Master of the Mountains Brings a World of Luthier and Performance Emersion
Wayne Henderson on May 6, 2017
Wayne Henderson brought his massive array of musical skills to Virginia Beach, VA, recently. With his acoustic partner, Helen White, Wayne played a showcase of traditional and popular tunes along with two of Helen’s original waltzes. Another in a strong season of concerts by the Tidewater Friends of Acoustic Music, Henderson and White played to a modest but enthusiastic Hampton Roads area audience at the Barry Robinson Theater.
White’s waltzes were particularly impressive and gave a balance to the lightening flourishes Henderson gave to such bluegrass standards as “Hangman’s Reel” and “Sweet Fern.” They started appropriately with some Carter Family. Appropriate, since Wayne played with Mother Maybelle Carter. And with Elizabeth Cotton, whom he met through Mother Maybelle and who was another left-hander.
He told the story of how he began to play left-handed by learning through the monumental Elizabeth Cotton, turning the guitar upside down.
He then blessed us with his rendition of “Freight Train.” His so-called “pinch picking” was evident here as it was in the numerous songs the duo played that evening. Fast and furious, but emotional and full of feeling, the songs varied in tempo from the quick to the measured.
Wayne is an icon in himself. He has played with just about everyone legendary in acoustic sound, from the break-through African-American artist Cotton and the Carters to Chet Atkins and Johnny Cash.
Henderson is considered one of the world’s finest guitar makers, as well as one of the best crafters of mandolins and banjos. He became best known for his exemplary luthier excellence from the book Clapton’s Guitar: Watching Wayne Henderson Build the Perfect Guitar. The book follows the trajectory of international interest and clamor for Henderson guitars and other acoustic instruments coming out of his tiny mountain shop. It focuses on the request for and preparation of a guitar for Eric Clapton.
He started out as a Nashville luthier, apprenticing to one of the best and working for such American country treasures as Chet Atkins. He titillated with the unspoken but alluded-to additional artists he did work for at the time. He even did one small job for Elvis.
He only made a few fiddles. Helen has three of the four of them.
National Treasure Henderson is recipient of the National Heritage Award presented at the White House in 1995.
Henderson told great stories from that life, one after another. He told stories about friends and neighbors the likes of Doc Watson who would cross the nearby NC border and come sit in Wayne’s shop and talk and jam.
Helen White is herself is a bit of a treasure and a mighty contributor to her mountain and valley community. She is a retired teacher and is the founder and regional director of the Junior Appalachian Musicians Program (JAM) that introduces mountain children to their musical heritage.
Helen recently went back to get her advanced degree in music theory while now in, I believe she said, her sixties. She also recently apprenticed in voice with a nationally recognized vocal titan.
They played some national popular culture favorites that night, the likes of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” “Rose of my Heart,” and “Alabama Jubilee.” “NC Breakdown,” devoted to his friend Doc Watson, and “Down Yonder” were other notables in a long line of traditional favorites. Wayne and Helen had everyone sing along with “Ballgame.”
Wayne keeps busy. Some years ago, he established a foundation to provide musical training for children in the Blue Ridge. To fund the program, he presents the exciting Wayne C. Henderson Music Festival and Guitar Competition each year in June, featuring himself and the likes of Vince Gill, George Hamilton IV and The Boxcars
Henderson and White did two sets and an encore. And Henderson closed with an invitation to everyone to visit him at his small shop near the North Carolina border.
He was asked during the break how long his wait list for guitars was. “If I follow the list honestly, I'd probably not get through it in my lifetime,” he said, with a smile about the "honestly" part.
In the second set, “April bride” was a lovely waltz written by White for a local wedding. The two played it with great tenderness and a lovely, lacy complexity.
“Stepstone” was an original by Wayne, Helen, and another collaborator and offered a fine look at the instrumental fit of these two Appalachian performers, weaving in and out of individual instrumental shine.
With much of the concert focused on the instrumental, the sound was varied with the intersection of lovely vocals by White
Most of the songs performed were traditional, arranged by Wayne & Helen or arranged by Wayne himself.
I had a thrill when Wayne came by earlier, before the show, and played a few moments on my earnest Sea Gull guitar, pleasing me by approving of the sound.
Henderson acknowledged that his friend, fellow acoustic jammer, and remaining Carter Family performer, the fine Poor Valley denizen and grandson of A.P. and Sara Carter, Dale Jett, would be following him into the Tidewater Acoustic Series at the Barry Robinson Theatre with his group, Hello Stranger.
The opening act was the excellent young talent, Troy Breslow. He is a fine player. Young and, honestly, he appears a bit gawkish-looking with his rigid-thrusting glasses and youngish, somewhat generic surface. But, all of that dispels in an instant when you watch and hear him sing. A rich voice from the vaults of a Johnny Cash or Merle Haggard, the boy sings like a grown man, matured in years of Nashville, most of the songs fine originals.
His are songs with the maturity, poise, and understanding of a much older singer-songwriter. One of the songs is a truly original piece about being a Jewish cowboy singer. One or two surface changes, maybe a cowboy hat for example, Troy might become a country heart throb.