Tim Hensley is a journeyman in every sense of the word: a man whose love of music led him from Cincinnati, Ohio to extended tenures with Ricky Skaggs, Patty Loveless and Kenny Chesney - and in that diversity, he's expanded his sense of what organic music can be. With Long Monday, the very first record to emerge from this long path, the acoustic guitar-playing tenor marries classic American singer/songwriters with dirt floor church standards and traditional bluegrass for a collection of songs that sounds like they could be old friends, snapshots from back when and the sweetest parts of right now.
"I think we just looked for not only the best songs," says Hensley, "but songs that felt like somewhere I'd been... whether it was the gospel I'd grown up on, the farm I bought right after I got married, walks through New York City in the winter. I don't know enough to sing much more than what I've experienced. But, hopefully, that oughta be enough."
Enough is more than. Consider the title track comes from John Prine's Grammy-winning Fair & Square, a slow, sultry take on the way a weekend's good loving can make the beginning of the week crawl but be sweeter for the memories and the open spaces they can unfurl in.
It is that easy grace that marks Long Monday, because it as an album whose seeds were sown organically - and that was realized in its own sweet time. And it's origins are as antithetical in some ways as Hensley's cracked leather and faded denim voice is honest.
"Because the buses on Kenny's tours all run at the same time - to keep everybody together - we'd have to wait around for the crew to tear down the stage and load the trucks every night...," Hensley explains. "So I used to do, well, what I do: fill that time with music - and the kinda music I play when I play for me is bluegrass and old gospel standards.
"And even though what we do onstage every night is pretty loud and aggressive, you'd be surprised how many of these guys either knew and played bluegrass or fell in love with it in an awful lot of backstage parking lots over the years. It got to be as much a part of what we do out there as the shows themselves."
That juxtaposition explains how vast the lonesome of something like the stark "Dearly Departed" comes across. It is more than devastation, it is the cry of the refugee too far from anywhere that's familiar. And as odd as something that raw, unfiltered and unplugged as that might seem cast against a concert tour that regularly inhabits NFL stadiums, the potency of a true heart immersed wasn't lost on Chesney, who toured Russia as a college student as part of a bluegrass band.
"When Tim sang 'Dear Departed' in the studio, it just knocked us all back," recalls Chesney, who was inspired by his bandmate's passion to coproduce Long Monday during breaks in his own frenetic schedule. "There is an honesty to his voice that transcends tone or technique... 'Dear Departed' was a one take performance, and it put me right back in the middle of the sweaty summer months, walking through the hallways of the venues trying to get to the bus after our shows. He's just that real."
Whether it's Rodney Crowell's dignity beneath the outward appearances of the homeless that tempers "Riding Out The Storm," John Scott Sherrill's loss of long-standing family farms "Five Generations" or the time-honored gospel truth of "Two Coats," these songs come from very real places for the man who has spent his career supporting the music of others'.
Growing up in a Pentecostal family, Hensley started out singing for the Lord - "Uncloudy Day," "Amazing Grace," whatever his grandparents or the pastor wanted. From that cornerstone, he found the Beatles and learned to sing harmony like Paul McCartney. Between persistence and passion, the kid who grew up in walking distance to Cincinnati's stadium and would often stand outside listening to the big rock shows and marvel, found his way into the Altar Way Gospel Singers, playing little churches in places that wouldn't even be considered towns.
From there, it was the straight bluegrass of the Lickin' Valley Boys and countless hours practicing guitar and sitting in with anyone who'd let him. Local band Coal Train picked the 20 year old up, to play steel and sit outside the clubs on breaks - and that led to a stint with Cimarron and recording little tapes on a 4 track in his bedroom.
With the grace afforded to the innocent and the truly dreamstruck, Hensley started sending those tapes out. A friend of someone turned someone else onto the crude recordings, and Hensley loaded up his 1977 Volare and headed South, getting a ticket in Louisville and a blow-out between Louisville and Bowling Green. But no catastrophe could stop him.
