PUBLICATION: The Roanoke Times

A Masterful Guitarmaker


RUGBY, Va. -- Wayne Henderson is a wanted man.

One of the best-known guitar makers in a pocket of Virginia that boasts some of the country's best luthiers, Henderson crafts his instruments one at a time, etching out his niche like a sliver of abalone. People seek him out in his shop in "downtown Rugby, population seven." Some bring money and some bring musical clout, but Henderson makes them all wait their turn.

Singer/guitarist Eric Clapton has waited a year and counting for a guitar made of Indian rosewood with Henderson's stamp at the base of the neck.

"I told him if I had an order from Eric Clapton, I'd get to it and put everyone else off," said Gerald Anderson, a mandolin maker who shares Henderson's shop. "But that's not the way Wayne does it."

Here is what it takes to get a guitar handmade by Henderson: patience, perseverance, friendship. It wouldn't hurt if you had something on him, too.

"You have to nudge him," said Joe Wilson, who procured a guitar after sending Henderson reminder post cards every day for six months. The cards had all kinds of insults on them, said Wilson, director of the National Council of Traditional Arts in Maryland. "I'd put things like 'The 10 things that smell the worst.' No. 10 would be rotten cabbage and there were other unspeakable things -- a Tennessee outhouse in July. No. 1 was a slow guitar maker."

The guitar that came back to him was beautiful, he said, made from a table salvaged from Truman Capote's yacht.

Henderson included a little message, printed backwards, deep in the guitar's belly. You could read it with a mirror if Wilson would let you peek, but he won't divulge its contents. "Let's just say it reflects poorlyon my ancestry," he said.

Country/bluegrass artist Ricky Skaggs once ordered a Henderson guitar, but he never got it.

"He didn't bug me enough," said Henderson, a man with an easy laugh and eyebrows that are permanently peaked, so he looks alert even when he's not.

Sometimes he works until 1 a.m. surrounded by 25 years of sawdust in the old Osborne store, just four miles past Mouth of Wilson in Grayson County.

He can make a basic guitar in a couple of weeks if he works steady. "But I rarely ever work steady."

In the mornings, Henderson, 49, delivers mail along a rural route that twists and curves like the scroll on an F-5 mandolin. He's been with the post office 27 years, and has five to go until retirement. It's a good job, he said.

From time to time he takes off to teach guitar-making workshops in Washington state or to play at a benefit for a musician friend in Oregon. (His friend is sick, he said, and musicians ``have never been known for having a run of money.'')

But most weekdays, "I go up in every holler anybody lives in," he said. "I couldn't be happy anywhere but Rugby. I'd miss these hills too much."

A farmer's son, Wayne Henderson was about yay high when he built his first guitar out of a carved 2-by-4, a piece of fishing line and an empty snuff box. His mother still has it.

Asked why she'd saved it these 40 years, Sylvia Henderson, backed by 84years of living, just grinned and said, "You don't have children, do you?"

Henderson built his second guitar when he was a teen-ager, tired of finger picking on his old junker. "I wanted a new guitar so bad I couldn't stand it," he said. "There was no way we could afford it."

But a guitar was wood, he reasoned, and he could afford that. One day, he opened his mother's dresser drawer and slipped a piece of veneer out of the bottom. It was so thin, it would bend without heat. He worked all through summer vacation, gluing the pieces of his new guitar together with the black rubber stuff his dad used for weather stripping.

"But one day in August, the rubber glue melted and it just spread out," Henderson said. "I guess my dad felt sorry for me."

Henderson's fiddle-playing father, Walter, was a farmer, and Wayne was supposed to grow up to raise cows and tobacco "like everyone around here does, or used to do."

But when Walter Henderson saw his son's first attempt at guitar making, he promised to take him across the state line to North Carolina to see fiddlemaker Albert Hash. "Dad said, 'He can tell you what kind of glue to use,''' Henderson said.

Soon, father and son did make the 12-mile trek to Hash's shop, where the older luthier laid out the basics, sharing his tools and offering advice.

"Mr. Hash gave me this old mahogany door and he said, 'Make your guitar out of this,''' Henderson said. "He taught me to bend the sides over a hot pipe and soak the wood in water first."

Henderson worked a year on that guitar. He fashioned the tuning pegs from the skeleton of a cow he found near his house. Often, he studied the old Martin guitar owned by his neighbor, Estil Ball. When he'd sanded and varnished the last piece of mahogany, he put a number on it - No. 1.

"I took it up and showed it to Mr. Hash. It was a crude operation, but he was real encouraging. He ordered me a set of rosewood then, and I've been trying to make them better ever since."

Henderson has made 176 guitars since 1964. He's also made 62 mandolins and 14 banjos. He is working on his first dobro, which gives him a chance to talk about the Dopera brothers who, in the 1920s, gave the guitar a louder voice by putting an internal speaker in its body.

Such tidbits fill Henderson's brain the way woodchips fill his shop.

News headlines on a civil war in Africa catch his attention. He went near that area on a tour once.

During lunch, he marvels when his favorite restaurant across the state line in Lansing, N.C., offers a side dish of rutabagas. "Rutabagas," he said. "That just beats all."

Henderson's shop sits in an old country store, catty-corner to the Rugby Fire and Rescue Squad.

It is filled with sawdust and woodchips, a sketch of friend and Bluegrass icon Doc Watson, and glossies of local groups like the McPeak Brothers and the Konnarock Critters. A wood-burning stove in the sanding room hasn't seen use since last winter, and during a cold snap, the temperature inside drops to 34 degrees. Henderson can see his breath as he smooths out the rounded bottom of a guitar.

