Meet Chris Henry
“As someone who loves Bill Monroe so much, the last lesson to learn from him was not to do just what he did,” says Chris Henry, the son of noted bluegrass veterans Red and Murphy Henry. “He expected music to grow, not to become stagnate. If you’re going to follow his model, learn what he did and be progressive with it. Be yourself. I’m not interested in making a career out of ‘bluegrass theater’.”
Monroe himself was a revolutionary figure in the music world, Henry points out. The Father of Bluegrass brought influences to country music that were at the time largely unheard of, blending modern black influences of blues and jazz music with hillbilly, folk and old time Celtic.
While Henry grew up in the bluegrass and folk circles, he has followed a natural muse that has opened his own sound to country, rock and hip-hop music. “ I’ve not tried to sequester myself from any of the modern influences, and even though you can’t hear it distinctly, the hip-hop is there,” Henry says of his album, Making My Way To You. “In fact, one line in my song, “Down” is directly lifted from GZA of the Wu Tang Clan. Medicine Man has drums similar to ones I would use for a hip-hop track.” For years I’ve been trying to find the sweet spot between bluegrass and hip-hop, but I’ve not been able to stabilize it and I don’t want to just do it and put it out there to do it, I want it to really be the best of both worlds that I can balance.
His band is called Chris Henry and Hardcore Grass, and the reason is because of the intensity with which they perform his music. “Years ago, Bill Monroe told Frank Wakefield, who had, at the time, gotten the closest to copying Bill’s mandolin style, something to the effect of, “That’s real good, now get your own style but keep that hardcore grass in there.” It’s best described as a kind of “white-knuckle, bite the cap off the coke bottle grit. Henry says, “I started the band in Nashville to play downtown and at the time we were mostly doing favorite bluegrass standards from the 40’s-70’s, but now we branch out and do a lot of different styles. There’s some blues, folk, Americana, country, Gospel and even some mixed-meter more world-music sounding contemporary textures that we sometimes do, like on “The Water Song”, the title cut of our last band album. A lot of what I’ve been gravitating towards these days is a little mellower and more peaceful. That has come from a lot of the time I have spent in Peru studying the traditional medicine of the plants, trees, and vines. The way that music intertwines with that study is beautiful. So much wisdom from the natural world.”
Being raised by two remarkable musicians had its advantages, among them being taught by masters. The young Henry began playing mandolin as a four year old (though he made his first bluegrass festival appearance at the age of three playing a ukulele.)
In 1994, he met Monroe backstage at the Grand Old Opry. Henry played “Rawhide” on Monroe’s mandolin after which the legend put his hat on the youngster’s head and danced around the room. Afterwards Monroe told Henry “If you ever need anything, boy, you come and let me know.”
A Fender Telecaster for his 16th birthday quickly turned Henry’s head to rock music, making the rounds to heavy metal, and then punk rock where he ended up playing the drums in a band called The Bends for five years.
Back in Virginia in 2001, he began work on his first full length mandolin album titled, Mandolumination, a combination of traditional hardcore bluegrass mandolin, mixed with his interest in eastern intervals. Half of the album also featured MIDI orchestration as well as live mandolin and guitar. It was also the first year that he and his dad, Red, started playing folk festivals in Florida. They have since become a favorite among the attendees at the Florida Folk Festival, Will McLean Memorial Festival, and the Gamble Rogers Memorial Festival.
Henry continued to expand his musical horizons by getting into rap and hip-hop music. It was a natural transition to make since he had been “making beats” through MIDI for almost ten years at that point. After a while, his interest in the rhyming side of things compelled him and he went on to record two solo rap albums as well as a group album with two friends. He produced all the music for these three albums and led to Henry becoming an in-demand producer in the Northern Virginia area.
Though much of his time was spent in his forays into more urban music, he was still honing his bluegrass chops being a frontman and lead singer for Dalton Brill and the Wildcats, a favorite local bluegrass band.
