Each One Teach One -- Wayne Henderson: Moving a vibrant musical tradition forward -- Audio Transcript

Jo Reed: You’re listening to luthier, musician 1995 National Heritage Fellow Wayne Henderson Welcome to NEA Arts online.  I’m Josephine Reed.

Born and raised in Grayson county, Virginia Wayne Henderson’s music and craftsmanship is deeply rooted in the music-loving Appalachian Mountains of his home. And he is determined to make sure it remains a living tradition- teaching young people the joys of playing traditional music and handcrafting its instruments.   Henderson is a marvelous guitarist with more than 300 ribbons at fiddlers' conventions… performing at Carnegie Hall and the Smithsonian as well as touring throughout Europe and Asia

And  Henderson has a giant reputation as one of the country’s best luthiers, making mandolins, fiddles, banjoes, and particularly guitars. To own a Henderson guitar is to own a superbly crafted hand-made instrument. The work is slow, and Henderson will not be rushed;   the waiting list is a long one—made up of the famous and not-so-famous. A neighbor is more likely to get a Henderson guitar than a star.   Henderson runs his workshop like an open house with folks dropping by, watching,  learning from him and often picking a few tunes. 

Wayne Henderson learned guitar-making from a neighbor when he was a boy not far from where he now lives….and he’s passed his knowledge on to many apprentices including his daughter, Jayne who now works with him as luthier in her right…with a four-year waiting list for one of her guitars—People have known to wait ten years for a Wayne Henderson guitar.   Something a young Wayne Henderson could never have imagined as he struggled with his first one.

Wayne Henderson:  Well, I started making guitars as far back as I can remember I used to make them.  People in this Appalachian region never been-- most everybody were farmers and didn’t have lots of money to go out and buy fancy instruments and there was one that Mr. Ball was talking about had a nice old Martin guitar that he got somehow way back in the ‘40s and he always had that thing and it was the best guitar in the community and he would let me look at it and I wanted one of those things so bad I couldn’t stand it, but absolutely could not afford one and me or my family, either one, and so I would go up and look at it and I’d think I always made stuff.  I had always been a craftsperson.  I’ve whittled and carved and made all my toys when I was a kid.   My mom did too.  My dad was a pretty good carpenter.  He could do stuff you needed on the farm.  My grandpa was a great craftsman.  They built houses and made caskets and all kinds of things and so it was always in my family to be a craftsperson and so that old guitar, I’d look at it and I’d think, “This thing ain’t made out of nothing but wood.  I should be able to make one of these,”

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….and of course I had a hard time getting much done because I had no materials and tools and just what was on the farm, but I fashioned out a guitar just by drawing around maybe the old one that I had first or Mr. Ball’s Martin and he had let me look at it, but he certainly wouldn’t take the strings off.  He was so particular with it.  I could feel on the inside of it or anything, but I got started at it like that and I made one guitar out of starting to try to find material’s really a challenge and because I knew the sides had to be bent somehow and I had no idea how to do that and I had observed a piece of walnut veneer in my mom’s dresser drawer bottom that the veneer, it was real thin, but it was walnut, pretty wood, and I noticed it was flexible and I thought, “Well, that stuff will bend if I can get that off there,” and so I bent that and glued it together with the only glue I had was some old black rubber stuff my dad put weather stripping on his truck door and I’d seen him do that and so you just stick it and it sticks right there, so he didn’t have to clamp it and stuff and I thought, “Well, that’s the ticket.”  I can do that without having forms or clamps or anything that I didn’t have and didn’t know how to make and so I worked my whole school vacation between farm work and stuff getting that guitar made and then when it got August and heat and humidity set in on that, I had it out in an outbuilding where nobody’d been seeing it and had it almost done and had the body made, the neck made and everything, and when I went out there one day and it’d got hot and that spring had still left and that walnut veneer and that old rubber glue got hot, that thing just totally came apart and I was so disappointed and my dad could tell there was something wrong with me and after a while I told him I tried to make a guitar and of course they wasn’t into that guitar making.  That was an unheard of thing and nobody around did that and thought that was a total waste of time,

