Photo courtesy of Drew Henderson
It’s always fun to introduce a new artist to Think Country followers, but this time, I think I’ve got someone extra special. I’d like you to meet Drew Henderson. He’s an Ellerbe, North Carolina native that’s been in Nashville for about a year and a half, which really isn’t long, and he’s got a story to tell and an EP ready to drop. Do I believe this guy has the potential to navigate a tough industry at a particularly difficult time? I do. Why don’t you sit back and read why.
Drew Henderson came by my house on June 22, 2020 with his producer, Ben Miller. Miller is an amazingly talented artist in his own right. Currently the lead guitarist for Rodney Atkins, and formerly with Riley Green’s band, he is well-known around Nashville as one of the best players around. His own story is simply fascinating. I know this because I interviewed him last year for Think Country. You can read that interview here: https://thinkcountrymusic.com/whats-new/guitarist-ben-miller-opens-the-vault-for-think-country/ Miller told me ahead of time that I was going to like Henderson, and it didn’t take long for me to know that he was right.
I said Henderson was coming out with an EP, and he is. It’s his debut EP. It’s called Bennett Road, set to release Friday, July 17th. At the time of our interview, there were still some last minute details being worked out as far as final decisions on what tracks would make the EP, but according to Miller, every song that was in the running was “undeniable”, so I think we’re in for some great new music. I heard some of it, and Henderson has a voice that doesn’t quit. They’ve been keeping him away from the masses long enough. It’s high time people learned who he is. I did, and now everyone will.
Raised on a wide variety of different music, from 90’s country to R&B, Henderson listened to a lot of everything except metal. “My dad listened to all 90’s country, 90’s rock, Foreigner, Night Ranger, things like that. As far as things I listened to, it was a lot of Brian McKnight, Boyz II Men, R&B stuff. Travis Tritt was like my mainstay. He’s been my guy. Collin Raye and Vince Gill are two big influences on me. Really, my music’s kind of all over the place,” explained Henderson.
His future foreshadowed about the time he was four-years old, Henderson was singing songs like Billy Ray Cyrus’s, “Achy Breaky Heart” and Alan Jackson’s, “Little Bitty” on home video. He became more serious when his parents talked him into doing a talent show when he was 10. He said he wasn’t nervous. “What’s weird about me is I can get in front of thousands of people and sing and have a good time, but you get me in front of a small group and I get more nervous.” Miller added his thoughts on that, “You can see people judging you then.”
Henderson elaborated, “A good example of that is, my dad and I were avid deer hunters and we were at the clubhouse one night just playin’ cards. At this point, everybody knew I could sing. There were only probably eight of ‘em. They were like, ‘Sing a song.’ I got super flustered because I was nervous around that little group of people to do that, and it made me so nervous I think I like, started to cry. I was like, nine-years old, but you get me in front of thousands of people and I’m okay. I don’t know why. When you’re in an indoor venue, the lights are so bright you can’t even see ‘em really, I guess.”
Obviously, Henderson plays guitar, but when did that begin? His grandfather bought him his first guitar, a small Taylor, when he was about 10, but he didn’t take it seriously at that time. It wasn’t until he was around 15 or 16 that he started “dabbling”, but even then, that’s all it was, dabbling. His college years are when he gave it a real go and began to try different things with it. “Self-taught, a lot of ‘YouTubing’. I really haven’t been playing seriously that long.”
I asked whether he considers himself to be a fairly good guitar player or whether he relies more heavily on his guitarist. He answered, “I would say I probably rely on my guitar player more than not, but I think I’m pretty good. I can handle myself in an acoustic situation, a songwriter round situation. Like, Ben is someone I would consider really good. Even beyond really good.”
