Prior columns mentioned a few bluegrass radio personalities in passing but this is the first column devoted to one. Bluegrass radio has been an important part of the music from the beginning. Bill Monroe joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1939 and was heard every Saturday night throughout much of the United States over radio station WSM’s 50,000 watt clear channel radio signal. Before bluegrass was a separate genre, country DJs like WSM’s Ralph Emery, Lee Moore (known as the “Coffee Drinking Nighthawk” over WWVA in Wheeling), Don Owens and Tom Cat Reeder helped spread the bluegrass sound far and wide. In Baltimore Ray Davis broadcast the music daily from Johnny’s Used Cars, home of “the walking man’s friend.” These DJs, and many like them, made bluegrass music accessible to fans everywhere. They introduced bluegrass to people who would not have otherwise heard it.
The bluegrass radio personality who made the biggest impact on me was Gary Henderson. When I lived in Washington DC in the 1980s, the area was saturated with bluegrass. In those days, American University’s public radio station WAMU broadcast bluegrass more than 40 hours a week on 88.5 FM. WAMU had a very strong lineup of radio personalities. Lee Michael Demsey and Dick Spottswood, who are both still broadcasting, were on WAMU in those days, along with Jerry Gray and Red Shipley. Lee and Jerry had the weekday afternoon slots (mostly-Jerry had a Saturday afternoon cowboy music show that I loved, but that’s a different column). At the time, there were also excellent programs on other area stations, included those hosted by Reeder and Katy Daley.
Because I worked during the week, I listened mostly on weekends. On Saturday mornings from 8 to noon, WAMU’s airwaves belonged to Gary Henderson, the self-proclaimed “Round Mound of Sound.” Listening to Henderson every week was like attending master’s degree classes in bluegrass, traditional country and old time music. Seemingly effortlessly, Henderson conveyed a lot of information about the music without ever seeming professorial or didactic. On the contrary, he had a friendly, easygoing on-air demeanor and sounded like he was having a ball in the studio. In announcing what he had just played, he would usually tell you who the musicians on the recording were, and often he’d tell a quick story about them. He seemed to be friends with every bluegrass musician in the DC/Baltimore area, and would often read messages from or to them on the air.
Henderson had excellent taste in music, the one essential quality of a great DJ. He mixed bluegrass and country music, old and new, and gave me an appreciation of many performers then largely unknown to me, including established bluegrass artists like the Stanley Brothers, Jimmy Martin, Mac Wiseman, Reno & Smiley, Charlie Moore, and Jim and Jesse, as well as then-contemporary artists like Tony Rice, the McPeak Brothers, Dave Evans, and the Lost and Found. He introduced me to many traditional country artists. I first listened closely to Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Marty Robbins, Hank Williams, Ray Price, Kitty Wells, Webb Pierce, Johnny & Jack, and the Callahan Brothers on Henderson’s program. He played contemporary country artists who had an old time sound, like Ricky Skaggs (he was playing country then), The Whites, Keith Whitley, Delia Bell & John Anderson, and Gene Watson, among others.
One Saturday morning on the air, Henderson explained his eclectic approach. He very much admired Don Owens, the influential DC-area country and bluegrass DJ and performer who died in a car accident in 1963. In those days, before the lines between country and bluegrass were so clearly marked off, you were likely to hear artists like George Jones and the Stanley Brothers back to back on the same radio show. The music was all of a piece. Henderson was trying to recreate that kind of radio program for modern listeners.
Henderson was unstoppable. On a snowy Saturday morning in February 1983 as the city lay paralyzed by a blizzard, Henderson, who had somehow made his way to the WAMU studio, spread his good cheer, letting us know that the Gary Henderson Show, at least, was open for business. On another Saturday, Henderson, also a radio engineer, was alone in the studio when the station’s stereo signal dropped to one channel. Unfazed, Henderson fixed the problem himself, explaining that in the chief engineer’s absence, he had performed a little “field maintenance” with his “soldering iron and whisk broom.”
Before I left DC to move to the Hudson Valley I recorded three broadcasts of the Gary Henderson Show on three consecutive May Saturdays. In those days, long before internet radio and streaming, I knew that my new home wouldn’t have much bluegrass radio, and I was already homesick for WAMU and Henderson’s program. (When I arrived in Saugerties I was pleased to find that Nick Barr had an excellent three hour Sunday night bluegrass show on WGNA in Albany and that WDST in Woodstock played some bluegrass on Saturday mornings, enough that Seldom Scene dobro ace Mike Auldridge did a station promo for them.) In the nearly 40 years since, I have listened to the Henderson tapes many times and I continue to marvel at his knowledge, his relaxed good humor, and his light touch. My friends who remained in DC would occasionally ease my bluegrass radio withdrawal with musical care packages containing cassette tapes of the Henderson show and other WAMU programs, including great programs hosted by Ray Davis and Johnson Mountain Boys fiddler Eddie Stubbs. (In addition to hosting his WAMU program, Stubbs, a scholar of the music, worked in Nashville for many years as an announcer at the Opry and a DJ on WSM.)
In those days I didn’t know much about Gary Henderson’s career apart from the show except that he played the bass fiddle. It turned out that he had been a cohort of Ben Eldridge, John Starling, Mike Auldridge and others in the late 1960s, part of the “basement band” from which the Seldom Scene later came together (although with Tom Gray on bass). But there was a lot more than that. In 1966, Henderson was one of the five founders of Bluegrass Unlimited magazine, still published today. At the time he was a DJ on another area radio station. In 1967, he and Dick Spottswood began the first bluegrass radio program on WAMU. Spottswood was the DJ, with Henderson engineering the show. When Spottswood left that program, Henderson took over the on-air duties. Henderson’s Saturday morning show began in 1973, and it became WAMU’s most listened to program. He has been honored as a broadcaster by the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America and the International Bluegrass Music Association.
Henderson had a day job engineering radio programs for NPR, and in later years I often heard his name in the credits for NPR’s “Morning Edition.” NPR separated its news stories with short snippets of unidentified recorded music of all sorts. One night during the 2000 Florida recount, after an update from Florida’s capital on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” the unidentified musical snippet was the Bill Monroe fiddle tune “Tallahassee.” In my car, I laughed out loud, wondering how many people got the joke and whether Gary Henderson had anything to do with it.
Fortunately, in the 21st Century, I was able once again to hear the Gary Henderson Show live via the internet. Although Henderson has now retired from broadcasting, repeats of his programs may be heard every Monday at noon on bluegrasscountry.org (or on HD radio in the Washington area at 88.5 FM Channel 2). The station is listener supported, operated by the nonprofit Bluegrass Country Foundation. On it you can hear bluegrass and related music all day every day. And you don’t even need cassette tapes!
Andy, thanks for the history of that location and era. It fills in so much I missed. I was born in Bethesda, the location of so much bluegrass action, but we moved to Florida in the 1940s, when is was 3 years old. My longtime friend Akira Otsuka of Bluegrass 45 still lives in the area and has also told me stories that make me wish ki could’ve transported back. Keep up the good work!