Walter Hensley, legengary bluegrass banjo player, passed away Sunday, November 25th.
By James Reams
Walt and I met in the early 1990s at a bluegrass festival in Groveton, NH. The festival was being held at a Speedway and at night, they would stop the music so the cars could race. I walked up to Vernon McIntyre's bus one evening looking for somebody to pick with and knocked on the door. When I walked in, there was Walter sitting there on the bus with Vernon, smoking a cigarette and looking for all the world just like a confederate soldier. When I asked him why he hadn't recorded in a number of years and he said "No one’s willin’ to work as hard as I’d like them to!" I told him that I'd have as many rehearsals as he felt necessary to get a project done and we recorded James Reams, Walter Hensley & The Barons of Bluegrass. When I found out that the album was nominated for IBMA's Bluegrass Recording Event of the Year in 2002, I called up Walter. He asked, "Who are the other nominees?" I told him "The Chieftans and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band” and he responded, "Well, we might as well forget that one!"
Walt was born in Grundy, Virginia, in 1936. His father, Finn, after a stint in the Navy, moved his family to a coal camp in Pike County, Kentucky, where he had gotten a job working in the coal mines. Sometime during that period he ordered instruments for Walt and his older brother Jim from the Montgomery Ward catalog. Walt got a banjo (“a 24-dollar job,” said Walt) and Jim got a guitar. “I had to learn off the radio,” recalled Walt. “Didn’t have any records or anything. I just kept messing with the banjo roll. Drove my Dad crazy because he worked in the mines, and he’d have to get up at four in the morning. He said, ‘If you’re going to play that thing, I want you to learn it, but go out to the barn.’” Replacing broken fingerpicks and strings was possible only when someone with a car was going to town – 35 miles away – and could bring some back. So Walt sometimes made fingerpicks out of PET Milk cans (“They were not all that bad; better than nothin’,” said Walt). To replace broken strings he sometimes cut the insulation off blasting wire that was used for setting off dynamite in the mines, then tuned it down low enough so it wouldn’t break when played.
By 1952 Walt’s banjo-playing earned him (along with his brother Jim) work on a radio show on WLSI in Pikesville, Kentucky, with Hobo Jack Adkins and the Kentucky Pals. At around the same time, Walt was filling in as banjo player with bluegrass pioneers the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers for several show dates. Walt moved to Baltimore in 1956 and, during a stint in a rockabilly band called the Black Mountain Boys, met Earl Taylor. “Earl had just come back to Baltimore after playing in Jimmy Martin’s band,” Walt recalls, “and wanted to start his own band. He sat in at the Cozy Inn where I was playing and asked me if I wanted to join, and I said, ‘Yeah.’”
So in early 1957 Earl Taylor and the Stoney Mountain Boys was formed and included Earl on mandolin, Walt on banjo, bassist/comedian Vernon “Boatwhistle” McIntyre, and Charlie Waller (who later that year went on to co-found the Country Gentlemen) on guitar. Within a year Earl Taylor and the Stoney Mountain Boys had recorded two songs for the newly formed Rebel Records: “Stoney Mountain Twist” (a composition by Walt) and “The Children Are Cryin’.” (In 1962 a new version of “The Children Are Cryin” – retitled “Calling Your Name” – along with “Stoney Mountain Twist” became Rebel’s first bluegrass single.) Earl Taylor and the Stoney Mountain Boys’ hard-driving “Baltimore-style” bluegrass – the sound that whipped audiences into a frenzy at Carnegie Hall and regularly in clubs in and around Baltimore – was “right up there with Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs,” according to Del McCoury, who at the time lived in nearby York County, PA, and was a frequent visitor to the vibrant Baltimore scene.
Having recorded with Earl Taylor, Walt appeared on the first recording issued by a new fledgling bluegrass label, Rebel Records, and of course on the highly influential albums “Alan Lomax Presents Folksong Festival at Carnegie Hall” (United Artists) and “Mountain Music Bluegrass Style” (Folkways). But one of the most startling revelations was when multinational Capital Records asked Walter to record the first solo banjo album (5-String Banjo Today), an album that was making waves until Capital released another album from a new band with promise called "The Beatles" a few weeks later. Soon Walter was back playing the bar rooms and honky tonks as Capital dropped most of their artists to concentrate on the Beatlemania that was sweeping the nation.
When Walt told me stories of his time with The Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, Hobo Jack Adkins, Pee Wee Lambert even as a Country Gentlemen and Charlie Moore, I knew I had entered a very special rarified world. And in that part of the world, Walter was royalty. In fact, his nickname was "The Banjo Baron of Baltimore."
After our second album (Wild Card) came out in 2006 there was a lot of interest from major promoters to have us perform at their festivals. By this time, Walter had removed himself from the music scene to a small town in PA. He just wasn't sure he could perform anymore. After a nice heart-to-heart talk with this musical hero of mine, I was able to convince him that we all felt the same way and that we were there for each other as a band. Once we were on stage, Walter worked the crowd into a frenzy. After one of his musical breaks (solo), there was a gasp of awe from the audience. Even other performers, including Del and Robbie McCoury, were standing in the wings mesmerized. We wrapped up to roars of approval from the crowd and from backstage. I believe that Walter is hearing those roars of approval once again as he receives a standing ovation from the hosts of heaven.