"I know what you want," he recently told an audience at a club in San Diego, his band buzzing and crackling behind him like a Texas thunderstorm, "but you need a little more foreplay." He grins. "You want the Big One. This," he says, "is the point in the song where you want the 'A' chord. It's what we've been buildin' up to and I'm gonna give it to you. Not this little pussy 'A' up here" - his fingers travel up the neck of his red PRS custom - "and not this Rasta 'A' right here," mid-fretboard now. "I hate that 'A'. No," he says, "you want the wide-open 'A' right down here." His hand is now at the guitar's headstock. "All six strings," he says. "Wide open. That's the one you want, and I'm gonna give it to you."
Bugs Henderson is the best of the relatively unknown guitarists living in Texas. Unknown, only because he has stood at the industry pile of gold once or twice in his storied career and rejected the deal. Instead, Henderson has found a way to remain an iconoclast and still make a good living. He is an indie-label musician for life. That he isn't better known (comparisons can be made to Roy Buchanan, Danny Gatton, Alan Holdsworth) is a minor crime, but it's a price he's been willing to bear.
This year Henderson has released a three-disc career retrospective of self-chosen selections. Electric Snow The Best Of spans decades, eras, gigs, recordings (even hair lengths), but the one thing that remains constant is that Bugs Henderson has always been a supremely gifted musician baptized in the waters of the Blues-Rock that was popular during the 1970s.
He is the current dean of that round, full-bodied, solo-intensive sound. That Henderson can gig for hours like a Jazz improviser without lapsing into cliché, or make even a single repetition, is known among the circle of loyalists and guitar geeks who hunch over bars to talk about his shows long after he and the Shuffle Kings have packed up their gear and gone home.
Buddy Henderson was born in 1943 in Palm Springs, California. His family moved to Tyler, Texas, where he discovered the guitar at the age of sixteen. By 18 he was playing in Rock bands. With Mouse and the Traps, Henderson charted with a single, released in 1966, entitled "Public Execution." Soon after they began calling him "Bugs." In the 1970s, Henderson was the house guitarist at the legendary Robin Hood studios. After a stint in Dallas at the infamous Cellar nightclub, Henderson spent years on the road opening for everyone from the Allman Brothers to B.B. King. The Bugs Henderson Group was an outgrowth of those years of touring. Their first album, At Last, was released in 1978.
Henderson has arranged Electric Snow into three discs: vocals, instrumentals, and a bonus disc of singer-songwriter and guitar-slayer tunes. "I was sittin' around one day," he says, "and I realized I'd never done a guitar album, even though, obviously, that's what I am. I want people to like the singin', I want people to like the songwritin', and I want 'em to like the band, but I know why most people are there," he says. "It's a guitar-player thing."
That's what Henderson showcases on Snow, his guitar. Disc One kicks in with a rock-solid, live rendition of Jimmy Reed's "Honest I Do." "Ain't Your Daddy's Business" is tight enough to floss with, and "Ticket to Ride" represents the full-chord pace at which Bugs opens almost every live gig; nice and easy, the calm before the storm. The storm comes in spades on favorites like "Pleasure Tent of the Porno Duck" and "Texas Ballbuster," but I found that his best work to-date, Stormy Love, an ironically lyrical album, was scantily represented with only one selection, "The Vent."
At the tail end of Disc Three is a 35-minute fireside chat with Bugs, his so-called audio liner notes, a tradition that he has included in his albums in one form or another for years.
When Henderson does finally let loose that wide-open power 'A' at the finale of the San Diego show, the house rafters reverberate with the rapturous magnificence of it. The drunken girls at the back table quit yelling for "Brown Eyed Girl" and the couple standing by the door take a break, if only momentarily, from groping. All eyes are on the Shuffle Kings and, for a few seconds, the world evaporates into one big, lusty power chord pumping out of Bugs' ancient Fender amplifier. He grins into the beery night. He was right. He knows just what we wanted.
Dave Good is a contributing editor at BluesWax