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Though he has experimented with a multitude of styles, the way Mike Henderson sees it, there are only two kinds of music: good music and bad music. As for Henderson, he plays good music.
A veteran of hundreds of recording sessions, Henderson is the real deal: a critic's darling, a musician's musician, a name that comes up when music industry folks get down to discussing the albums that refuse to budge from their CD players. Making no attempt to fit into a marketable groove as he evolves from session player to solo artist, Henderson performs blues with lots of country in it, his country is invariably shaded with blues and everything he does just plain rocks. But to hear him tell it, Henderson is just a songwriter who has fun doing projects with his musician friends. And his reaction to praise for those projects is laced with a half-embarrassed, thoroughly Midwestern "aw shucks, 'twern't nuthin' " sincerity.
Henderson's latest project, the Bluebloods, typifies his laid-back approach to making high-energy music: What started as a gig with friends at Nashville's Bluebird Cafe eventually evolved into the fine new CD First Blood.
"We [Henderson, former Double Trouble pianist Reese Wynans, bassist Glenn Worf and drummer John Gardener] were thinking about getting a Monday-night poker game going. But for someone to win $20, someone would have to lose $20. So we did a blues band instead," says Henderson. "It was never intended to be anything but a Monday night band, playing stuff we like, and [with] everybody going home with a little bit of change from the gig."
But word of the group soon spread among the many artists who had recorded with the session regulars. As is often the case in Nashville, that's all it took, and the Bluebird became the place to be on Monday night. "Bonnie Raitt urged us to get on tape," Henderson says. "So we went to the studio and recorded it like a gig, just laying it down in one take and moving on to the next tune without playing the tape, so the CD sounds like our show."
If the disc is true evidence of the live show, then a Bluebloods performance is a night of rocking blues with a distinct country twang, its "just having fun" ethos underscored by the fact that, while Henderson has written songs of a quality high enough to meet the standards of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Patti Loveless and others, none of the tunes on First Blood are his. Instead, energetic tribute is paid to the history of American blues, as Henderson and Wynans trade solos back and forth over the rhythm section's upright shuffle. In addition to offering up standards by the likes of Otis Spann and Elmore James, tribute is paid to Bo Diddley as the Bluebloods reprise "Pay Bo Diddley," a spoof of "Hey Bo Diddley" and an indictment of the blues industry's long history of fraudulent contracts and intellectual theft. "Get the FBI and the IRS, BMI and Leonard Chess," the lyrics run, "and let's pay Bo Diddley!" It's a sentiment that the songwriting Henderson can easily sympathize with.
If Henderson has ever been anything but a musician, he doesn't talk about it much. The Missouri native's first love was bluegrass, and while that's still part of the Henderson sound (playing breakdowns surely contributed to the incredible speed that he frequently displays, and his Edge of Night CD offers the most mandolin work of any Nashville recording in recent memory), the reality of the market is that bluegrass is a singularly unprofitable genre. "I was ready to be a little more accessible," Henderson observes dryly.
He found home-state prominence leading roots-rockers the Bel Airs, who in the early '80s were among the few good reasons to live in Kansas City. After one Bel Airs release on Blind Pig, Henderson found Nashville's siren call irresistible. Hard times getting started in Music City are the source of countless country songs, but Henderson's beginnings weren't especially tough; he quickly found an appreciative market for his sizzling slide guitar. Songs written by Henderson became hot items for established artists looking for new material, and he became a staff songwriter for EMI. Soon thereafter, demos of his originals caught the attention of RCA, which released his solo debut, Country Music Made Me Do It, to critical acclaim and lukewarm sales.
Henderson's next project was helping found the indie label Dead Reckoning, and his co-owner status gave him the freedom to record the countryish Edge of Night, which came out swinging with a rocked-up take on Eddie Clearwater's "I Wouldn't Lay My Guitar Down," followed by everything from a deep-blue National Steel version of the Blind Willie Johnson standard "Nobody's Fault but Mine" to Henderson carrying the lead on six-string bass on the title track.
Last year, Edge of Night made numerous critics' best-of lists, and early reviews of First Blood suggest it'll follow a similar path. Not bad for an outing that could have amounted to little more than a low-stakes poker game. But then, Henderson has always been a good gambler when it comes to music.
Mike Henderson and the Bluebloods perform at 9:30 p.m. Friday, January 17, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $6. For info, call 869-
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