Larry Hensley

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Too often overlooked even by so-called experts in Appalachian music, the multi-instrumentalist and singer Larry Hensley was one of several fine performers to come out of the town of Corbin, KY. At one…
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Too often overlooked even by so-called experts in Appalachian music, the multi-instrumentalist and singer Larry Hensley was one of several fine performers to come out of the town of Corbin, KY. At one point, old-time string bands literally ran the town; Walker's Corbin Ramblers, a terrific string band that Hensley joined in 1934, was headed up by the mayor of Corbin, John Walker, and also featured the mayor's influential brother Adam Walker as well as mandolinist Mack Taylor. Prior to hooking up with the mayor's band, Hensley had been performing on his own and in several other bands such as the Yellow Jackets; and once again, this was the '30s so this is not the funky jazz fusion group that named itself after wasps, but a Kentucky hillbilly group that played for several weeks on a daily radio show out Bristol, VA.

Walker's Corbin Ramblers became something of a success story. While the recordings of old-time music from the '20s and '30s are considered , as a whole, to represent some kind of peak of emotional power and commitment, Walker's Corbin Ramblers stand out even in this fine company. Corbin was certainly some kind of a hotbed of classic old-time music recording. In 1927, a well-known barber from the town named Frank Shelton cut two records featuring the tunes "Pretty Polly" and "Darlin' Cory," an act of old-time music history making, pure and simple, even it meant a couple of guys had to wait an extra day for their shave. Then there was Hayes Shepard, a "two finger" banjo player and singer from Letcher County, also known as the Applachian Vagabond, although how much that helped him stand out from his peer group is questionable. "Blind" Jim Howard, legendary fiddler and singer from nearby Cawood, was also on the scene.

Hensley, who played both mandolin and guitar before the age of 12, was a different sort of old-time player, perhaps a bit more serious than most. Although he gave his all to the upbeat ragtime material preferred by bandleader Walker, Hensley actually would rather play old-time hymns and his favorite gigs were apparently funerals, where it was alright if the entire set consisted of slow and sad songs. As a young man, he had played for his folks at home and entertained friends around the neighborhood. This evolved into professional gigs at night clubs, schools, and cabarets. When he was a young man he still labored in the coal mines, but only to make enough money to buy a new instrument or for strings. Walker's Corbin Ramblers benefited greatly in its acceptance from the leader's position in the community, since the mayor of a town is sure to have a better success ratio drumming up audiences for gigs than the average Drummer Dave, with the likelihood of being hired for local gigs also bound to be influenced by the presence of the town's mayor on the bandstand.

Hensley also had a career on his own, recording a version of "Matchbox Blues" that in some circles established authorship credit, and in general seems to have been influential; rockabilly dude Carl Perkins would update the white country-boy blues feel, and the Beatles would lovingly play copycat. Many details about Hensley came forward when longtime mountain record collector Ed Ward became involved in organizing a traveling exhibition entitled "The Awfulest Gang of Records You've Ever Seen: Ed Ward and the Golden Era in Country Music," produced by the spring 2000 American Music program at Southeast Community College. Hensley was one of Ward's all-time favorite local musicians as well as a very close and personal friend. In the later part of Hensley's career, he was often invited to play in church, but would always refuse, saying "I'm not worthy," probably the only comment he ever made in his life that can be connected with Alice Cooper. Hensley died in the summer of 1973 after being hit by a car. Best-known recording of the Walker's Corbin Ramblers group include "Ruffles and Bustles," "Ned Wend a Fishin'," and the brilliant "E Rag," which apparently is actually in the key of B.