The state of Florida, and the Tampa area in particular, lost a great friend of bluegrass music when long time radio host Tom Henderson passed away on February 25. Henderson was 75 years old, and had been suffering from heart problems since November of 2013. He is reported to have died peacefully at the rehab facility where he was living.
His popular radio program, This Is Bluegrass, ran on Tampa’s WMNF from 1971 until his retirement last Fall, making his the voice of bluegrass throughout the station’s broadcast range. Tom also ran The Bluegrass Parlor from its opening in 1980 until he sold the business in 2005. The Parlor served as the central meeting place for the local bluegrass community, selling instruments, accessories and music, plus hosting jams, and offering lessons.
Perhaps Henderson’s most enduring legacy is his support for young grassers in the area through the formation of The Bluegrass Parlor Band. The idea occurred to him shortly after the opening of store, to grab up some of the teen aged pickers who were hanging out there, and getting them out in front of music fans in the area. Tom mentored the young players, showed them how to work together as a band, and found them opportunities to perform before live audiences.
The Bluegrass Parlor Band has been running now since 1983, and has kept going since Tom sold the business in ’05, and even the closing of the store in ’07. New young pickers have continuously moved in and out of the group, more recently under the direction of Jeff Jones, an alumnus of the band.
One of the young pickers who played with Tom is Cory Walker, who recently graduated from college, and is now playing banjo with Ricky Skaggs. He remembers Henderson with great fondness.
“Tom was a dear friend of mine. He knew a great deal about bluegrass music, the history, how it should be played, etc. Tom was passionate about helping kids and he did so by teaching kids how to teach themselves.
Its hard to explain, really. Tom was awesome at what he did. I loved and still love him like family.”
A young Aubrey Haynie was among the future pros that Henderson mentored in Florida, helping prepare him for a career as a top session player and recording artist in Nashville.
He was the first one to really stress timing, and how to play in a band situation. He was a positive role model for me, and I know for many others as well.
He will be missed.”
Another is David Crow, who was a young fiddle prodigy growing up in Florida in the late 1980s. David worked his way through college playing fiddle with The Osborne Brothers, and is now a respected music business attorney in Nashville.
“I am saddened to hear of the passing of Tom Henderson. He was one of the biggest early influences on my musical career. From the time I was about 10 until I moved to Nashville (after my high school graduation), you could find me at the Bluegrass Parlor every Thursday night at 8:00 p.m. for the weekly jam session. I bought every new bluegrass album that was released from the Bluegrass Parlor and heard some of my first great shows at the Bluegrass Parlor. I remember hearing Larry Sparks, Eddie Adcock and the Lost and Found at the Bluegrass Parlor. I can still remember that great tone that Dempsey Young got from his mandolin—I was in the front row and it was amazing. I also remember listening to Tom’s weekly radio show This Is Bluegrass on 88.5 FM every Monday night.
Later in my teens, I had the good fortune to become a member of the Bluegrass Parlor Band. At that time, the band consisted of Tom Henderson, Greg Turner, David McMillon and David ‘Bubba’ Howell. We played many regional festivals, flea markets, state fairs, private parties and also did some recording together.
Tom was a great rhythm guitar player. His timing was solid as a rock and he always played in the sweet spot of his old Martin guitar.
Tom was always encouraging of young musicians. I appreciated that he always treated me as a ‘musician,’ not as a kid or a novelty act. I think that is why so many young musicians were attracted to Tom. He was an encyclopedia of bluegrass history and he knew everyone in the business going back to his days in Virginia.
Tom did so many amazing things for generations of young players in central Florida. Without us realizing it, he taught us the history of bluegrass. He made sure everyone knew that One Tear is an Osborne Brothers song and not a Bluegrass Album Band song. He taught us all who initially recorded all of the classics as well as the key and tempo of those recordings.
By the sheer force of his guitar rhythm, he taught everyone how to feel the pocket and to play in good time with the ensemble. Tom encouraged young musicians to get a good instrument and to play with other people. I am not sure I would have followed the musical path that has been my career without the influence of two great men—Tom Henderson and my fiddle teacher, Ted Locke. I am grateful for the opportunity to have known Tom and his family and to call him a friend.”
The International Bluegrass Music Association awarded Tom Henderson a Distinguished Achievement Award in 1988, then known as a Certificate of Merit, but nothing is likely to match the impact of his work with young musicians.
Information on funeral arrangements have not yet been announced.
R.I.P., Tom Henderson.