Jimmy Henley passes

Banjo virtuoso Jimmy Henley passed away on Sunday, March 22, (2020) at his home in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, of throat cancer. He was 56 years of age

The diminutive Henley started playing banjo at the age of seven, his earliest performance being in his first-grade classroom in Hobbs, New Mexico. His first professional show followed imminently; he was paid $25. 

His exceptional ability attracted a great deal of publicity very quickly, leading to him performing extensively at many public and private events. Subsequently, Henley made many appearances on KBIM-TV in Roswell, New Mexico. 

He toured the bluegrass circuit in Tennessee, Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico; sharing the stage with Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Vince Gill, Marty Stuart, and Glen Campbell, among others. 

Still aged seven Henley won the Junior Division of the National Bluegrass Banjo Championship at Bill Grant’s Bluegrass Festival in Hugo, Oklahoma, a success that he repeated in the following two years. 

As a ten-year-old won the World Bluegrass Banjo Championship in Memphis, Tennessee, competing against about 60 other contestants and earning the first-place trophy and $1,000. 

This led to a meeting with Roy Clark at the New Mexico State Fair, Albuquerque, New Mexico, and a few performances on Clark’s popular TV show, Hee Haw, a guest appearance on The Grand Ole Opry, and recruitment to the touring Roy Clark Show. 

Henley spent over 25 years with the Roy Clark Show making appearance on such prestigious TV shows such as the Mike Douglas Show, the Merv Griffin Show, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, Austin City Limits, and Grand Ole Opry Specials, Country Christmas, and Country Comes Home. Additionally, they toured throughout the USA, including Hawaii; multiple tours in Canada; two tours in Europe, with a performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Montreux, Switzerland, with the Bulgarian Symphony, in Moscow and St. Petersburg (Russia), and in London, England, for BBC tapings. 

Henley did his first recording in about 1972 and followed those with two more session during that decade. He released two further albums, one in the early 1980s and the second in the early 1990s. 

Also, in 1974 he recorded with Rual Yarbrough and The Dixiemen; sounds like a double banjo delight. 

After a lull in his musical endeavours he relaunched his career, in about 2011 he recorded two sets of Texas fiddle tunes, both self-released, and he formed his own band, Jimmy Henley and a Touch of Grass. 

He played several instruments proficiently and had a pleasing vocal style.  

Henley’s influences include James Henley (his father), banjo aces Earl Scruggs, Doug Dillard, Alan Munde, Carl Jackson, Billy Parker, Bill Keith, Bill Emerson, Jack Hicks, and Larry McNeeley; and country music singer/songwriter Skip Ewing. 

In addition to the honors mentioned earlier, he won the Most Promising Banjo Player Award, presented by The Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America (SPBGMA). 

R.I.P. Jimmy Henley.

One For The Record LP  (22:03 mins) 1976 – featuring Jimmy Henley (banjo), James Henley (guitar), Bobby Clark (mandolin) and Vince Gill (electric bass).

A Discography 

Jimmy Henley – 

  • Jimmy and His Banjo: Cumberland Gap; Clinch Mountain Backstep; Foggy Mountain Breakdown/Wildwood Flower; Theme Time (United Sound USR 4175, 1972, EP)
  • One For The Record (Tig 7612, 1976) 
  • Classical Country Bluegrass (Tig 8219, 1982)
  • Country Memories (Tig 9026, 1990) 

Little Jimmy Henley with Rual Yarbrough and the Dixiemen –  

  • Bluegrass Banjo Instrumentals (Woodrich ARP 9141/2, released in 1974) 

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.