Southerners have a long history of heading north to find jobs but keeping one foot in their homeland. Route 23 was famous for carrying Southerners to factory work in the North and also bringing them back home on the weekends.
That North/South exchange has also affected music, often blending big-city sophistication with the purity of country and Bluegrass. Singer-songwriter Joel Henderson lives in Louisville but was born in Atlanta, and his family moved to Chicago when he was 8. Henderson felt like a mixture of different cultures. He explains it this way: “For my first several years in Chicago, I did not identify as a Chicagoan. Coming into new schools, new friends, new communities, as a latchkey kid with just a touch of Southern drawl, everything was new to me and very uncomfortable. When asked, it always made sense for me to tell new acquaintances that I was from Georgia, which to those kids was pretty damn exotic. I was a country boy to them, which is really funny as there was nothing particularly ‘country’ about my experience.”
Henderson’s folkish music shows that influence, much like famed folk singer John Prine’s Southern heritage is evident in that Chicagoan’s sly songs. Henderson’s latest release, Locked Doors and Pretty Fences, is a musing about obstacles and opportunities. His music fits comfortably into the Americana singer/songwriter category but he has varied styles within that framework.
Kentucky musicians who Henderson feels have influenced his style include the Everly Brothers and Tim Krekel. “And though I came to learn about him only a couple years before his passing, Tim Krekel has certainly been of some encouragement to me, artistically speaking,” Henderson said. Current Kentucky musicians also pique Henderson’s interest. “And then there’s the litany of great contemporary songwriters now, who are an inspiration: Joan Osborne, Ben Sollee, Daniel Martin Moore, Jim James, Cheyenne Marie Mize, John Mann, Danny Flanigan … We have a plethora of songwriting talent from around these parts,” he said.
It’s not just people—place also influences Henderson’s writing style. “That being said, I am probably influenced less by other songwriters than I am by my surroundings—the community, individuals and their stories, and the landscape in general. Growing up in Chicago, I always favored music on the ‘rootsy’ side of the dial. So for this city-dwelling kid, living in Louisville and yet being so close to rural communities certainly allows me to exercise that preference,” he said.
Henderson came to Louisville via Indianapolis. He was a working, traveling musician about nine years ago while playing the River City at a tour stop when he met the woman who eventually became his wife. A friendship developed that blossomed into a romance. “I fell in love with her and Louisville,” he said.
Being a Louisvillian now has its upside, Henderson believes. “The low cost of living, the very cool communities, the great arts scene in general, close proximity to Nashville and geographically central location to major music markets—I think these are the qualities that make it conducive for any touring singer-songwriter or band,” he said. That doesn’t mean the life of a working musician is easy, though. There are still songs to write, jobs to book and PR to handle. Henderson pointed out that since singer-songwriters don’t have fellow band members, there’s no one to help get the word out about shows. “Overall, though, this is a very welcoming town to singer-songwriters,” he said.
Henderson’s Locked Doors and Pretty Fences was produced by Paul Mahern, who has produced CDs for such well-known musicians as John Mellencamp and The Fray. Was it hard to get a producer of Mahern’s caliber to produce Henderson’s first full-length release? “Nah! He’s a really cool guy. He’s actually produced a lot of records for folks around these parts. I was a little intimidated initially, but that quickly subsided as he became a friend and not just my producer,” Henderson said. Henderson had started producing his songs at home, so he had something to show Mahern. According to Henderson, “He seemed genuinely excited about it and from there agreed to make the record. Pretty simple, actually.”