Wayne Henderson offers wisdom, plays songs at fall convocation


The Appalachian Online

Gerrit Van Genderen

Master luthier and musician Wayne Henderson spoke and played at Appalachian State University’s 26th annual fall convocation ceremony at the Holmes Convocation Center Thursday morning.

Henderson, who is based in Rugby, Virginia, was the inspiration for the 2014 Common Reading Program selection “Clapton’s Guitar: Watching Wayne Henderson Build the Perfect Instrument” by Allen St. John.

Since 1997, incoming freshmen at Appalachian have been asked to read a book selected by the Common Reading Program as part of their orientation to the university, according to www.commonreading.appstate.edu.

The book was published in 2005 and chronicled Henderson’s work as he built a guitar for Eric Clapton, an English musician, guitarist and songwriter who has been inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three times.

“Clapton’s Guitar” was selected for its focus on the region’s music, crafts, folklore, storytelling and other aspects of Appalachian culture, according to a university news release.

Robert White, a traditional musician and friend of Henderson’s for over 50 years, introduced the luthier to the crowd and said that there was no chance Henderson would be found wearing the academic robes that are common at convocation.

Henderson instead donned blue jeans, a plaid shirt and a signature Boston Red Sox baseball hat. The theme of baseball would come full circle by the end of his speech.

The luthier, in addition to speaking to the crowd, played three different songs on a guitar he brought with him, which he said was the seventh Henderson guitar ever made, 46 years ago.

Henderson elaborated on the origin of the guitar, saying that since he could not afford a good guitar at the time, he decided to make it.

“You’ve gotta have goals and you gotta be persistent,” Henderson said. “Never think there is anything that you can’t do.”

Henderson said when he made the guitar, he had very little tools and machinery to work with.

“At the time it seemed [like a] pretty much impossible thing to do to make a guitar with not too much more than a pocketknife and a few tools that were on the farm,” Henderson said.

Henderson went on to tell a story about how a stranger approached him while spending time at his grandmother’s house about wanting to try the guitar out. After commending Henderson on the quality of how it played, the stranger asked how much it would cost to buy the guitar, to which Henderson replied with the price of $500.

“He had five $100 dollar bills in his shirt pocket, and that was more money than I had ever seen or known what to do with,” Henderson said. “I told my granny, ‘Lord, if I can make money like this, it is what I’m gonna do.’”

The guitar was eventually returned to Henderson through a grapevine of owners. With the $500 Henderson earned, he purchased more tools, including a sander and a router, which would help with the crafting process. Henderson said the one tool that has remained the same over the years is his pocketknife that he uses to intricately decorate the instruments he makes.

The luthier produces about 20 instruments per year, mostly guitars, but is well known for the mandolins he makes as well. Due to the limited quantities in which Henderson builds the guitars, a waiting list for a Henderson instrument can stretch back as far as 10 years, according to a convocation press release.

Customers, in addition to Clapton, consist of the famous and non-famous, including the late Doc Watson, a high country native and instructor to Henderson.

“If you pay attention to [your instructors] you’ll do good,” Henderson said.

Henderson closed his speech and time at the ceremony with an interactive version of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” a song that has become an unofficial anthem for baseball in the United States. Henderson invited the audience to sing along the first two times through and then proceeded to play a third and final take without words.

“Of all those places I’ve gone [to] and played [at], I don’t think I’ve been anywhere where I’ve felt more important than right here,” Henderson said after being introduced by White.

In addition to Henderson’s speech, Chancellor Sheri N. Everts presented awards to the recipients of the Student Employee of the Year Award, Appalachian Staff Award, Harvey R. Durham Award, W.H. Plemmons Leadership Medallion and UNC Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching at the ceremony.

Chancellor Everts made the opening remarks of the ceremony and Joseph Bathanti, professor of creative writing, presented a poem as well. The event was open to the public.

Past Common Reading Program book selections include “Farm City,” “Mudbound” and “The Glass Castle.”

Story: Gerrit Van Genderen, Managing Editor