Country-bluegrass-blues songwriter and instrumentalist Mike Henderson, who won Grammy and CMA awards as a collaborator of country superstar Chris Stapleton, died Friday at age 70. His wife of nearly 45 years, Janet, said in a post on the musician’s website that he had been in “very good health” before dying peacefully in his sleep.
The Missouri native’s death was initially confirmed in a Facebook post by his former band, the SteelDrivers, which he cofounded with Stapleton and several other players in 2006. Stapleton left the group in 2010 and Henderson followed a year later, although the band continues with an evolving lineup today.
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Even though he released solo albums before and after his tenure in the SteelDrivers, Henderson ultimately found his greatest renown as a songwriting partner of Stapleton’s.
The first Stapleton song to go to No 1 on the country airplay chart, “Broken Halos,” was a Stapleton-Henderson cowrite; it won the 2018 Grammy for country song of the year and a CMA Award the same year for song of the year. The songwriting comrades returned to the CMA winners’ circle in 2021 when another country chart-topper, “Starting Over,” was named song of the year. He was also nominated for three Grammys with the SteelDrivers in 2009-2011.
“It is with a heavy heart we announce the passing of Mike,” his wife, Janet, wrote in a statement. “He was a wonderful husband, father, and the love of my life for almost 45 years. We followed his dreams, and colleagues, friends and fans allowed him to achieve a level of success we never imagined. He most valued his friends who meant everything. Although Mike was in very good health, he died peacefully in his sleep yesterday morning. Myself and our daughters are devastated but we know we can get through this with all your love for Mike that we are are basking in. Thank you. We couldn’t be prouder.”
Other cowrites between Henderson and Stapleton that appeared on the latter star’s wildly successful solo albums in recent years included “Second One to Know,” “Without Your Love,” “Death Row,” “Nobody’s Lonely Tonight” and “Midnight Train to Memphis.”
One of their vintage SteelDrivers writing collaborations, “If It Hadn’t Been for Love,” was covered by Adele on her 2011 “Live at the Royal Albert Hall” live album and video release.
Stapleton invited Henderson to join him on stage last year at the star’s biggest gig ever. “On July 23, 2022,” Henderson wrote, “I had the honor of playing with Chris Stapleton at Wrigley Field. Being a die-hard Cubs fan, getting to roam Wrigley Field that day and night was a dream come true. Thank you Chris for the privilege.” They performed “Midnight Train to Memphis” together, and the Chicago Sun-Times reported that Stapleton referred to Henderson as his “hero.”
Henderson was at least as well-regarded as a player as he was as a songwriter. No less a guitarist than Mark Knopfler hired him as an accompanist for his 2001 solo tour. “Mike was an extraordinary talent,” Knopfler wrote upon hearing of the death, “as at home with bluegrass and old time fiddle music as he was with the blues. He was a superb blues harp player too.”
The list of artists he recorded with — playing mandolin, guitar, slide guitar and harmonica — included the Dixie Chicks, Lucinda Williams, Sting, Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, John Hiatt, Albert King, Tim McGraw, Hank Williams Jr., Faith Hill, Guy Clark, Bob Seger, Patty Loveless, Blake Shelton, Kelly Willis and Martina McBride. Those recording his songs, besides Adele and Stapleton, included the Chicks, Loveless, Kenny Rogers, Travis Tritt, Trisha Yearwood, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Randy Travis and Marty Stuart. He also co-produced several of John Oates’ blues-based solo efforts.
Henderson had one major-label solo album, his debut, “Country Music Made Me Do It,” on the RCA label in 1994 before going independent. That same year, Henderson formed a label, Dead Reckoning Records, along with Kevin Welch, Kevin Kieran, Harry Stinson and a fellow future SteelDriver, Tammy Rogers. Besides those founders’ own solo albums, Dead Reckoning’s roster included roots figures like David Olney and the Fairfield Four. Henderson’s three solo releases for the imprint were 1996’s “Edge of Night,” 1996’s “First Blood” and 1999’s “Thicker Than Water.” Henderson was not a prolific lead recording artist after leaving the SteelDrivers, but the Mike Henderson Band issued “If You Think It’s Hot Here…” on Ellersound in 2015.
That last album was testament to a long-running residency: Henderson had been performing with his blues band every Monday night at the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville for close to 40 years.
“I spent most of my Monday nights for the last 20+ years making music with Mike Henderson,” wrote band member Kevin McKendree. “It’s very hard to accept that last Monday was the last time. I admired him deeply for so many reasons. Being in his band was… and is… a point of pride for me.”
Wrote Kevin Welch, “I was incredibly blessed to get to play with Mike for many years, and he surprised me over and over. I listen to some of the older records and I’m still baffled by the parts he came up with, on the spot. You could not get him to play the same thing twice, so you either took it or tossed it. I almost always took it. … One moment I’ll never forget was when we went to see… Mark Knopfler’s band, at Red Rocks. Mark is an excellent human being, and he proved it when he gave Henderson the first solo of the night, on the first song. Henderson stepped up to the front of the stage and just absolutely tore it up. And Mark just stood there with a little smile, like ‘Look what I brought you…’ It choked me up.”
The Bluebird Cafe wrote in a statement: “It’s hard to imagine a Bluebird Cafe without Mike Henderson spearheading a Monday night, plugged-in, anti-SHHHH blues night. From the mid-’80s until today, Mike’s presence was as steadfast as his playing. He was one of the people who, over the years, became such a piece of the club’s fabric that his loss has truly taken our collective breath away. We were stunned at the news, disbelieving and now trying to find a way of accepting a loss so profound that it feels like the walls of the club might just crumble. Words just can’t cover the emptiness and pain. Sending love to Janet and Mike’s family as we share this heartbreak.”
Besides his wife, Henderson is survived by his daughters Lauren and Shannon.
A memorial service will be held in Nashville on Wednesday, with visitation 10-12 and service to follow at Woodmont Christian Church.
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