Wayne Henderson Festival celebrates 25 years

This past Saturday marked 25 years that southwestern Virginia guitar maker/picker and National Heritage Award recipient, Wayne C. Henderson, held his music festival which features a guitar competition, local and international talent, and a Henderson-built guitar raffle to raise funds for music scholarships.

Always held the third Saturday in June at Grayson Highlands’ 4500 acre Virginia State Park, this year’s event enjoyed beautiful weather, a variety of music, and a stiff guitar competition. The competition is open to anyone desiring to lock horns for the first prize, a Henderson guitar made by the master. Twenty competitors are randomly chosen from on-line applications in a lottery style selection. Those 20 contestants pick a tune in the first round of competition. The field is then narrowed to the top five. The guitarists return to the stage for the second level of the competition. This time they perform two songs for the sequestered judges. Near the close of the festival, prizes are awarded from fifth to first place. 

This year’s number one spot was awarded to 70 year old Jesse Smith of Wadsworth, Ohio. In the final round of the competition, Smith picked Steel Guitar Rag and Fly Me to the Moon. The Buckeye had competed three previous times, always placing fourth. Smith was ecstatic to finally achieve his goal and win a Henderson guitar.

“I’m probably the oldest in the competition, and I can’t believe that I won,” he humbly expressed.

Steve Lewis (2014 and 1998 guitar competition winner) of Jefferson, NC, has served as a judge in the guitar competition for almost a decade. “This is the most difficult contest that I’ve ever judged. All were really close. We had at least three national champions (from Winfield’s National Flatpicking Competition).”

Other judges were nineteen year old Parker Hastings of Kentucky (2018 guitar competition winner), and Brandon Davis of Virginia (1997 guitar competition winner).

The top five winners, who received cash prizes and plaques, were:

  1. Jesse Smith – Wadsworth, OH
  2. Ben Cockman – Sherrills Ford, NC
  3. Austin Mikael – Jefferson, NC
  4. Adam Wright – Goodlettsville, TN
  5. Chad Harrison – Claudville, VA

Henderson also presented 13 individual music scholarships to youth. From North Carolina:

  • Brenna Bailey – Wilkesboro
  • Anneli Burnette – Boone
  • Jacob Cannon – Saluda
  • Taylor Galyean – Low Gap
  • Elania Graham – Lansing
  • Preston Mash – Jefferson
  • Robbie McCurry – Burnsville
  • Braylin Miller – West Jefferson
  • Gavin Woodruff – Ennice

From South Carolina:

  • Sarah and Sam Doan – Landrum
  • Carson Moore – Landrum

From Virginia:

  • Hayden Walters – Independence

There were also scholarships awarded to 27 group winners from 4 states for their JAM (Junior Appalachian Musicians) programs. JAM is an after-school program for children in grades 4–8 and beyond, that introduces music through small group instruction on instruments common to the Appalachian region, such as fiddle, banjo and guitar. Each JAM program is individually operated and funded.  

Festival namesake, Henderson, stated, “We’ve been doing it for 25 years. All proceeds go to kids learning how to play musical instruments. We are trying to support bluegrass music. We appreciate people coming and supporting our scholarships. It’s always exciting to see the young folks perform.”

A raffle was conducted during the festival for a Henderson guitar with proceeds going to the scholarship program. This year’s lucky winner was a lady from Canada.

Headlining the festival entertainment was Darin and Brooke Aldridge. On stage, Darin expressed his gratitude to Henderson during the annual Father’s Day weekend festival.

“We look up to our dads. We all look up to Wayne in the guitar world. Those builders sure do a lot with wires and wood.”

Other performers at the festival included Redd Volkaert and Bill Krichen from Tennessee; the Harris Brothers from North Carolina with a special guest harmonica player from France; the Sea Cruisers from Michigan; and Shadow Grass featuring 2017 guitar competition winner, Presley Barker from North Carolina.

The evening concluded with performances by Henderson and a host of his friends, young and old. Plans are already underway for the 26th annual festival, on June 20, 2020, at Grayson Highlands State Park in Mouth of Wilson, VA.

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About the Author

Sandy Hatley

Sandy Chrisco Hatley is a free lance writer for several NC newspapers and Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. As a teenager, she picked banjo with an all girl band called the Happy Hollow String Band. Today, she plays dobro with her husband's band, the Hatley Family.