A question I like to ask artists, because I think it’s interesting, is what adult in their life was influential, that maybe they didn’t realize when they were younger but they do now? Henderson thought a moment and came up with this, “Well, my mom and dad did a good job of keeping me and my brother in line, but as far as somebody it took me a while to realize, that would be my Uncle Rob, my mom’s brother. He was an avid guitar player, like Ben is. He listened to a lot of John Mellencamp and Southern Rock stuff. Our family is huge and we used to have these get-togethers every year around Thanksgiving. It was always him breakin’ out that guitar, and I think that was what started makin’ me want to play. Anybody I’d ever bring over as a kid, they just thought he was so cool. He had this super raspy voice. It was awesome. He is one that always, if I write a new song, or if I get something new recorded, he is one of the first ones I send it to. He’s a true cowboy, by the way. He actually grew up in Arizona. He went to a school out there. There is a lot of western influence. He used to rope. He did rodeos. He doesn’t do a lot of that these days. Usually once a year, he’ll go to Utah with a friend and they’ll do some ranchin’ for cattle and stuff like that.”
Before music took over, it was sports. High school football and baseball, to be specific. When I asked what he was doing in high school when he wasn’t in the classroom, Henderson said that was about it. “At one point, I thought I was gonna be a D1 football player or a D1 baseball player. I got a couple of looks from schools, but then I got hurt my senior year. The first practice my senior year of football, before my first game, I went up for a pass, and the DB ended up, you know, just playin’ the game, nothin’ wrong with what he did, but his helmet ended up gettin’ me right here in the middle-lower back. I ended up kind of folding up like a suitcase. My dad was at that practice and he said he literally thought that my head ended up, like, touchin’ my butt.”
Pretty heartbreaking for a kid that was thinking about possibly making football a career. I expressed that thought to Henderson, to which he replied, “It used to haunt me all the time, but with how things have played out and moving to Nashville and all, everything that has happened in my life has been so specific and pinpointed.”
Did he throw up his hands, drop sports and pick up a guitar after that injury? Not exactly. “At that point, I think I was just so devastated because sports were just out of the question, that I ended up wantin’ to go to college, get a degree. I got into Eastern Carolina University. My major was Exercise Physiology. I changed majors a couple times, got three years in, still didn’t really know what I wanted to do, ended up doin’ too much partyin’, and just one day it kinda hit me like, this ain’t for me. I ended up calling home and surprisingly, they welcomed me back home with open arms and I ended up staying back home for a year. I worked on a farm with a lot of plants and stuff.”
It wasn’t his parents’ farm. His dad works in the natural gas industry as his profession, although the family does live on 30 acres, which they farm on the weekends. That was something that presented its own problems for Henderson when he was a teenager. “On weekends, that’s all we did. If anybody would ever stay over at my house on the weekend, they were gonna work Saturday morning. A lot of times, especially at 16, when everybody could drive, they would wake up and get on out of there, but my good buddy John, he would usually stay around.”
He continued, “After about a year, my dad would mention the Air Force, out of the blue. I ended up going to a recruiter and I was out of there. I did four years in the Air Force. I was stationed in Goldsboro, North Carolina, about two-and-a-half hours from home. It’s crazy how it happened, because I ended up goin’ in Open Mechanical, so they could have put me anywhere they wanted to as far as a mechanical job, but I ended up gettin’ Fighter Jet Mechanic. There’s so many fighter jets in our military that I could’ve gone anywhere, but I ended up specifically gettin’ the F-15, and there’s six bases for F-15’s in the world. North Carolina was just one of ‘em, and that was pretty much the bottom of the list for where I wanted to go, but The Lord sent me right back home.”
He added that his being sent to North Carolina really seemed meant to be by the Air Force’s next move. “When I got to that base, there’s four squadrons I could have got in, three of ‘em were active duty, which they deployed with the 15’s, and there’s one squadron that they just trained pilots, and that squadron stayed there. They don’t ever deploy, they just train pilots. They come in every six months and they never stop, and I ended up getting that squadron, so I never deployed. It was very near just a really, really long day job, two-and-a-half hours from home.”
