim gathered his courage and entered the monthly West Coast Songwriters contest, held at Capp Heritage in February of last year. He didn’t win, but tried again two months later and was recognized for best performance. Buoyed by that success, he invited his sons Graham and Clark to accompany him on violin and mandolin and tried for a third attempt. That time, his song “The Photo” won the best song of the month. The three have been playing together ever since.

“Jim is a wonderfully talented songwriter,” said Gary Wm. Koehler, General Manager at Capp Heritage and a well known singer/songwriter with five CDs under his belt, “and his sons are amazing musicians.” As the “Terry Family,” Jim, Clark, and Graham Terry played at Capp Heritage in November, to a crowd that literally spilled out onto the sidewalk. “It was cold outside that night, still, most people stayed for both sets. We’ve never had a larger crowd,” said Koehler.

Jim was a recent guest on Peter Sykes show on KVYN 99.3 The Vine. Sykes and his wife Victoria founded the Napa School of Music, and appreciate good songwriters. “Jim played his song, ‘Fire in the Wind,’ which he wrote during the fires,” Said Peter. “That was an intense event, and he captured the urgency, danger and emotion of it perfectly. I still play it on the air and get requests for it, and my wife tears up every time she hears it. He’s a very talented songwriter.” “Fire in the Wind” recently won best song of the month in the 2018 West Coast Songwriters season.

Jim quips, “I always wanted a band. I just went about it the hard way.” The Terry Family has been invited to play at several places since that November date at Capp. Graham lives in Napa and Clark in the East Bay (son James is in Atlanta,) which makes it possible for the three of them to get together. Small or private engagements allow for the audience intimacy that all enjoy. They will be playing at the Capp Heritage on June 16, 2018, Napa Live events and Porchfest. They are available for house concerts.

Check out their new website at terryfamilyband.com for upcoming events and to listen to their music. You can also listen to their music at Soundcloud.com. Good money says that Jim will continue to write songs that will be well received for a long time to come.

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