For nearly 50 years, Wayne Henderson has had an
ever-widening influence on the world of music.
Henderson is an extraordinary guitar virtuoso and
world-renowned luthier who makes his home in the mountain community of Rugby
(population 7), in Southwest Virginia near the Carolina state line.
Not only is he a world-class musician, Henderson’s
legendary reputation for creating finely hand-crafted acoustic musical
instruments is widely acclaimed.
any given day, you might find him mesmerizing an audience with his brilliant
guitar-playing style on a stage anywhere in the world, or picking a tune on
a neighbor’s front porch. Or, you might find him in his guitar shop, where
musical instruments are magically crafted by the skilled hands of this
humble and talented artist.
A retired rural mail carrier, Wayne recalls that music
has been an influential part of his life since early childhood. He began
playing guitar at the tender age of 5, and when he was a small child, he
crafted his own guitar (which he still has) from a cardboard snuff box, a
piece of wood and some fishing line.
Wayne’s father, Walter Henderson, was an old-time
fiddler and performed for many years throughout local communities in the
Grayson County area with a band known as the Rugby Gully Jumpers. Wayne also
credits his mother, Sylvia, for passing down to her children an exceptional
creative ability. While she didn’t play a musical instrument, she expressed
her artistic flair visually with stunning artwork and beautiful handmade
quilts. Wayne’s older brother, Max, is also an accomplished musician, the
mandolin his instrument of choice. And, with one of his grandfathers having
played old-time banjo, Wayne’s musical heritage has been an enduring
influence on the fascinating path that he has chosen in life.
While he never studied music or
had formal guitar lessons, as a young man Wayne spent lots of time listening
to recordings by the legendary musician Doc Watson, one of his most
influential heroes, and later in life one of his dearest friends. Another
talented musician and songwriter, E. C. Ball, a neighbor and close friend
who played in the band with Wayne’s father, became a mentor to him. As a
result of time spent playing music with E. C. as he played his impressive
Martin guitar, Wayne was inspired to try his hand at crafting his own
instrument, patterned after the Martin guitar style that he admired so much.
Through a bit of initial trial and error, and with the
expert advice and guidance from another widely known and respected luthier,
old-time fiddler and neighbor Albert Hash, Wayne crafted his first
masterpiece as a young man. Much of the guitar’s detail was meticulously
created with a pocket knife and a piece of glass, used for painstakingly
smoothing out the wood. After successfully crafting his No. 1 guitar, the
wheels were set in motion for more instruments to be created, each time with
more refined skill and expertise. His gems soon caught the attention of
musicians far and wide.
The Story of No. 7
One of Wayne’s favorite stories involves guitar No. 7.
Although he sold some of the guitars he built in the early years for as much
as $40 each, he wasn’t particularly interested in selling No. 7. But, one
day, a rather intimidating stranger who had a well-known reputation as a
notorious moonshiner became adamant about purchasing it as soon as he played
it. Wayne was a bit on edge in the company of this shady character and
emphatically told him the guitar wasn’t for sale, but the stranger
persisted. Finally, Wayne decided to price it so high no one could afford
it, and blurted out that it would take $500 to buy it!
With that, Wayne felt certain he would be rid of the
unwanted visitor; but the very next day, he was back. The man reached into
his shirt pocket, took out five $100 bills and handed them to Wayne. He was
overwhelmed, but he had set the price, and No. 7 was gone. As time passed,
Wayne occasionally caught a glimpse of the guitar at various music
festivals, once in the hands of even more notorious moonshiners who didn’t
even bother to protect it from the rain.
