On This Day #43 – Gary Henderson

On the Day ….

On July 17, 1944, bluegrass music DJ Gary Henderson was born in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Henderson has been involved with radio all his working life. In fact Henderson decided at the age of 10 that getting into radio was his ambition. His interest in the medium earned his parent’s displeasure.

Gary Henderson at the board at WAMU's Bluegrass Country“In 1954, I was in the 4th grade, and was scheduled to take an important arithmetic test that I did not study and prepare for. So I played ‘hooky’ from school, telling my mother I was sick. Mom told me to get back to bed. Out of complete boredom, I turned on the radio to our local AM radio station, WGAY, in Silver Spring, Maryland.

‘Fiddling’ Curly Smith started his hillbilly radio program playing, Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys, Sweetheart, You Done Me Wrong. That sealed the deal for me! The next record was by Eddy Arnold, it was OK, but I liked Monroe better. Over the years, I have grown to appreciate traditional country music, more so now. It, too, is a minority music that is ignored by radio today. So, I make an effort to include a small sampling of early country music from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s on shows I produce for WAMU’s Bluegrass Country.

Back to Curly Smith at WGAY Radio… I became a loyal listener, especially on Saturday morning when Curly invited Buzz Busby and Pete Pike for a ‘live’ in-studio, fifteen minute slot. Buzz had Donnie Bryant playing banjo. Then Benny & Vallie Cain and the Country Clan followed. On both of those ‘live’ shows, Curly would run in with his fiddle from his studio across the hall, and play a couple of numbers with the bands, then run quickly back to his studio to insert commercials. I talked my dad into driving me up to visit the station one Saturday morning. My first bluegrass band to witness through the studio glass was Buzz and Pete. The chief engineer/newscaster was Doug McDougall, and he took a lot of time to show me around the station, showing me the UPI teletype machine where he ‘ripped’ the news, the thousand watt G.E. transmitter and all the RCA broadcast consoles. I was then, convinced I wanted to get into radio, at 10 years of age.

My parents were not impressed with my vocation choice through my years of schooling. They insisted I continue my education at Montgomery College in business administration. I only lasted a year and a half, never earned my degree, I was just determined to get my first job in radio. Mother was not pleased! My first job was weekend relief at WFMD, a CBS affiliate in Frederick, Maryland. ‘Happy Johnny’ was the Saturday morning announcer, on my first day. I could not believe my luck, his ‘live’ band was Bill and Paul and the Bluegrass Travelers. Bill Berry, guitar; Paul Chaney, banjo; Bill Poffinberger, fiddle; and Carroll Harbough, bass. My first day in radio could not have enjoyed a better introduction with another bluegrass band.”

His career began in 1962 with a job at Radio WFMD in Frederick, Maryland.

From there, Henderson joined the Everett Dillard family, owners of WDON-AM/WASH-FM, playing country music. However, the Dillards fired him for playing too much bluegrass music on air, a distinction that makes him very proud.

He also worked at the commercial country radio station WKCW in Warrenton, Virginia, and at WHFS in Bethesda, Maryland.

Henderson has been collecting bluegrass and country records since he was nine years old, inspired by his radio mentor, the late Don Owens — the nationally known and respected country and bluegrass music DJ at Radio WARL in Arlington, Virginia.

Bill Emerson, Gary Henderson, Jimmy Martin, and Tom 'Cat' Reeder at Lake Whippoorwill near Warrenton, VAIn July 1967 he joined Dick Spottswood in producing the half-hour Bluegrass Unlimited radio show on WAMU-FM, begun in conjunction with Bluegrass Unlimited, the magazine that the duo helped to found as a mimeographed 12-page newsletter in the previous May.

Henderson continued bluegrass programming at WAMU in September 1973, with a four-hour Saturday morning offering. Nine months later, in June 1974, Gary inaugurated the first four-hour Sunday program of Stained Glass Bluegrass, the show that recently celebrated its 40th anniversary with a special show at their current premises.

He has received a number of awards in recognition of his contributions to bluegrass music radio. In 1983 he was presented with the DJ of the Year award by the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America. In 1998, the IBMA presented Henderson with its Distinguished Achievement Award and the following year he was named the IBMA Broadcast Personality of the Year.

In 2006 he was a nominee for a place in the IBMA Hall of Fame.

Many bluegrass DJs make excellent festival and concert emcees and Henderson is very well suited to that role. His first job as an emcee was in 1967 at a bluegrass music festival at Lake Whippoorwill, Warrenton, Virginia. He continued introducing bands at the many of the major bluegrass festivals on the east coast through to the early 1980s.

And for a while in the early 1970s he was a practising musician, playing bass with Charlie Smith and the Potomac Valley Boys, based in Leesburg, Virginia.

During his 40 years working as in the radio industry Henderson engineered the first radio broadcast from the U.S. Senate Chamber during the Panama Canal debate and was the remote technician assigned to cover the Watergate hearings from the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill and many Oval Office Presidential addresses.

Currently, Henderson presents his own show on Saturday morning (8:00 am) and Monday (Noon); and Stained Glass Bluegrass (Sunday morning, 6:00am) [all times ET].

He says …….

Gary Henderson with Larry Stephenson, who grew up listening to Gary's broadcasts“I love working here, now, more than ever. I love the music, I love promoting and preserving an original American art form. I love most of the listeners, and the musicians who make the music.

And as much as I am a traditionalist, and love ‘mossy’ old bluegrass, to be a responsible bluegrass broadcaster, I must play the bands that are trying to make a living playing this music today. There are only a handful of bands that are bringing in top dollar and paying their sidemen a decent wage.

The ‘B’ string of bands still hold day-jobs and/or their spouse works full-time and helps pay the bills.”

Henderson is an abiding and amiable radio presenter. Happy Birthday Gary.

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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.