Photo courtesy of Drew Henderson
That chapter of his life was almost closed, but not just yet, there’s a little more to the military story, and then comes the music, sort of. Let’s hear about how all of it comes together. “I was honorably discharged, and the Air Force, I have them to thank for being out here in Nashville, because I got three years in, and you have to decide if you want to stay or get out. At that point, music was gettin’ to be really serious for me because I’d been playin’ a couple places around there, stuff like that. So, I wanted to get out and go back to school and finish, get it over with. I started lookin’ at Nashville and all these schools, but because my prior college wasn’t that great, I knew I wasn’t gonna get into Vandy or Lipscomb or anything like that. Belmont. I ended up applying just to Belmont, because they were very Veteran-friendly, a Yellow Ribbon Program, and a month later I got the acceptance letter. So, I ended up moving out there to Nashville. I’m still in school right now. I’ve got two classes this summer I’m doin’ right now, and then after those two classes, I’m completely done.”
I couldn’t help thinking how much life this young person has lived in such a short amount of time. It seemed he’d already done more than a lot of people his age, and here he was, about to put out his first EP soon. Quite remarkable.
Well, now Drew Henderson has arrived in Music City. Many, just like him, arrive daily, ready to tough it out. Some stick around, but the vast majority end up back home, fleeing to safer, more familiar waters. What are his thoughts so far?
“I do like it. The songwriting community is a very tight-knit community. I’ve only been here a year-and-a-half and I still consider myself pretty new, but from my experience, everybody is kind of for everybody. Everybody likes to help everybody out. Midtown is the scene I like. I love Broadway, but once you live here, I think Broadway gets to be a little redundant.”
Asked if he ever plays Broadway, he said, “I played Broadway one time. Tin Roof on Broadway, I think it was a writers’ round for Halloween.” I told him it was kind of impressive that he only had to play there once, but it was like a rite of passage. Playing once was almost mandatory to be in some sort of invisible club. Been there, done that. He and Miller really are a lot alike. Miller has only played Broadway during CMA Fest, “I stay away,” Miller says with a smile.
Describing the area of the city he enjoys, Henderson went on, “Typically, if I’m in Midtown and I’m not playin, you’ll usually see me at Losers or Winners, Tin Roof or Dawghouse.”
What if he is “playin’”? What can you expect from Henderson? What does his music sound like? Here’s where he had some trouble and Miller jumped in to help him out a bit, “He’s like a 90’s thing with a modern twist. He’s got the great songwriting, but then you have that little bit of a rock and roll twist that kind of started in the 2000’s.” That seemed to be just enough to spark Henderson’s own thought processes. He was able to take it from there.
Photo courtesy of Drew Henderson
“From 2009 to 2014, a lot of people kind of compared me to Brantley Gilbert, but Brantley, he’s a lot rougher. He’s got a lot rougher edge than I do, and his sound is probably a lot rougher too, but I listened to Brantley Gilbert religiously from about 2009 to 2014, and I think that’s where that probably came into play. I’d say Chris Cagle is another one. In the early 2000’s, I listened to a lot of Chris Cagle, and even now. So, another influence for me.”
Ben Miller pointed out that Henderson also has great vocal range. “That high tenor thing, he can get up there.”
As far as what Henderson likes to personally listen to? He’s a big fan of Travis Tritt, Keith Whitley and Vince Gill. “If you’re ridin’ in my truck, you’re gonna hear at least two Vince Gill songs, depending on how long the trip is.” He also likes Justin Moore, Brantley Gilbert, Cody Johnson, Parker McCollum and Mike Ryan.
We got into a side discussion about Texas artists and how they are in their own league as far as developing their own legions of fans independently. In Cody Johnson’s case, he gave up a wildly successful indie career for life on a major label, and we talked about that for a few minutes. That led to Henderson mentioning his own close encounter with Johnson in Nashville. “I got the chance to meet Cody Johnson at Red Door. He had his team there. He was the chillest person I’ve ever met. I think he kinda knew we knew who he was. He really just walked over there and introduced himself. His little whiskey in his hand, just sitting’ there chattin’ the whole time. He was like, stay true to ourselves, you’re gonna hear ‘no’ a lot, but take it as fuel and keep goin’. As far as me movin’ out here, he played a huge role, even though he didn’t know it, as far as given’ me that motivation.”
