When it comes to making guitars, nobody on God’s green earth can make Wayne Henderson hurry. Blues great John Cephas waited two years for Henderson No. 116. Joe Wilson bombarded him with daily postcards—to no avail. “If I’m in the right mood, it doesn’t take but a few weeks to make one,” says Henderson, 53, a man who moves with the rhythms of his native Appalachia. “But I rarely do that.” The wait is worth it, says Wilson, executive director of the National Council for the Traditional Arts, who now owns No. 143. “Wayne could be a household name,” he adds, “but that’s not on his list of ambitions.”
Then Henderson had better bolt the door of his home in Rugby, Va. (pop. 9), because fame is bearing down. Blame it on No. 226. It took seven years for country singer Gillian Welch to get that guitar, and she used it well—writing music for the soundtrack of the George Clooney film O Brother, Where Art Thou? At the top of Billboard’s country chart—and No. 14 among all records—the album is “bringing more attention to bluegrass,” says Welch, 33. “And that’s right what Wayne does.”
He may be slow at crafting a guitar, but he plays one fast and wild, making it sound like a fiddle. He can “pick the paint off a car,” says Wilson. “He is one of the finest flat-pickers and guitar-makers in the country,” agrees Howard Bass, program producer of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “It’s almost unique, to find somebody who does both.” Country star Vince Gill once quit signing autographs at a music festival to pay homage, telling Henderson, “I just wanted to shake your hand!”
During the day, Henderson uses his hands to deliver mail along an 83-mile route. He spends the wee hours in his sawdust-choked workshop, where for some three decades he has whittled, carved, lacquered and numbered 252 guitars, 73 mandolins, 14 banjos and two fiddles. Guitar No. 7 was exhibited at the Smithsonian until he asked for it back. “I like to see my instruments worn and used,” he says. He could charge more than $6,000 per but doesn’t. He may trade one for, say, a cherry-red paint job on his ’57 Ford Thunderbird. “I’ve never been into money much,” he says.
Nor is he into bright lights or big cities; he feels more comfortable playing at a general store in Todd, N.C., than at New York City’s Carnegie Hall, where he performed in 1990. Though honored, he felt just as squirrely when he went to the White House in 1995 to accept a National Heritage Fellowship and a $10,000 check from Hillary Clinton. He spent the money moving his shop from a former country store to its current location next door to the three-bedroom brick house he shares with his mother, Sylvia, 89.
The youngest of three kids—Max, 62, is a machinist, and Shirlene, 64, is a retired seamstress—Henderson grew up on a farm outside Rugby. He picked up his first guitar at age 5 and made one at 8. The true musician, he says, was his now-deceased father, Walter, a farmer and renowned fiddler. As a teen, Henderson played backup with his dad and hung out at the country store, where the owner let him strum a prized 1949 Martin. (The classic Martins are models for his own guitars.) After graduating from Virginia Carolina High in 1965, he set up a workshop in the living room, behind his mother’s coal stove. “I was proud of what he was accomplishing,” she says, “so I put up with it.” His domestic life with Carole Sease, 53, whom he wed in 1975, wasn’t as harmonious. The couple—who have a daughter, Elizabeth, 16—split in 1987. But his school counselor girlfriend, Helen White, 50, knows the score. She met him 13 years ago at a fiddlers’ convention. “He noticed my guitar,” she quips. Usually it’s the other way around.
Macon Morehouse in Rugby