Cover Story

Wayne Henderson: Virginia's Own Music Legend

by Peggy B. Ely, Contributing Writer


Wayne Henderson. Photo courtesy of Virginia.Org.

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.

 On 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 trigger ...

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.

Still Building

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 Doc Watson.

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 Henderson.

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.

Wayne Henderson 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 also perform. 

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, visit


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