It’s always good to hear it when the big guys lift up the ones just starting out. When they aren’t playing diva and they offer up words of advice and encouragement. Nashville isn’t easy, and if you can’t handle the word, “no” or strong critics, often over and over and over again, then you may as well stay where you are, because those things are inevitable. You have to be able to brush yourself off and keep trying again, as many times as it takes. Henderson has already experienced his fair share of rejection. He shared this, “Even if it wasn’t a ‘no’, it was a brush-off type of thing. I’ve got plenty of those. A specific one was, I tried out for The Voice last year. They seek you out. They send you an email saying, ‘Hey, we saw your social media, you’ve got a good voice, a good look’, all that kinda thing. They give you this date for tryin’ out. I went and I tried out. I think I got through maybe three-quarters of the song and that was it.”
Miller interjected by saying, “You know why, right?”
Henderson replied, “They’re lookin’ for something specific.”
Miller said, “Yeah. They cast that show. All of ‘em are that way.”
Continuing with another example of just that, Henderson went on, “It’s the same thing. I tried out for American Idol before I joined the military. Same thing. I think that at that time I wasn’t ready yet. I’m glad things turned out like that, because I have enjoyed bein’ out here. I can get more experience and meet more people. I think your cred is a little better. I think when you get on those shows, that a lot of them, they didn’t go through the grind like Ben did.”
We then talked about “the grind”. How that actually counts for something, especially in Nashville. In a city where there are thousands of people that work so hard, for so long, just to get a meeting with a label, only to get rejected and have to start that process all over again, it’s often frowned upon if you’re found to have been given a “fastpass” in any form. Is there really something to that “it’s all in who you know” thing? I would say yes, definitely, but it’s how you come to know that someone that helps you that’s meaningful. That can make or break your reputation among your peers. The ones that legitimately make their way through the music community by working hard, going out and networking to meet people, are always going to be looked upon more favorably.
That would lead one to ask, how did a small town boy like Drew Henderson get a guy like Ben Miller to produce his first EP? There must have been some Music City sleight-of-hand going on somewhere there. Not in the least. Do the right things, be in the right place at the right time, and the right people will be placed in your path.
Asked where they met, Miller quipped, “E-Harmony,” which had me almost spitting out my coffee, and following up my question with, “Where did you go on your first date?” All kidding aside, they actually met at a songwriter round at the Millenium Maxwell House Hotel in Nashville. They talked a little, but didn’t really communicate much until a couple of months later when they scheduled a write together on Instagram.
Miller said, “That first write we didn’t get a whole lot done, like half a song.” Henderson did say the next time they got a whole song written. That song is an absolute banger! I’ve heard it. I am completely sworn to secrecy, but I understand there may be some tricks up Henderson’s sleeve for 2021. Stay tuned.
Producing Henderson was an easy decision for Miller. “I thought he was that talented. It was one of those things. I ‘ve been wanting to do that anyway and I was asking God, like, ‘Hey, this is what I wanna do. If this is what you want me to do, give me someone to do it with.’ Then it just happened. I think it’s gonna be good.”
We’re still living in the upside down world of the COVID-19 pandemic, which means live shows aren’t happening much. Livestreams have become the next best thing for artists looking to promote their work. As for Henderson, this is what he had to say about them. “I haven’t done a whole lot of livestreams by myself. I did one livestream with Undiscovered Nashville. Other than that, I haven’t done a lot of them because I’m not that good at it. Now, Ben, he’s great at it. When I turn that camera facing me, it makes me awkward, but I think livestreams are gonna need to be a thing here. As far as live shows, I’ve started to do some writer rounds. I’m still doing heavy-duty songwriting. I think the more you do, the more songs you have in your catalog, the better you’re gonna be when things start hoppin’.
