The SteelDrivers, Mike Henderson, And A Timely Gospel Album
The SteelDrivers, Nashville’s powerhouse bluegrass band, took the stage on September 23 with broken hearts. The audience at the sold-out Egyptian Theater in Park City, UT, had no way of knowing, but the band had been rocked hours before by the news that its co-founder and original mandolin player Mike Henderson had died in his sleep overnight.
“It was, besides playing at his service, maybe the hardest show I've ever done,” fiddler and singer Tammy Rogers said late last week. “I got through it by not speaking his name.” She’d been a close friend and musical companion of Hendo, as his friends called him, since joining the important Dead Reckoning collective in the 1990s.
One other member on stage that night had been with the SteelDrivers since Day One (only because founding banjo player Richard Bailey was on rest for some back issues), and that was bass player Mike Fleming. He’d been friends with Henderson even longer - since the early 70s, when they’d played in bands at the University of Missouri. “When I saw Tammy it was just like we’d lost a sibling,” he said. “We had a hard time looking at each other” on stage as they played song after song written by Henderson and the band's original singer Chris Stapleton.
They “soldiered through” the show, Fleming says. But then came time for the encore, and they knew the one the crowd wanted to hear. Tammy and Mike realized they couldn’t do it. They couldn’t play “Where Rainbows Never Die,” the Henderson/Stapleton song about an old man making peace with the world before “casting off these earthly chains, going where there's no more pain.”
Tammy Rogers: “When people were calling for ‘Rainbows,’ I did go out and just said, ‘You know, Folks, we appreciate you asking for that song. And it's such an important one to us. But we lost our original architect in Mike Henderson today, and we just can't play that song tonight for you.’ And I mean, the room just hushed. It was just such a quiet, respectful moment. And they got it. They understood.”
That’s a generous assessment, because even those of us who’ve followed the Nashville music community have a hard time fully understanding the multi-faceted importance and unique contributions of Michael James Henderson, born in Independence, MO in 1953. In a country music town, he was a top-tier electric blues guitar player and singer with his own chiseled style. He was a studio pro who could step in on guitar, fiddle, mandolin and harmonica. He wrote songs recorded by some of the greats of his era, including CMA and Grammy Award winners and pop star Adele. He spearheaded an indie record company that helped kickstart the 20th century Nashville Americana scene, and with his blues band, he led what must be the longest-running artist residency in Nashville history - Monday nights at the Bluebird Café - steadily from 1986 until just before his untimely passing. Tributes flowed.
“This is crushing,” wrote Kevin Welch, Henderson’s partner in the seminal indie label Dead Reckoning Records. “I was incredibly blessed to get to play with Mike for many years, and he surprised me over and over. I listen to some of the older records, and I’m still baffled by the parts he came up with, on the spot. You could not get him to play the same thing twice, so you either took it or tossed it. I almost always took it.”
Mark Knopfler, he of Dire Straits, who heard Henderson playing with Welch at the Bluebird and who took him on the road in his touring band in the early 2000s, called him “an extraordinary talent: as at home with bluegrass and old-time fiddle music as he was with the blues.”
And the Country Music Hall of Fame issued a eulogy that was remarkably long and detailed for an artist not known to the wider country music fan base. “With every musical discipline Henderson mastered—songwriting, performing, producing, and playing a variety of electric, acoustic, and resonator guitars, harmonicas, mandolins, fiddles, and more—he honed a distinctively primitive, instinctual sound that made him a rare and highly respected top-tier talent,” they wrote. “He described his style as ‘half Bill Monroe, half Muddy Waters.’”
Henderson was playing harmonica by five years old and guitar soon after. At the University of Missouri in Columbia, he met Fleming, who recalls living with him in a house full of youthful music-making and exploring. They had a bluegrass band for about seven years, he says. “Mike played fiddle, mandolin, and some National (slide guitar), and I was playing banjo and guitar. And we were very average - a regional band - but it was a good way to cut our teeth.”
Fleming moved on to the Ozarks to play in what he calls "hillbilly shows" while Henderson shifted from acoustic to electric music, joining The BelAirs with brothers Dick and Dave Pruitt. After some years working and touring with them, he decided Nashville was where he needed to be to keep growing, so he moved with his wife in 1985. After about a year of poking around, he found a vehicle - the new blues band The Roosters, with Kevin Welch, Wally Wilson, Gary Nicholson, Harry Stinson and bassist Glenn Worf, an astonishing all-star cast of Music City cats in their early days. That begat The Snakes, which launched the Bluebird blues Mondays and gave Henderson even more local identity.
Then the studio world opened up, with sessions for Emmylou Harris, John Hiatt, Hank Williams Jr., Guy Clark, the Dixie Chicks, Sting, Lucinda Williams, Patty Loveless, and Delbert McClinton, all by the turn of the millennium. As a songwriter, Henderson thrived as well, landing a late 80s hit when the Fabulous Thunderbirds recorded his song “Powerful Stuff,” plus country cuts with Loveless, the Chicks, Trisha Yearwood, Randy Travis, Neal McCoy, and Highway 101. His solo debut as an artist came out on RCA in 1994, and when it got lost in major label limbo, the idea of the indie label looked appealing.
Dead Reckoning came by way of Welch and Kieran Kane who were looking at releasing music that could serve their strong European fan base after they were dropped by major country labels. It took shape as a songwriting/record-making collective that included Henderson on guitars, drummer Harry Stinson, bass player Alison Prestwood, and multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplin. They’d play on each others’ recordings and back each other up on stage, with an innovative cooperative model that helped pave the way for what was about to break open in East Nashville.