But with all the buying, selling and trading of
instruments that takes place, No. 7 eventually found its way back to Wayne
years later. To his delight, it was, in spite of everything, in one piece
and although worn and weathered, its appearance was still rather pleasing
... but the bullet hole in it was hard to miss. Wayne was told that one of
the guitar’s owners was cleaning his gun and accidently shot it. Being a gun
owner himself, Wayne concluded that sounded pretty far-fetched and had
another, more logical theory. He surmised that it might have been possible
that the fellow, just for target practice, took aim at the sound hole of the
guitar with what he (maybe) thought was an empty gun, then pulled the
In the early days of Wayne’s musical career, he, his
brother Max, Boyd Stewart and Albert Hash delighted radio-listening
audiences with their long-running Saturday morning music shows broadcast
live from WKSK Radio in West Jefferson, N.C. According to Wayne, this
eight-year stint with a successful radio show was his first real “gig” and
his musical career was off and running. Through the years, as his career
continued to flourish, he shared his music with audiences in every state, in
Canada, Asia and Europe. He has played at Carnegie Hall, on the grounds of
the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and in 1995 was awarded the National
Heritage Fellowship Award by the National Endowment for the Arts. He was
presented the award by then-First Lady Hillary Clinton, and was invited to
share his extraordinary musical talent with the White House guests at this
most prestigious event.
Today, he continues to entertain and thrill audiences
locally and the world over, and often shares the stage with friends Jeff
Little and Helen White, both excellent musicians in their own right. In
April, he and the other members of a group known as The Virginia Luthiers —
Gerald Anderson, Jimmy Edmonds and Spencer Strickland, all talented
musicians and world-renowned musical-instrument craftsmen — traveled to
Lyons, Col., to participate in the High Street Concert Series.
In addition to all the show dates that occupy Wayne’s
time, he averages building 30 guitars each year. On the snowy, early spring
day when we visited Wayne’s guitar shop, he was delicately adding detail
work to a strikingly beautiful guitar, No. 589. He also handcrafts many fine
mandolins, banjos, fiddles and ukuleles. Some of the more well-known
musicians to own W. C. Henderson guitars include Eric Clapton and the late
The definition of luthier is “a maker of stringed
instruments.” That’s a rather simple description of an artist who can
transform selected pieces of wood into musical instruments that can, if
properly cared for, last centuries. Wayne is a gifted craftsman and
legendary luthier who settles for nothing less than perfection in each
instrument he creates.
It has been said that words cannot explain the quality of
a musical instrument, that the music played on it speaks for itself. No one
has more feeling about the music played on an instrument than Wayne
And, nowhere will you find an individual who does more to
promote the gift of music — through his highly acclaimed style of guitar
playing, as well as his exceptional talent as a luthier.
This soft-spoken gentleman takes his love for music from
a small remote community in the mountains of Virginia and graciously shares
it with the world.
music festival & Guitar competition
The annual Wayne C. Henderson
Music Festival and Guitar Competition will be held June 15, 2013, at the
Grayson Highlands State Park at Mouth of Wilson, Va.
Sponsored by Wayne Henderson
Music Festival, Inc., and the Department of Conservation and Recreation,
Division of State Parks, the festival is always held the third Saturday in
June, regardless of weather.
The show features lots of bluegrass and
old-time music. Children’s music and events will also be scheduled.
The festival features some of the
region’s best traditional musicians who, from time to time, share the stage
with bluegrass bands from Europe. Wayne and many of his musician friends
This year’s festival lineup also
includes Roseanne Cash, The Quebe Sisters, and John Leventhal.
The music festival and guitar competition were
established in 1995 to honor living legend Wayne Henderson. Winner of the
guitar competition receives a handcrafted Wayne Henderson guitar.
Each year since the festival started, a portion of the
proceeds from the event have funded scholarships to aid young, local,
traditional musicians in continuing their exploration and education.
Individuals are selected to receive scholarships for up to $500, which may
be applied to individual lessons or a traditional music camp/program of the
applicant’s choice. Scholarship winners can be selected from classes in all
levels of fiddle, banjo, guitar, acoustic bass, lap dulcimer, or mandolin.
The grants are for students (age
18 and under) of traditional acoustic music instruments who are residents of
the Central Appalachian Region.
Preference will be given to new applicants and
applicants who are not yet accomplished musicians.
For additional information about this year’s Wayne C.
Henderson Music Festival and Guitar Competition and scholarship details,