Pickin’ with Walter — Remembering a Legend

This remembrance of legendary banjo player Walter Hensley, who passed away on Sunday (November 25) from cancer, is a contribution from James Reams. James was a friend and musical collaborator of Walter’s over the course of many years.

The first time I met Walter Hensley was on a smoky tour bus that was leaking diesel from a cracked fuel tank on a speedway track in New Hampshire where a bluegrass festival was being held. Hearing the news that Walter had passed from the daughter of Earl Taylor (of Earl Taylor and the Stoney Mountain Boys), I was swamped by a flood of memories, memories that I wanted to share as a way of honoring his legacy in bluegrass music.

Born in Grundy, VA in 1936, Walter Hensley was one of the finest practitioners of Baltimore-style bluegrass and some say one of the greatest banjo pickers ever. Indeed, he was nicknamed the “Banjo Baron of Baltimore.” His driving banjo and inventive licks earned him the first solo banjo LP ever to be recorded on a major label, and has elevated his name to the status of cult legend among banjo players and aficionados of that high-wire style of banjo playing. His performance at Carnegie Hall, released as an LP by United Artists, changed the lives of a generation of banjo pickers. If there was a roster of influential and innovative banjo players, Walt would be on it, but sadly his name is still unfamiliar to many bluegrass musicians and fans. Bill Monroe biographer Richard D. Smith said that “Walter remains one of the terribly underrated greats of the 5-string.” He was a stylistic pioneer, but, as legendary folklorist Alan Lomax noted “There’s true folk magic in every note that Walt plays.”

The International Museum of Bluegrass Music has Walter listed as one of the pioneers of bluegrass. His career embraced a number of firsts. Did you know that Del McCoury bought his first banjo from Walt, and that Walter gave Don Reno his first plastic head for his banjo? He was in the first Bluegrass band to ever play Carnegie Hall as part of Earl Taylor and The Stoney Mountain Boys (Alan Lomax Presents Folksong Festival at Carnegie Hall). He appeared on the first recording (Stoney Mountain Twist) issued by a new fledgling bluegrass label – Rebel Records.

One of the more startling firsts, he recorded the first solo banjo album (5-String Banjo Today) for multinational Capital Records that hit just weeks before Capital released another promising album by a little known British band, The Beatles. And, in 2002 he received his first IBMA nomination for Album of the Year (James Reams, Walter Hensley and the Barons of Bluegrass).

Pickin' On New Grass - Walter HensleyYes, Walter was the genuine article – a part of Bluegrass Royalty. He took me places where I never would have gone and I thank God that that I got on that bus out in New Hampshire, and had the courage to turn to Walter and ask him if he would consider recording with me. I was blessed to be able to make two albums with a true legend of bluegrass and to really get to know this terribly shy, humble but enormously talented artist. Bluegrass musicians everywhere have been affected by of his music whether they know it or not.

The whole bluegrass community should gather round to pay tribute as he leaves us behind to play in the greatest bluegrass band ever. I know he’ll be tearing up the place and they’ll be hollering for more!

More information can be found at: http://www.last.fm/music/Walter+Hensley/+wiki.