Singer, songwriter, guitarist, fiddle and mandolin player, and by all accounts overall good guy Mike Henderson has passed away. From being a side player and studio musician, to venturing out as a solo performer, to helping found The SteelDrivers and co-writing some of Chris Stapleton’s most iconic songs, Henderson did it just about all in country music. Now country music is mourning his loss at the age of 70.
Even if you haven’t heard of Mike Henderson, you most certainly have heard his work. Among other songs, Mike Henderson wrote “Broken Halos” with Chris Stapleton, which went on to win Song of the Year from the CMA in 2018, as well as the Grammy’s “Best Country Song.” He’d win another Song of the Year CMA in 2021 with Stapleton for “Starting Over.”
These awards were the culmination of a lifetime of hard work and dedication in the music business that wasn’t always recognized accordingly. Born in Independence, Missouri in 1953, Henderson’s career started out in a local blues band called The Bell Airs. In 1985 he moved to Nashville and began playing in the local bands The Roosters and The Kingsnakes at places like The Bluebird Cafe. The Kingsnakes eventually signed to Curb Records, but failed to find major success.
It’s when The Fabulous Thunderbirds out of Texas recorded Henderson’s song “Powerful Stuff” that was featured in the hit movie Cocktail that Henderson started making waves in the national scene. EMI hired him on as a songwriter, and artists such as Trisha Yearwood, Gary Allan, Patty Loveless, and the [Dixie] Chicks covered his songs. To supplant his income, Henderson also did studio work, appearing on albums from Emmylou Harris, Kelly Willis, and others.
It was due to his continued success that Mike Henderson was eventually signed to RCA Nashville, and released his debut album Country Music Made Me Do It in 1994. Despite positive reviews, Henderson was eventually dropped. He was later responsible for helping to found Dead Reckoning Records with Kieran Kane, Kevin Welch, “Handsome” Harry Stinson, and Tammy Rogers—the latter of whom Henderson also went on to found the SteelDrivers with in 2005.
After releasing numerous solo albums on Dead Reckoning Records, Henderson focused more on his songwriting and side playing, including touring with Mark Knopfler in 2001. Mike Henderson and Chris Stapleton started writing together a few years before the formation of the SteelDrivers, which really helped seed the soulful style of country that Chris Stapleton eventually would take to the very top of the country genre.
Stapleton left The SteelDrivers in 2010, and Henderson left in 2011. But Stapleton continued to call of Henderson as a co-writer. It was this songwriting collaboration that helped launch the Chris Stapleton phenomenon.
Being skilled both as a writer and musician in blues, bluegrass, as well as country gave Henderson incredible latitude as a collaborator. He recently worked with Dale Watson on his new bluesy album Starvation Box, and co-wrote the title track with Dale.
Mike Henderson was one of those guys who helped influence the music in a very positive direction, often behind-the-scenes, and often to little recognition. But before he passed on September 22nd, he did get to relish in the recognition at the very top of the genre via CMA and Grammy wins for songs that helped reshape that paradigm in country music to the positive.