The EP that’s coming out July 17th is called Bennett Road and there really is a Bennett Road. In fact there’s a song on the EP of the same name, and since Henderson calls it his “most personal song”, it was chosen as the title track. Henderson says, “It’s about where I grew up.”
“I’ve got a legit Bennett Road, green sign. It’s on an old piece of barn wood. At shows back home we’ll hang that up. That’s what we kind of use as a background for shows.” In addition to that fun piece of trivia, Henderson added that Ellerbe is in Richmond County, North Carolina, which is very close to the South Carolina line, in the middle of the state, with the closest big city being Greensboro, about an hour north.
While the EP is titled Bennett Road, and the song “Bennett Road” is about his experiences back home, the entire record is about his life as a whole. He explained, “Every song is from my experience, all my life. Whether it’s back home or relationships, it’s kinda the whole deal.”
Ben Miller hired his old friend Noel Biseti to play drums. They headed to LFT Studios in Antioch to track the drum parts, and the rest of the EP was recorded at Miller’s own studio. Henderson gave Miller a major compliment when he said, “The way I like to describe Ben is a utility guy. He does everything. He’s producing. He’s marketing. Playing guitar, background vocals and you talk about range!” He’s actually right on that. I’ve heard Miller sing. He has tremendous range. He can hit some really high notes.
Photo courtesy of Drew Henderson
Photo courtesy of Drew Henderson
Like I said earlier, new artists come to Nashville to make their dreams come true all the time. They all want us to give them our attention. I wanted Drew Henderson to tell Think Country followers what sets him apart, what makes him someone people should take time out to listen to? In a truly sincere tone of voice he told me, “I think it’s just about connecting with people. There’s always more than just you who has experienced what you’ve been though. There are probably millions of people who have experienced something I’ve been through. I think coming from that personal place, and putting it out there, gets that authenticity, that real emotion in it. For me, I think that’s what sets me apart. I’m tryin’ to keep that authenticity about me. I don’t want to be in a general category. I want everything to come from me.”
He keeps the authenticity theme going at shows too, where he enjoys interacting with fans afterward. He related, “I play music and I write songs, and I do it not only for me to express how I feel, but it makes me feel even better when somebody else can either be happy and dance to a song that came from that place, or in any sense, it’s all about connecting with people. I think the more you are like them, as far as signing autographs and being personable and things like that, that’s what they want.”
It’s country music. That’s absolutely what they want. It’s a genre that was built on a kind of communal spirit. There were never the giant barriers you have in other areas of the music world. A lot of that was simply because country artists didn’t allow themselves to live in ivory towers, locked away from the outside world, or at least not in the way that artists in other genres tended to do. They were more accessible, and fans felt they were part of one big country music family. Times are changing, there are more artists putting greater distance between themselves and fans, often for their own safety, but for the most part, country music remains the fan-friendliest genre. For rising artists, interacting with fans is vital. Henderson was clear, “I’m a very laid-back person, I approach anybody.” So, whenever shows open back up fully and you get the chance to see him live, please go say hello. Tell him Think Country sent you!
Finally, speaking of Think Country, when Drew Henderson “Thinks Country”, what does he think? “To me, country is everywhere. Just like that Brantley Gilbert song, country is countrywide. I don’t just think it’s the south. It’s a way of life. It’s Upstate New York, it’s NorCal, it’s everywhere. I think, somewhat, there’s a barrier for some people that think country is the southeast, and that’s how they want it in some ways. The best way to put it for me is it’s a way of life.”
Photo courtesy of Drew Henderson
There you have it. Welcome to Nashville and country music Drew Henderson! Think Country is so excited for your EP release. We’re even more thrilled to introduce our followers to Drew Henderson. Please go check out Drew Henderson on his social media sites and definitely leave him a comment. Tell him Think Country told you about him. We believe in this artist. Wait until you hear his voice! We think you’ll be believers too. Just you wait!
Photo courtesy of Patti McClintic/Think Country
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*Featured image courtesy of Drew Henderson