Banjo Baron of Baltimore Passes

Image634895439821092848Walter Hensley, born in Grundy, Virginia, in 1936 passed away Sunday, November 25, 2012 from cancer. He was 76.

According to many, Walter Hensley was one of the finest practitioners of that Baltimore style of bluegrass and some say one of the greatest banjo pickers ever. Indeed, he has been called the “Banjo Baron of Baltimore.”
His driving banjo and inventive licks earned him the first solo banjo LP ever to be recorded on a major label and has elevated his name to the status of cult legend among banjo players and aficionados of that high-wire style of banjo playing. If there was a roster of influential and innovative banjo players, Walt would be on it, but his name is unfamiliar to many bluegrass musicians and fans.

Walt was a stylistic pioneer, but, as bluegrass writer Jon Weisberger wrote, “Walt has been “criminally under-appreciated.” Bill Monroe biographer Richard D. Smith said that “Walter remains one of the terribly underrated greats of the 5-string.”

Walter played with Earl Taylor and the Stony Mountain Boys along with Charlie Waller as lead vocalist. The band recorded on the seminal Folkways recording Mountain Music Bluegrass Style (FA2318, released 1959). That recording became the mother lode for urban folkies smitten with the genre. It also led to folklorist Alan Lomax’s well-known pronouncement of bluegrass as “folk music with overdrive.” The famous 1959 Carnegie Hall appearance (a first for bluegrass) followed. Walter also performed with another important band of the period, Vernon McIntyre’s Appalachian Grass, and later formed and recorded with his own fine band, The Dukes of Bluegrass.

According to the Wikipedia entry for The Country Gentlemen members, Walter Hensley is credited as a banjo picker for the band in September of 1961.

Our thanks to James Reams who sent us the following:

Legendary banjo picker and pioneer of bluegrass music, Walter Hensley passed away on Sunday (Nov. 25) at the age of 76. Walter played with  many of the iconic bluegrass bands in his day including Earl Taylor and the Stoney Mountain Boys, The Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, The Country Gentlemen, Vernon McIntyre and the Appalachian Grass as well as with his own band The Dukes of Bluegrass and with James Reams of James Reams and The Barnstormers. 
Bill Monroe biographer Richard D. Smith said that “Walter remains one of the terribly underrated greats of the 5-string.” He was a stylistic pioneer, but, as legendary folklorist Alan Lomax noted “There’s true folk magic in every note that Walt plays.” 
Take a listen to the Banjo Baron of Baltimore as he plays along with James Reams in “I Caught a Keeper” from the IBMA nominated Recording Event of the Year (2002), “James Reams, Walter Hensley and the Barons of Bluegrass.” You’ll hear some of that magic in every note.

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