Dead Reckoning also brought fiddler, singer and songwriter Tammy Rogers into Mike Henderson’s world, starting with a show at the Bluebird in about 1994. “From the moment he plugged in his amp and ripped the first solo," she said, "I knew that I was going to have to seriously up my game or he was going to blow me off the stage every night. I mean not just in sheer volume, but just the intensity and the intention that he played with. Looking back, I feel like that had everything to do with the way I developed as a player and my approach on stage, which then ultimately, translated into my approach with the SteelDrivers.”
Nashville was the birthplace of bluegrass music as a branch of the country music tree, and it remained an incubator of new bluegrass ideas, from Flatt & Scruggs to the Nashville Bluegrass Band and today's local-yet-national East Nash Grass. When Mike Henderson and his then little-known artist/writer friend Chris Stapleton decided they wanted to pull together an acoustic band to give life to a batch of songs they'd been writing over several years, it was with little more in mind than a friendly local residency. But the musicians they called - Fleming, Rogers, and banjo player Richard Bailey - proved worthy of much more.
"I hadn't seen Mike except for running into him every now and again in town in four or five years,” Rogers said. “He called me up in the summer of 2005. And he just kind of casually said hey you feel like playing a little bluegrass?" When she accepted and showed up at Henderson's house on a Sunday night, she knew Henderson and Bailey, while Fleming and Stapleton were new to her. And she couldn't quite believe the songs they laid into.
"I mean, 'If You Can't Be Good, Be Gone'? Wow, that sounded like it was 50 years old," said Rogers. "I could hear Carter and Ralph (Stanley) doing that song. It was amazing to me the authenticity and the catalog that they had already created. The first two records were all their songs."
Fleming's memory focuses on the caliber of the band and on Stapleton's now famous voice. "We start playing some song, and he bared down like he can do. I just felt like I was gonna get knocked out of my damn chair. And I came home and told my wife (that was) unbelievable! You won't believe who these people are! And (I felt) the same thing that Tammy said - I'm going to have to up my game."
What started as a casual outlet became a national act pretty fast, once folks heard their powerhouse live shows and after Rounder Records picked up the SteelDrivers and released their self-titled debut in 2008. With Henderson/Stapleton songs "Drinking Dark Whiskey," "Blue Side of the Mountain," and the piercing, mythical Civil War song "Sticks That Made Thunder," this unique band brought something bracing and deeply bluesy to the genre, garnering a country Grammy nomination right away. Their follow up Reckless was twice nominated with eleven Henderson/Stapleton songs, including "Where Rainbows Never Die."
As with the Dead Reckoning project (which continued at lower intensity into the 2000s), great musical chemistry doesn't ensure longevity, and by 2011, Henderson and Stapleton amicably stepped away from the project for different reasons. Stapleton's career exploded after he released his debut album Traveler, and that became part of Mike Henderson's continued rise in stature as well. Their co-written song "If It Hadn't Been For Love," introduced on the first SteelDrivers album, became a bonus track and popular live song for global pop star Adele. Stapleton's first number one country hit "Broken Halos," again a Henderson joint creation, won the CMA and Grammy country song of the year prizes. The pair earned another CMA Song of the Year with "Starting Over" in 2021. And at every turn, Stapleton heaped praise on Henderson as “the man who showed me how to write songs.”
Meanwhile, the SteelDrivers adapted and thrived with new mandolinist Brent Truitt and another powerhouse lead singer in Gary Nichols. Their albums topped the Billboard bluegrass charts and their Muscle Shoals Recordings finally won that coveted album Grammy in the bluegrass category. (Stapleton and Henderson were both among the first to call with congratulations.)
The band has had to regroup a few times as their singers changed, from Nichols to Kevin Damrell to their current male voice in Matt Dame. So in the post Stapleton phase, Tammy Rogers, a superb blues-heavy fiddler and fine singer, has effectively been the band's frontwoman and chief songwriter. While they've been weirdly overlooked by the bluegrass establishment and the IBMA Awards, they've been a rare band in the genre that can play headlining ticketed shows in music halls and theaters 60-70 times a year.
Last month, the band released its first album since early 2020, with timing, just before Henderson's untimely death, that feels providential. Tougher Than Nails is a gospel collection, on which Rogers originals like the churning title track and the moving “Magdalene” play confidently next to gospel classics “His Eye Is On The Sparrow” and “Farther Along.”
“The whole idea,” says Rogers, “was how can we do a gospel record but still sound like the SteelDrivers and have songs that would fit seamlessly into our set, right up against ‘Drinking Dark Whiskey’ or ‘Peacemaker?’ And I think we did it.”
While the band has made its career with Rounder Records (and may continue), they were free agents when the Gaither Music Group reached out to see if the SteelDrivers were interested in doing a one-off project, with only the request that there be some familiar standards and one from the huge Bill and Gloria Gaither catalog. The choice was a sweetly swaying “Going Home,” the album’s penultimate track, which segues into a lonesome, Appalachian take on “Amazing Grace.” If the songs had been sequenced as a final farewell to their friend Mike Henderson, it couldn’t have worked better.
But then Hendo can’t help but be part of everything the band does going forward. “He was one of a kind,” says Fleming. “He was a guitar slinger, that's for sure. And he impressed people when he played, and he impressed on us just the musicianship. We all stepped up to the plate, because it was gonna be really good. And it just got better and better. It was an amazing ride, and it still is.”
The SteelDrivers are set to play two consecutive nights on Dec. 8 and 9 at the Caverns, the Cumberland Plateau venue where (in a prior cave) the band launched the nationally renowned Bluegrass Underground series 15 years ago.