Red Henry – Up Helton Creek

Our UK correspondent, Richard F Thompson, shares this review of a CD he found to be especially worthy.

Red Henry - Helton CreekRed Henry has been playing mandolin since the 1960s and he soon developed into what a Bluegrass Unlimited reviewer described as “one of the most prolific interpreters of Monroe-style mandolin picking”. This mastery is displayed not only in the playing of Bill Monroe’s many great instrumental pieces, but in the creation of original tunes that possess the characteristic intensity of Monroe’s music.

About six years ago Red’s Bluegrass Mandolin And Other Trouble (Arrandem AR-120) was praised for the stellar mandolin style and the inclusion on the CD of eight of his original tunes that sound like they’re 40 years old and the thoughtful rendition of some old favourites like Sleepy-Eyed John, Rawhide and Bluegrass Breakdown.

For Red’s latest CD, Helton Creek (Arrandem AR-200), the mix is much the same; three original tunes, two of which are each a descendant of one Monroe classic or other – Shawnee Land and the title track; some older numbers, both rare and no-so-rarely heard – Toy Heart, Chubby Anthony’s Stay Out Of Your Way, High On A Mountain, Remember You Love In My Dreams, a Stanley Brothers’ classic, The Flood Of ’57 and Frank Wakefield’s Alone And Forsaken. Additionally, Red has, with the help of his guests, re-introduced some old fiddle tunes, Yellow Barber, Birdie and Bitter Creek, the story Clermont’s Visit To Georgia (not a word of which is true), the 16th century Divers And Lazarus and Murphy Henry’s unlisted cut Miss Nora’s Blues.

Red tells us a bit about the background to his writing and recording the title track ……..

“Helton Creek is a real place. It’s a small trout-fishing stream in the North Carolina mountains, where mandolin players (mostly members of the Co-Mando email group) gather once or twice each year for a weekend of music. So Helton Creek is significant in the mandolin music scene, and one day a couple of years ago, I thought I’d write a tune about it.

The tune nearly wrote itself; my fingers played it without much forethought. I played it for friends and family as well as on stage, and it turned out so well that I decided to use it for the lead-off number on my new CD.

One day in Nashville when we were recording, we planned to record the tune right after lunch break. Back in the studio, we ran through the number once just as a warm-up, with the recorder rolling, before making a serious attempt to record it. We hadn’t played the tune more than a few times previously, but everybody was playing great, and my daughter Casey (normally a banjo player) really held us together with her solid bass playing, making us sound ‘together’ in spite of the fact that we had hardly played the tune before.

Then I said something about trying a real take, and Casey said, ‘Are you sure you could play it any better?’ I hadn’t really thought about it, but I remembered how good it had felt and decided that we’d better listen to it. We did, and I certainly didn’t think I could improve on it. John Hedgecoth came up with a distinctive banjo part that expertly captured the melody and spirit, and my son Christopher, who has quite a bluegrass sense, expressed the tune with an intense guitar break. So we kept that warm-up ‘take,’ and it’s what you hear on the CD’s title track!”

Henry plays mandolin, mandola and mandocello on different numbers for tonal variety and a change of mood.

He is supported by a core band comprising Red himself, daughter and son, Casey (bass and banjo) and Chris (guitar and mandolin), and uncle John Hedgecoth (banjo and fiddle). Murphy Henry, Mark and Sally Wingate, “Tuck” Tucker, Mike Johnson and Neal Thompson provide additional creative input occasionally.

Joe Ross concludes in his five-star review, ……..

“‘Helton Creek’ is another fine project that manages to capture Red’s soulfulness, creativity and intensity. His interpretation of bluegrass has archetypal understanding and authenticity. It also displays considerable unpretentious individualism and steadfast devotion to the music.”

The CD can be purchased from The Murphy Method web site, or from CD Baby, where audio samples from all 14 tracks can be found.

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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.