Jo Reed: but his father saw Wayne’s interest and made him a promise…

Wayne Henderson: ….he said the next time it’s a rainy day and we can’t work on the farm, I’ll take you over to see a fellow named Albert Hash and Albert was a fiddle maker.  Had made some fiddles and so one day sure enough he did.  He took me over there and he lived just 25 miles away over in Lansing, North Carolina, and that was like going to New York, but for us then and we went over there one day and I couldn’t believe Albert.  He got a fiddle out that he had made in 1953 and he had quit fiddling or making too, but he was raising his family.  He worked in a factory, but he got that fiddle out and showed me and he saw my interest and all this and he helped me and he told me how to bend a piece of wood.  He gave me a piece of wood somebody had thrown out of an old door and it was mahogany and he said, “Son, this is a piece of mahogany.  It’s the same thing a Martin’s made out of,” and that just drove me wild because and it was thin, an eighth of an inch thick, and he told me how to take a hot metal pipe and get it hot and then wet the wood on the inside and just bend it around that pipe and sure enough that worked and I don’t know how long it took me to ever bend that set of sides, but I got them bent and put that guitar together and he also told me to get some Elmer’s or Weldwood Carpenter’s Glue and I finally got to a store somewhere and bought some of that glue and he said that’ll hold it together until the cows come and sure enough it did.  That guitar’s still together.  I still have it and that was about 1964.  It took me another whole year to make that guitar, but Albert was a big help in telling me how to bend wood and what kind of glue to use and then he turned out to be an amazing friend and somebody I knew as long as he lived and played music with him.  I got him back out to playing music because he played the tune on that fiddle he made and that’s the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.  I couldn’t believe and that gave me the idea that somebody’s hands in this neighborhood could build a beautiful instrument and so that was encouraging and then when I worked that year and got that guitar back together and I took it, I couldn’t wait to take it and show it to Albert and when I went over there, what he was biggest help at, he was real encouraging and when I showed him that old guitar was a pretty rough, crude operation for a guitar, but it worked and played and Albert looked at it and he said, “Lord, son, if I’d known you’d done this good, I’d have got you some better wood,”

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Jo Reed: A Henderson guitar sounds like no other….musicians are able to pick them out immediately

 Well, I like a nice, deep, woody tone that happens by trimming your braces lightly in the top and they have to be left heavy enough so your instrument will hold up under the stress of the strings, but you can get them carved down to where that top vibrates at its best, the most it will do, and you can hear that.  I’ve always had to learn to do it by just listening and my daughter, since she’s been helping me build and building her own stuff, she comes up to the good stuff every once in a while and I was trying to teach her.  It’s hard to teach somebody how to listen to a piece of wood, the tone that it has, and she said, “Why can’t I put a tuner on it?” and we tried that and sure enough it worked pretty good, the tuners they have now, the little electronic tuners, you can tap it and it’ll read out the C, D, or whatever and it works really, really cool and that’s what she does most of the time and the guitars turn out to sound really good and she also learns by listening to it too, but for a little final inspection it’s pretty cool to be able to read out that that top is tuned in a C chord which I think is good because it’s the middle of the scale and when you get it tuned to that, it looks like I always do them and so that’s pretty cool.

Jo Reed:   And Henderson believes in the theory that a guitar needs to be played in order for its sound to develop

Wayne Henderson:  Almost every instrument you make, when it gets played just a little bit, the next day will sound better and they say everybody says old instruments always sound better than new ones, but I think those old instruments sound much better when they’ve been used and played and I don’t know exactly-- I’m no scientist or anything, but I think those pieces of wood, stuff I’ve always heard and makes sense to me, when you put that string on there and the vibrations from the string make the top move and vibrate and that creates a sound chamber waves on the inside of the body that you can feel when you tap on it or play on anything.  You can feel air come out the sound hole.  That means something’s moving in there somewhere.  The grain of the wood runs from the back end to the front end and the sound waves travel through those grains of the wood and they say the more they do that, it lines up the molecules of the wood and it gets them in line with each other.  The more they vibrate the sound waves travel through the piece of wood.  That makes sense to me that they would do that and the more that happens, the easier they go through there.  They get lined up.  Less resistance of vibration from one end of that top to the other. The most noticeable time that you can hear that’s when you first string up an instrument.  When you string it up the very first time, sometimes it’ll sound wonderful as soon as they put a string on it, but it always gets better just in a few hours and then the next day for sure and then after that it slows down.  You have to play on it a lot to notice much difference.

