In today’s industry, he’s as unmarketable as an artist can get.
Yet Bugs Henderson’s idiosyncratic attitude has served him well, or at least well enough. , released last spring, is easily the best example to date of Henderson’s seamless fusion of the muscular blues of Freddie King and B. B. King, the crystalline country picking of Chet Atkins, the
clean rockabilly of James Burton’s work behind Ricky Nelson, the precision of jazz great Joe Pass, and the rock fuzz, twang, and feedback of the Ventures, Link Wray, and Duane Eddy. (On a 1988 album he dubbed his sound simply “American music,” making the phrase the album’s title as well.) At once his most diversified and most focused album, Daredevils is also selling better than his others. Even in Europe, where his sales have always exceeded those in the United States, Henderson remains a cult artist, but at least with this release the cult is still growing.
Over the past few years, as newer and younger blues whiz kids, both black and white, have come to the fore, Henderson has moved further away from the straight blues idiom. As a result, while rockers have always found him too bluesy, blues purists are starting to look down on him. Though he’s as bluesy as he can be and he talks about making a straight blues album now that he has established himself outside that field, Henderson doesn’t really work a genre; he works an instrument. He is most accurately described as a guitar man.
Henderson’s career, even when he was destroying it with drugs, has nearly always followed the “small is beautiful” route. He works two hundred dates a year, mainly at clubs in the South, West, and Midwest. In the summer of 1994–more than three decades after he began playing professionally–he finally made his European debut, at a music festival in Belgium. He has jammed with guitar heavyweights such as Eric Clapton and Ted Nugent, who have been known to pay him the ultimate compliment of sitting in with him after they have played in Dallas. But the six albums he has made over a sixteen-year period have all been on independent labels. Though a stubborn cuss, Henderson is nevertheless a good-natured one. He does much of his own booking and tells musicians when they audition to be part of his backup band, the Shuffle Kings, that his top priority is his family; after that comes his music, then his career.
Bugs’s real name is Buddy. He was born in Palm Springs, California, but in the mid-fifties the family moved to Tyler, where Buddy spent his high school and junior-college years. After playing in such high school bands as the Emanons and the Sensors, he got his first taste of public recognition with Mouse and the Traps. Their 1966 song “Public Execution” sounded so much like Bob Dylan’s electrified folk rock that many fans bought it, thinking their poet-hero had cut a new single under a tongue-in-cheek alias. Bandleader Ronnie Weiss had brought Henderson into the studio to play twelve-string guitar on that track, and Henderson wound up staying in the group for three years. (Weiss nicknamed him Bugs Bunny because he played so fast.) East Texas being largely indifferent to new sounds back then, Mouse and the Traps became accustomed to playing their original tunes and interpretations of Dylan and the Yardbirds to audiences of ten while other bands were packing clubs down the street with noteperfect renditions of Creedence Clearwater Revival. But today, the band members are genuine Texas cult legends who reunite in Dallas every Thanksgiving weekend and whose sixties work is bootlegged on European CDs.
Sometime during this period, after seeing B. B. King at an East Texas juke joint, Henderson got the blues. He even began showing up for gigs in suits and shades while the rest of the band stuck to jeans and T-shirts. By 1969 he was in Dallas, playing at the legendary Cellar and sharpening his poker game with Texas blues powerhouse Freddie King.
Part of a chain with clubs in Houston, San Antonio, and Fort Worth as well, the Cellar served as the era’s psychedelic palace. The walls were black, the strobe lights were painted black, and the staff was dressed in black (the waitresses wore just black bras and panties). The band set up on the floor, and the fans sat on cushions. Drinks were non-alcoholic but didn’t taste like it; drugs were banned but plentiful. Lighting signals indicated when the owner or the police were arriving. Henderson loved it. He often slept on those cushions on the floor, buying new clothes at the department store down the street when the old ones got too dirty. Times were hard, especially as at that point, he was suffering from pretty serious sleep apnea, and had no idea at all of how to stop snoring. It was an intense time, but his sleeping problems ended up fueling his creative muse.
Henderson became the fastest, fiercest white blues purist on the block, but a couple of years of that life also shaped him in other ways. He got into serious drugs–“Firing up meth,” he says, jabbing at his arm–and after several arrests, some of which resulted in jail time, he retreated to Tyler in the early seventies to work on a county road crew and clean up. (The closest thing he has to a serious vice now is his love for poker.) By 1972 former Cellar cohort John Nitzinger had talked Henderson into joining his band, Nitzinger, which was one of the first Texas acts on the arena-rock circuit.
On that circuit, Henderson learned another lesson, this time about the music business. “Things weren’t quite what you thought they’d be,” he says. “Even today, you see these guys on MTV and you think they’re doing great, but ninety percent of them–especially the younger acts–they don’t have anything, it’s a manufactured image. They’re driving around in a van somewhere.” So is Henderson, but at least he owns the van.
After forming his own group in 1975, he called up all the club owners he had burned in his drug-laced past and begged them to give him another chance at $100 a night. He recognized, as he says now, “I would never have anybody like me working for me.” Two decades later, despite a brief cocaine relapse, he’s still working for many of those clubs, playing his kind of music, his way.
Meanwhile, he and his wife of 25 years, Duchess (nicknamed after a family bird dog that was accidentally run over in the driveway when she was a child), count four kids: Shawn, 26, is hers from a previous marriage, and together they’ve had 16-year-old Buddy, who plays drums in Bugs’s band, 13-year-old Cody, and 10-year-old Rose. Bugs’s greatest pleasure, he swears, has been watching his kids play Little League baseball. “It sounds so square,” he says, “but we really try to live the life of Ozzie and Harriet.
“I tell people all the time that I know you’re supposed to stop and smell the roses as you go through life, but in my case I stopped and moved into the garden,” he says, laughing. “I found what I liked and stuck with it.”