April 15, 2010

Straight Talk from the Crooked Road

by Jim Newsom

Looking through this year’s Virginia Arts Festival brochure, an unsuspecting arts aficionado might well wonder what is this “Music from the Crooked Road” that’s coming to the Roper on April 18th?

Guitarist Wayne Henderson explained it to me recently: “The ‘Crooked Road’ is a 253-mile stretch of road that runs from Ferrum, right below Roanoke, all the way over into the coalfields, over to Clintwood. And there’s old-time music and bluegrass venues all along it. It pretty much follows Route 58. If you’ll travel the length of that Crooked Road, you can go to a music venue almost every night.

“We grew up here with not too much else to do; how we entertained ourselves was to play music. I’ve been playing since I was five. My dad played, my grandpas both played.

Henderson lives in Rugby, population seven, due south from Marion in Grayson County, just above the North Carolina line. Every so often, he and some of the area’s other outstanding musicians take southwest Virginia’s musical heritage on the road. But flatlanders may not know the difference between old-time music and bluegrass.

“They’re real close kin,” he acknowledged. “It’s usually the banjo style that is the most distinctive, the old-timey drop-thumb clawhammer. That old-time music was designed and made for dancing. In a bluegrass band, they sing songs and take turns playing, with banjo and fiddle and even guitar players sometimes—one takes a solo, then they sing a while, then they do another solo. In the old-time music, they jump in there all at once and keep a good solid beat so people can have a good time dancing.”

That style has appealed to Wayne Henderson since he was a youngster in the ‘50s:

“I’ve pretty much always been into the old-time stuff. I remember the first time Elvis Presley came onto the Ed Sullivan Show, and I thought he was bound to have lost his mind. I’d never seen anything like that. I was used to somebody sitting down and pickin’, not jumpin’ around and singin’. Then we got to noticin’ everybody going hog-wild and pig-crazy over it, we couldn’t understand that either.”

Though he’s a highly regarded self-described “hillbilly guitar picker,” it’s his guitar making that has brought him the most acclaim in the music world. He builds about thirty a year, and he says he has a ten-year waiting list. One of his most famous commissions was chronicled in author Allen St. John’s 2005 book, Clapton’s Guitar: Watching Wayne Henderson Build the Perfect Instrument. He started when he was a teenager.

“I’d always made stuff,” he said, “carved and whittled. When I got to looking at [this] Martin guitar, I said that’s only made out of wood, I should be able to make one of those things.”

His first attempt fell apart when the hot August heat and humidity melted the rubber glue he’d used to hold it together. But he soon got the hang and discovered there was a market for his work.

“The first one that I sold for anything much was like a Martin D-45,” he recollected. “Years later I found that guitar and managed to get it back. It’s number seven. I’d take that guitar down to my granny’s of a night and play, and a local moonshiner guy come in and said he’d heard I’d made a guitar and wanted to see it.

“I was scared to death ‘cause the local moonshiner was a little bit of a shady character. And then a stranger who was with him, we was really afraid of him ‘cause we didn’t know him. The guy bragged on it and said it was probably the best guitar he’d ever seen. After a while, he got to wanting to buy it and said, ‘what would you take for this guitar?’ I didn’t want to sell my guitar, so I told my granny ‘I’m gonna price this thing so high that it will get rid of him.’

“I told him I’d have to have $500.00 for it, and he put it down and left, so I said, ‘well that worked, I got rid of him.’ But the next evening he came back and played it for thirty minutes. He said ‘well, I really like this guitar and I think I’ll just take it.’ He had five one-hundred-dollar bills in his shirt pocket and he gave me that. It was more money than I’d ever seen or heard tell of. I hated to lose my guitar, but I was sure glad to have that much money. I thought I was filthy rich.

“I bought wood and tools and my next guitars were better. I always credited that fellow with really helping my instrument-making career. But he traded that guitar off to another bunch of moonshiners and they didn’t treat it real well. It got shot through.

“I still have that old guitar. It’s got a bullet hole through it but it sounds great.”

Wayne Henderson is pleased that folks from all over are discovering the music of the Crooked Road.

“It’s turned out better than anybody thought it could,” he said. “We need stuff like that around here. In these mountains there’s not much work and that tourism stuff is probably our best industry right now. And I always think our heritage and music culture—that’s the hardest thing in the world to move to China!”

Music from the Crooked Road
TCC Roper Performing Arts Center
Sunday, April 18 – 7:00 pm
Tickets: $25 – 35
(757) 282-2800; www.virginiaartsfest.com

copyright © 2010 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.