The glory of Bugs

Longtime fans still come up to Texas guitar hero Bugs Henderson, asking why he's not a bigger star, why he's not enshrined on Mount Hendrix with rightful peers like Stevie Ray, Roy Buchanan, or Danny Gatton.

It doesn't bother Henderson that much. For one thing, all the above-mentioned guitar gods are dead. Buchanan hanged himself. Gatton shot himself. Even survivor Eric Clapton's life has been dogged by domestic tragedy. Nevertheless, Henderson appreciates fans wishing him greater fame, and after 10 albums and an ever-robust touring schedule, he's finally figured out how to answer fans who wish he had more: "If I was as big as you want me to be, we wouldn't be here talking. You couldn't be asking about my next gig; I'd be sealed off somewhere on a plane, and you couldn't hear me for only 10 bucks. I'd be gone forever."

A down-home guy, Henderson still gives thanks for never having to wear the dreaded suit and tie, fight rush hour traffic, or punch the clock. After four decades on stage, he plays exactly what he wants to play, and no one tells him otherwise; yet this member of the local rock aristocracy is also a blue-collar working man whose most heroic feat has been raising four kids on six strings. "And a better father than a guitarist," declares Duchess, his wife of 28 years, in their domestic, middle-class paradise in Garland.

"How'm I as a husband?" nudges Bugs.
"Let's just leave it at wonderful father," replies Duchess.
Henderson makes it policy to tell hired backup musicians the order of importance in his life: Family first, music second, and career third. "I couldn't have the life I have now and be a major star. Couldn't go to my kids' ball games. I wouldn't give up that for anything."

In fact, Henderson's current musical "organization," the Shuffle Kings, consists of his 19-year-old son, Buddy, on drums; his 16-year-old son, Cody, as tech; and brothers Keith and Steve Jones on bass and merchandising, respectively. Thus, the title of his new Live at Poor David's CD: Henderson & Jones.

No matter how tough things got--and the Hendersons suffered through poverty during his battle with drugs back in the 1970s--Duchess always stood by him as an artist, the security of a nine-to-five job be damned. "She saved my life. I came home one day, and she was gone, with a note sayin' 'Get it together, and I'll be back.' I laid it [drugs] down that day. I'd taken her and my family for granted--for dope. The evil empire. I hate to say there's no way around it, but I don't know anybody who's been untouched by dope in this business. Most of the people I ran with then are dead, in jail, or just look terrible. With God's help and good friends, I came out of it."

There was a time when everything he owned fit into a VW Beetle. "Now I'm lookin' at two or three movin' vans. But it's just stuff."

Henderson, now 54, never lost a moment's sleep over his receding hairline, and thinks nothing of getting up on stage in shorts and tennis shoes, much to the chagrin of blues purists. At a 1996 biker concert, Harley-Davidson awarded him a first-place plaque for "Men's Prettiest Legs," which hangs in his study, along with numerous Dallas Observer "Best Blues" awards. Women half his age still clamor for discarded guitar picks. It's disarming to encounter the daytime image of Bugs, where he might pass for somebody's uncle in the aluminum-siding business. But come the night on stage, no one could deny the fact that Bugs is one sexy dude.

Because of his all-too-casual stage wear and his bag of rock guitarist's tricks, Henderson raises eyebrows among blues hardliners, yet he helped pioneer the ongoing revival of the blues. Still, virtually no blues festivals will book him today.

"People literally used to throw ashtrays at us when we would play blues," he remembers, recalling his band Fancy Space and the Rockin' Rhythm Daddies. At that time, in the early '70s, he was among the first to uphold the back-to-basics approach. "Blues was all that mattered to me; no other music was worth a damn. If you had any success, you were no good, cause you couldn't have success and be a real artist; you had to starve to play blues."

Henderson gradually adopted a more liberal guitar attitude and today dips into a melting pot of styles--to the point where he now takes grief from Austin's blues nazis, some of whom won't share a stage with him. Yet it's clear he never abandoned the blues. "There's rock in my blues, and blues in my rock," goes one of his lyrics. "But you're expected to play it only one way," he adds. "And I will not do three-chord blues all night. It's great that the blues have happened where you now have all these blues societies, newsletters, and clubs. I'm so happy for B.B. and guys like that. But there's a lotta guys who don't do it great, they just dress up. And let's face it--every old black guy is not a great blues artist."

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Josh Alan Friedman