In the front room, warmed by a kerosene heater, sit the sides to what will someday be Eric Clapton's new instrument.

Clapton played one of Henderson's guitars last year while he was being interviewed for a potential recording project that would pit big-name performers with little-known blues musicians. (The interviewer was a friend of Henderson's.)

Clapton liked what he heard. "This is great," he told the interviewer. "I've never heard of this guy before."

Which is OK - before last year, Henderson rarely listened to Clapton. either. Anderson, who plays in one of Henderson's three bands, gave him Clapton's "Unplugged" last Christmas.

Last year, too, is when Henderson received a National Heritage Award, which brought him $10,000 and a visit to the White House where Hillary Rodham Clinton made the presentation.

"She just made a fuss," he said.

His mom got to meet her, too, as did Helen White, a fiddle player and his "lady friend" of the past 10 years, and his daughter, Jayne, who is nearly 12 and learning to play the flute. (He wondered if there was a way he could make a flute, he said, but decided the instrument sounded better made of metal than of wood.)

The heritage award was mostly for guitar making, not playing, though Henderson has made a name for himself there, too. On WBRF-FM, a 100,000-watt Galax radio station, "he's a much-requested, popular artist, partly because he's local, and partly because he's an exceptional finger-picking guitar player," said Chris Edwards, the station's music director.

Henderson started using finger picks, like banjo players, because he could never hold on to a flat pick, he said.

He has released a number of tapes and CDs on labels like Flying Fish and Blacksburg's Hay Holler. He has performed at Carnegie Hall and toured with other guitarists through Southeast Asia and Africa.

During the last monthlong tour, which included a stop in Pakistan, he got a little homesick for Rugby, a community so small "we have to take turns being preacher, town drunk, mayor and dog catcher." He was homesick, too, for his shop, and his house with the view of a Christmas tree farm, a country mile from where he grew up.

It is in his mother's house that he keeps his first guitars, which is only fitting: He made them there, spilling his wood shavings behind an old coal stove.

Henderson did not inherit his musical ear from his mother, nor a singing voice. "That's not in the family nowhere," she said.

But it is from Sylvia Henderson, who has pieced together intricate cathedral-style quilts and now makes patchwork clowns, that he probably learned patience.

"That's not in too many people," she said.

Henderson lives in a rambling brick house with a good, strong wood interior. Inside are enough rooms and beds for the musicians who pass through here. His own bed is one his grandfather built out of curly maple.

"He gave it to me to make mandolins out of, but I just happened to not run out of wood," Henderson said.

A few yards from his home sits an empty brick building that will become his new shop - and Gerald Anderson's, too.

Anderson learned to fashion mandolins at Henderson's elbow, much the way Henderson learned from Hash. Over the years, Anderson also has adopted Henderson's finger-picking style of playing, and has taken on his own postal route.

Together, they're transporting all of Henderson's wood - it appears he's saved every scrap - over to the new building, which is ready except for the finishing touches, like a mural of Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt. And Henderson still has to gather up his instrument-making contraptions. His brother, Max, is a machinist and has fashioned a number of unique tools, including one that digs out the inside of a mandolin.

The new shop will include enough outlets so Henderson will not have to keep plugging and unplugging his equipment, though his favorite tool, a whittling knife, requires no electricity.

The shop also will include a picking room where friends like Doc Watson and those less famous can gather and play. Henderson still fears that the brick won't make the music sound as good as the wooden walls of his old shop.

Doc Watson, who lives an hour away in Deep Gap, N.C., has stopped and picked at the old shop many times since he first took his old Martin guitar there so Henderson could repair its neck.

Henderson gave Watson a new mandolin last February, a trade for Watson's sitting in on Henderson's most recent CD and cassette on Hay Holler, "W.C. Henderson & Company."

"How much are you going to charge me?" Henderson asked.

"I'll take sideman pay, son," Watson replied. "If I can't help a friend, what good am I?"

But Henderson offered the mandolin instead - "awful good pay for one session of music," Watson said. "That Henderson mandolin is as good as any I've had my hands on. And that's saying a lot because I've picked up some good ones."

Both Watson and another bluegrass legend, Texan Peter Rowan, still get a chuckle out of Henderson's explanation of how to put together an instrument.

"He said 'You just get you some good wood and cut away anything that don't look like a guitar,''' Watson said, mimicking Henderson's drawl. "Wayne is a mountain man," he explained. "I couldn't speak like him if I wasn't, too."

Rowan first heard one of Henderson's guitars during a bluegrass festival in the 1970s.

"It had a quality to it - a singing quality," Rowan said. He ordered one, and years later, Henderson gave him a mandolin as well.

"There are Wayne collectors all over the world, or at least people who own an instrument," Rowan said. "We always sit down and go off by ourselves and play our Wayne Henderson guitars."

Blues guitarist John Cephas somehow wrangled both a guitar and a mandolin from Henderson, too.

"I used every means of coercion I could," Cephas said. "I used to call him every other week. Maybe I was in line or maybe he was tired of me bugging him. I think our friendship had a lot to do with it. I know Wayne is so busy. He is probably the most masterful guitar maker in this whole United States."

Cephas got the guitar in 1992, the mandolin last summer. In exchange, he agreed to play last year at Henderson's own annual music festival, held the third weekend in June.

"Listen, I came out on top," Cephas said. "I couldn't have bought that for three times as much as I would have charged for playing." If, that is, Henderson charged the full value. In truth, he charges $800 to $2,500 because he's mostly dealing with friends or trading for favors. The price will likely go up if Henderson ever starts doing this full time - and Cephas believes he will after Eric Clapton starts telling people where he got his guitar, which of course he cannot do until he actually gets it.

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