The byline on a Jan. 3 Escapes page article was incorrect. The piece, about a guitar maker in southwestern Virginia, was written by David A. Taylor. (Published 1/04/01)
Wayne Henderson's shop is no place for the fainthearted. For a music lover, the sight of a guitar with no neck or a gutted mandolin can be alarming, and Henderson's shop in the mountains of southwestern Virginia is a positive anatomy lab of traditional music: Up on the crowded shelves around the garage-size room sit disemboweled instruments, a beheaded banjo. The worktable in the middle is covered with wooden templates and tools. For master craftsman Henderson, the way to learn about instruments is to dissect them.
"I'm always trying to figure out why a guitar's braces are shaped like they are," he says. "Why is it made that way?"
After making more than 200 guitars, 72 mandolins, two fiddles, two dulcimers and a dobro, Henderson would seem to have a grasp of all that. His instruments have been displayed in the Smithsonian and snapped up by artists ranging from Eric Clapton to Doc Watson. Still he looks for new challenges, like making an acoustic arch-top, a guitar style that country pioneer Maybelle Carter brought to 1920s country music. The craft keeps Henderson up most nights, working in this brick shop next to his home. By day, he drives a mail route that stretches over 80 rolling miles.
This may feel like the middle of nowhere, but this corner of southwestern Virginia is the heart of mountain music, a sound made famous by the Carter Family and precursor to Nashville. Outside, in the distance beyond a slope full of Christmas trees, Mount Rogers catches the sun's last glow. Henderson's address is tiny Rugby, but just to the east lies the town of Galax, where you can stroll Main Street from the old Rex Theatre, with its weekly radio broadcasts of live bluegrass, to Tom Barr's fiddle shop, where pickers have swapped songs for more than a decade.
If you want, several area museums will lay that history out for you. Or you can find your own inspiration hiking the hillsides. Here, making music from the instrument up is a tradition. The craft is in Henderson's blood. "My grandfather made coffins," he says with a smile.
Compact and fit at 53, Henderson moves around the workshop with purpose. His salt-and-pepper beard points toward the frets as he scans them for irregularities. He looks a bit like a less-weathered Willie Nelson.
On this crisp Wednesday evening, he's putting the final touches on guitar No. 243. The top is lustrous, fine-grained Appalachian red spruce, and for the back and sides he used walnut and maple. Abalone inlay glimmers at the guitar's edges, and near the pegs it spells out "W.C. Henderson" against the wood.
Across the room, another craftsman, Herb Key, fixes the bridge of an old Martin. Gerald Anderson, who has just finished his seventh mandolin, talks with a man having his instrument repaired. Visitors show up with all brands of license plates.
The shop opens in the evenings around 6 or so. Wednesday nights, the place looks more like a community center than a craftsman's lair, packed with pickers and listeners, some waiting to pick up a repair or a guitar they'd ordered from Henderson years ago (his backlog is notorious), others just happy to hang out.
Two guitarists sit picking with Gerald on mandolin while Henderson files the frets on No. 243 for Hunter Wilson, a teenager who's brought his family to pick up his prize. In the course of things, Henderson brings out a guitar from his own collection -- an 1898 Martin, slightly worn but in remarkably good shape. It's passed around and strummed, with amazingly bright tones from a guitar a century old.
Henderson began his woodworking days as a boy whittling toys, and advanced to peeling the walnut veneer from his mother's dresser drawer to use for a guitar. (He soaked it off and replaced the drawer before she noticed.) When that experiment went sour, his father consoled him with a visit to Albert Hash, a master fiddlemaker nearby.
Hash tutored the boy in the craft and within a few years, strangers were paying Henderson $500 for a guitar (at the time, an unheard-of sum for a teenager in Rugby). Soon he was being courted by George Gruhn, Nashville's leading name in guitar repair. Henderson didn't want to leave Rugby, but Gruhn (whose customers included Johnny Cash, Elvis and Kris Kristofferson) lured him with the promise of delving inside the finest acoustic guitars around. That didn't quite make Henderson abandon Rugby, but for several years it got him into Nashville for months at a time.
"I learned about making guitars from repair work," he says.
Now Herb Key, in a blue worker's apron, keeps repairs going while Henderson focuses on new instruments. Key shows off a just-restored 1948 Martin: Wood splices that he used to fill cracks are virtually invisible, and the new back panel is identical to the original.
A look around the workshop turns up some unusual tools. There's a wooden contraption that looks like a one-armed coat rack. That, Herb explains, is a "side-bending machine." If you turn your head sideways and squint, it resembles half a guitar. Each walnut side is soaked in water, then stretched and cured in place.
Dominating one wall is a reminder of Henderson's day job: an old mail sorting rack. The pigeonholes are stuffed with orders and pleas to get on Henderson's waiting list.
Besides the number of orders, another passion keeps them from getting filled faster: Henderson loves playing guitars. He has toured internationally and has a clutch of blue ribbons from the Galax Old Fiddlers' Convention, the premier musical competition in these parts. The convention, hosted each summer since 1935 by Moose Lodge 733, is an institution in traditional and old-time music ("old-time" being a precursor to the bluegrass sound created by mandolin player Bill Monroe in the late 1930s). Started as a cash-earner for out-of-work musicians in the Great Depression, the Galax convention now awards more than $10,000 in prizes and 130 ribbons. This year's event sprawled across six nights and 20 acres, drawing about 40,000 people. "The town grows fivefold during the convention," says Larry Bartlett, Moose Lodge spokesman. The lodge just received a governor's arts award for its contribution to traditional music.
Galax made music history well before the first convention. In the 1920s, area residents Henry Whitter and Ernest Stoneman were among the first country stars in the recording industry. It was Stoneman who brought producer Ralph Peer to the mountains for the legendary Bristol recording sessions that launched the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers.
Back in his shop, Wayne Henderson has finished with the frets and leans a drill bit against the polished walnut of the new guitar. The dozen people in the room go quiet as he bears into it. Presto, the strap butt is in place.
He strings the guitar, tunes it, then hands it to Hunter, the new owner. They sit down and the teenager hesitates, daunted by the idea of playing "Sweet Georgia Brown" with the master.
But he jumps in behind Henderson's lead. And that guitar, recently just a pile of disembodied musical organs, comes alive -- another voice added to an old, ongoing mountain choir.