Jo Reed:  And Wayne Henderson does play a lot—he is one of the best bluegrass and old-time guitar-players going….again—honoring who came before him and paying it forward to the next generations—One of  Wayne Henderson’s first and most influential teachers was a guitarist who lived up the road---local legend and 1988 National Heritage fellow Doc Watson.

Wayne Henderson: I could play pretty good music with them to play lead guitar and we learned some guitar tunes and stuff like that and then in the ‘60s I got a hold of a Doc Watson record and Doc didn’t live 45 minutes from right here, you know, but I’d never seen him or heard tell of him and when he started putting those records out in the ‘60s, I couldn’t believe my ears that anybody could play a guitar like that.

Jo Reed: Henderson described what was distinctive about Doc Watson and his playing

Wayne Henderson: Well, it was a new thing to us then. Doc back in the ‘50s played in a rockabilly band that would play all kinds of gigs they could get and sometimes they would play square dances and they did not have a fiddle player. They had more of a rockabilly band and Doc, when they played for a square dance would play a tune like “Down Yonder” or “Turkey in the Straw” or any old fiddle tune like that for them to dance and when they start dancing, they want to dance for 20 minutes and I’ve heard Doc told me before he played those tunes it felt like his arm was going to fall off, but that’s how he learned how to do that so good.

Jo Reed:  So by taking fiddle tunes and playing them on a guitar, Doc Watson reimagined traditional mountain music

Wayne Henderson: When he started making those records, he fell back on some of that stuff that he knew how to do that almost nobody else had ever done and certainly not out in national recordings or anything and he’d also take old songs, country songs that people would sing, and turn that into a guitar instrumental. That was a new thing. I just could not believe my ears when I’d hear that guitar, what he was doing on that, and then of course you started trying to learn how to do some of that. (music up)

 It wasn’t long until the late ‘60s I got to meet Doc because he lived close by and I ran into him over in a music store in Boone, North Carolina, and I was sitting there picking a Carter Family tune, “Cannonball Blues.” I still remember that and I heard this voice behind me. I was sitting on a stool in that store picking, playing that, and I heard somebody singing. I turned around and sure enough-- I thought it sounded familiar and I turned around and it was Doc. Walked up, sang that song with me and I liked to fell off the stool, you know but he was a super nice guy and he’d done been making records and stuff then and he was getting well known and to me somebody really famous. You know, Doc never did act like he was famous and didn’t even want you to even mention anything like that. He just wanted to be a regular like everybody else, but he certainly was special to me and everybody else in the world and he was one of my biggest influences.

Jo Reed:  Just as Wayne Henderson learned from Doc Watson, he is committed to passing the music on to the next generation— to that end, he works closely with JAM—junior Appalachian Musicians-- and over two decades ago, he started the Wayne Henderson Music Festival….which raises scholarship money for young musicians. And the winner of the highly competitive guitar-playing contest actually gets their very own Henderson.

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Wayne Henderson: That usually draws in some really good players. The contest is always really good and a lot of people show up early in the day to see that and then we have music. Usually somebody I can trade a guitar for if it’s a big shot. It’s a totally volunteer organization and nonprofit and every bit of the money that we make goes into a scholarship fund that’s distributed out every year to kids to learn how to play this music. It’s a cool festival. It’s up in the most gorgeous state park you’ve ever seen right here in this community. People really seem to enjoy it and my only job mainly is to select who I can get to come play and that’s always somebody good. Doc come and did it like three different times.  The very first festival we ever had was successful and that is a lot because Doc volunteered to come play at it.  Some of the best music you will ever hear comes from right around here.  My goal is to promote this music in general and anything I can do to help preserve it.  I’ll always try to do…. (music up)

and as I get older it seems like I even like making instruments even better and seems like I never get tired of it. I even string up a new-- I made like 600 guitars and if I get a new instrument strung up it just seems like as much fun as ever to hear that first tone and sound. I always sit and play them and listen. It’s always exciting, a good thing to do.

That’s luthier, musician, and 1995 National Heritage Fellow Wayne Henderson. For  NEA Arts Online.  I’m Josephine Reed, thanks for listening.