In 2003, Henry decided it was time to join his sister in Nashville with dreams to play bluegrass full time. He was hired shortly after moving to town to pick mandolin and sing tenor with 1946, a retro-style bluegrass band. After a year with 1946, and a year with Audie Blaylock and Redline, Henry and his sister Casey formed a band called Casey and Chris and the Two-Stringers, and recorded a CD with many of his original songs. It was very difficult for the duo to find musicians who really supported their vision of mountain-style bluegrass in Nashville, so after a couple of years they decided to pursue other opportunities.
One evening at the famed Station Inn in Nashville, Henry met Adam Olmstead, a gifted songwriter and singer. In the following years, he recorded mandolin and sang on Olmstead’s two studio albums which led to Henry and the album’s producer, Alan O’Bryant, to New Brunswick for tours of the Maritimes including Nova Scotia.
He followed with a mandolin album which made the long nomination list for IBMA’s Instrumental Album of the Year. Chris was contacted by the late Butch Baldassarri who initiated the project’s concept. The album features many of the best in bluegrass: Red Henry, Casey Henry, John Hedgecoth, Jason Carter, Ronnie McCoury, Alan O’Bryant, Mike Bub, Roland White, Robert Bowlin, Adam Olmstead, Butch Baldassarri, and Charlie Cushman.
Around this time, Shawn Camp was looking for a mandolin picker to play some gigs, and upon Mike Bub’s recommendation, Henry got the job that continues to this day. Along with teaching many lessons and camps, Henry has become one of the most respected traditional bluegrass musicians in Nashville.
The family band traveled abroad in 2007 to perform at the Scotland Bluegrass Festival. The crowds were highly enthusiastic to hear the Henry family bring their authentic brand of bluegrass across the water.
Henry moved to Paducah, Kentucky, in spring of 2008 to join forces with the Bawn in the Mash band who was gearing up to record their album “Confluence”, which Chris engineered and produced in the summer. The group fused bluegrass and roots music together with rock and jam band influences to create a new and interesting sound that was well received by their audiences and in the press.
In 2009 he had the good fortune of getting more international exposure by performing at the Calgary and Winnipeg Folk Festivals with Danny Barnes and Mike Bub. The trio was well received by Canadian audiences.
Returning to Nashville in early 2011, he started working on what would become his album, Burns Station. It is a Telecaster-based album that features 11 original songs, one original mandolin instrumental, and a Gamble Rogers cover. This album was well received in Nashville by his peers. His song “Walkin’ West to Memphis” was recorded by the Gibson Brothers and went on to be a top five hit and was nominated for IBMA and SPGBMA Song of the Year.
Another Mike Bub introduction allow for Henry’s talents to meet the ear of Peter Rowan. Since that time the two have collaborated, performed and recorded resulting in some of Chris’s finest professional moments. Four tracks on Rowan’s latest album.
In 2012, Henry was offered an opportunity to host a weekly bluegrass night in Nashville at Bootleggers Inn. This night has become one of the favorite places for bluegrass in Nashville for musicians to congregate and perform, and for fans to listen and enjoy the atmosphere. He debuted the first bluegrass band he has led, Chris Henry and the Hardcore Grass, and quickly gained a supportive local following over the next year and a half.
In 2014 the band was the California Bluegrass Association’s Emerging Artist of the Year and the band enjoyed playing at the great Grass Valley festival in Nevada City, California.
The band was selected to be official IBMA showcase artists in 2015 and was widely discussed as one of the favorite and most exciting and drawing energetic parallels to the Johnson Mountain Boys from one prominent record label executive.
Chris and his band have done two month long tours of Australia in New South Wales and Victoria. They headlined many of the country’s biggest bluegrass festivals and were well received, being featured on an ABC nationally syndicated radio program.
As was the case with Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, there have been many members of the band. “I’ve had over 110 different folks play in the band since we started. I’m still looking for the perfect combination of folks that can play really strict traditional hardcore bluegrass, but then at the drop of a hat, go off to explore uncharted territory. One goal I have is to be able to seamlessly transition between different styles in a natural way. To be able to hear the music that’s happening in the local universe and play it, to channel what’s happening right in that moment. We’ve done it a few times on stage and it feels so good. I also am feeling into ways to incoporate the singing with the audience in a kind of modern, tribal way. So many possibilities.”