Songwriter/performer Mike Henderson died suddenly on Friday, Sept. 22 at age 70.
He is perhaps best known as the co-writer of the Chris Stapleton hit “Broken Halos,” which became Stapleton’s first No. 1 success and won the Grammy Award as Country Song of the Year in 2017. It also won a CMA Song of the Year Award, as did 2021’s “Starting Over.”
Mike Henderson was a founder of the much-awarded progressive bluegrass band The SteelDrivers. For nearly 40 years, he has held down a weekly Monday-night residency at The Bluebird Cafe with his blues bands.
A native of Independence, Missouri, Henderson mastered guitar, fiddle, mandolin, Dobro and harmonica while playing in folk, bluegrass, rock and blues bands in high school and college at the University of Missouri. The most prominent of these was a blues combo called The Bell Aires. He and his family moved to Nashville in 1985. His aim was to become a utility player in some star’s road band.
In Nashville, he joined the blues-rocking group The Roosters, which evolved into The Kingsnakes. Henderson’s co-written “Powerful Stuff” was recorded by The Fabulous Thunderbirds and became a standout on the soundtrack of the Tom Cruise movie Cocktail in 1988. The Snakes were signed to Curb Records the following year.
As a songwriter, Henderson was signed to EMI on Music Row. His songs were recorded by Trisha Yearwood, Gary Allan, Patty Loveless, the [Dixie] Chicks, Travis Tritt, Kenny Rogers, Randy Travis, Marty Stuart and others.
He also worked steadily as a session musician, appearing on albums by Emmylou Harris, Kelly Willis, Lucinda Williams, Sting, Waylon Jennings, John Hiatt, Albert King, Tim McGraw, Hank Williams Jr., Faith Hill, Guy Clark, Bob Seger, Blake Shelton, Delbert McClinton and Martina McBride, as well as Loveless and the Chicks.
RCA Records signed him as a solo artist in 1993, and he issued the album Country Music Made Me Do It on the label. His “Hillbilly Jitters” RCA single charted briefly in 1994.
He formed the Dead Reckoning collective with Kieran Kane, Kevin Welch, Harry Stinson and Tammy Rogers. Henderson released three albums on Dead Reckoning, Edge of Night (1996), First Blood (1997) and Thicker Than Water (1999). The last two were with The Bluebloods, a new incarnation of his blues-rock ensembles.
Mark Knopfler hired him for his touring band in 2001. The rock star praised Henderson’s guitar work and was particularly taken with his blues harmonica stylings.
Henderson and Rogers co-founded The SteelDrivers in 2006. The group issued its debut album in 2008 and was named New Artist of the Year by the IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) in 2009. The group’s 2010 album Reckless was nominated for a Grammy. Henderson and Stapleton met in The SteelDrivers and became songwriting collaborators. Their SteelDrivers song “If It Hadn’t Been for Love” was recorded by pop superstar Adele.
Henderson also continued to record, issuing the 2015 album If You Think It’s Hot in Here. He became a record producer, as well. In addition to recordings by The Bluebloods, Henderson guided a series of rootsy albums for John Oates in recent years. He worked with Dale Watson on the latter’s current album, Starvation Box.
Last year, Mike Henderson had a special thrill when he performed with Stapleton at Wrigley Field. He was a lifelong fan of The Chicago Cubs, so he described the experience as “a dream come true.”
He also continued to perform regularly at The Bluebird. His final performance was last Monday there. Longtime songwriting collaborator Wally Wilson spoke to him Friday morning by phone. That afternoon, Henderson died in his sleep at home. Wilson believed the cause to be a pulmonary embolism.
Mike Henderson is survived by his wife of nearly 45 years, Janet, and by his daughters Lauren and Shannon Henderson. Visitation will be in the sanctuary of Woodmont Christian Church on Wednesday (Sept. 27), 10 a.m. to noon with a memorial service to follow. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to MusiCares.
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