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James Reams Remembers and Celebrates Walter Hensley's Birthday

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 James Reams and Walter HensleyBy James Reams
“I had to learn off the radio,” recalled Walter Hensley during an interview for the documentary Making History with Pioneers of Bluegrass. “Didn’t have any records or anything. I just kept messing with the banjo roll. Drove my Dad crazy because he worked in the mines, and he’d have to get up at four in the morning." Replacing broken fingerpicks and strings was possible only when someone with a car was going to town – 35 miles away – and could bring some back. So the future Banjo Baron of Baltimore sometimes made fingerpicks out of PET Milk cans. Walt insisted “They were not all that bad; better than nothin’.” To replace broken strings he sometimes cut the insulation off blasting wire that was used for setting off dynamite in the mines, then tuned it down low enough so it wouldn’t break when played.

That's the kind of dedication that these early pioneers of bluegrass displayed over and over again. And it's great to remind listeners from time to time what these musicians had to go through in order to bring us this music that we love so much.

Walt and James Reams met in the early 1990s at a bluegrass festival in Groveton, NH. The festival was being held at a Speedway and at night, they would stop the music so the cars could race. James walked up to Vernon McIntyre's bus one evening looking for somebody to pick with and knocked on the door. When he walked in, there was Walter sitting there on the bus with Vernon, smoking a cigarette and looking for all the world just like a confederate soldier. When James asked him why he hadn't recorded in a number of years and he said "No one’s willin’ to work as hard as I’d like them to!" James saw his chance and told him that he'd have as many rehearsals as Walter felt necessary to get a project done. Their first project together was James Reams, Walter Hensley & The Barons of Bluegrass and it ended up being nominated for IBMA's Bluegrass Recording Event of the Year in 2002.

When their second album (Wild Card) came out in 2006 there was a lot of interest from major promoters to have them perform at festivals. By this time, Walt had removed himself from the music scene to a small town in PA. He just wasn't sure he could perform anymore. After a nice heart-to-heart talk between James and his musical hero, Walter agreed to do the shows. "Once we were on stage, Walter worked the crowd into a frenzy" James remembers. "After one of his musical breaks (I think it was Wild Card), there was a gasp of awe from the audience. Even other performers, including Del and Robbie McCoury, were standing in the wings mesmerized. We wrapped up to roars of approval from the crowd and from backstage."

Help keep the legend alive by playing some of Walter's music to celebrate his birthday on March 18th. He wrote "Upper Elk Creek" for James Reams, Walter Hensley & Barons of Bluegrass and contributed the title track "Wild Card" to their next album. Upper Elk Creek was where Walt romped and played as a boy...and then the mining companies moved in.

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