After a few days at the Hendersonville Inn, jamming with the various friends and friends of friends, he found a place. Pam Gadd said he oughta call Carl Jackson, who was about to give up his slot with Ricky Skaggs - and so the odyssey began.
The few weeks it took for Hensley to be summoned to a studio to jam with the bluegrass superstar and soon-to-be-CMA Entertainer of the Year was nothing compared to the few months it took Skaggs to settle on his next tenor singer. But when he did, Hensley was in a magical place.
"With Ricky, it was pretty structured... I was singing Emmylou's parts, and I was worried about tone," he concedes. "But the cool thing about Ricky was getting to hang with Bill Monroe some, getting to spend time with him - and being part of that band at such an incredible time."
Four years later, he was lured away by high mountain tenor Patty Loveless, a woman re-igniting seriously traditional country infused with the soul of Appalachia. Not only was he the fulcrum harmony singer, but he found himself coming into his own as part of the multiple ACM and CMA Female Vocalist's sound.
"With Patty, I was freer... I could boost out a little more power and was really encouraged to express myself, to show the emotions of the song. We had a lot in common, how we were raised and she was really coming into her own."
Though Hensley left to be part of the short-lived Cactus Choir, then serving as a hired gun for Sonya Isaacs, Billy Yates, Jason Sellers and Matt King, he was still a part of Loveless' musical circle - and shared the video of his grandparents in church singing "Two Coats," which inspired the treatment of the standard on Loveless' Mountain Soul, which Hensley sang all over.
"Singing with Tim, especially on 'Two Coats,' was like singing with family again," Loveless - who appears here on 'Two Coats' -- explains. "I still remember him sharing with me the video of his grandparents singing in the church, and how it brought tears to my eyes. It was then I realized where his love of music stemmed from.
"He's made a record that truly represents his soul, and that's where real music comes from. His heart is real."
Indeed, it's part of what reinforces the authenticity of where Chesney, from tiny Luttrell, Tennessee, comes from. "Starting with his No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems, me and Wyatt (Beard) sang all the backgrounds pretty much... Buddy liked the way we sound, and we've been doing it for six albums.
"And what people don't see is what goes on when the machines are off. I was in the vocal booth during When The Sun Goes Down, and I started singing 'In The Pines,' and that's when Kenny said, 'Tim, I think we oughta make a bluegrass record on you...' I couldn't tell if he meant it or not, 'cause he's always so busy... but then the tour ended and I got a call from Buddy, saying, 'Kenny called from the islands and he wants to get started. So we better start looking at songs...'"
The Crowell song came from a walk Hensley and co-producer Cannon shared one winter in New York City, while "Lonesome Dove" is a modern bluegrass standard penned by dear friend and Grammy-winner Carl Jackson and Larry Cordle. Then there's Tim Stafford and Ronnie Bowman's weathering the tribulations of life, especially a musician's, that is "Hard Rains Lately" and Hensley's own beauty of final redemption "What A Sight To Behold," both which resonate with the veracity that makes small lives honored for their own inherent vibrance.
"It's pretty wild how songs like that come about, 'cause I don't know where they come from," Hensley concedes about the deeply personal song. "I'd gone to see my wife's grandmother in the hospital - and we knew she had a short time to live. She just sat there real quiet with a weird look in her eye, and you could tell she wasn't there.
"Then all of a sudden, out of her mouth, came, 'What a beautiful place this is? Can you see it? It's such a pretty, pretty place.' A few hours later, she was gone... And my grandmother the same way. She was sitting there, and all of sudden, she asks, 'Right over there, can you see it? Can you hear all that beautiful singing out in the distance? Can you hear it?' And I could... almost.
""What could they both be seeing? I figured it had to be the gates of heaven. What else could it be? They were slipping away, and after working hard all their life, they were getting what they wanted, that reward they'd waited their whole life for."
With such easy-going truth, Hensley puts the sacred within reach. It is his way. Not to be thought or parsed beyond being... just accepted for the magic that life and songs and moments can create. For a kid who was raised chasing harmony parts, that's really all there is.
"There are lots of ways to sing this music, I guess. To me, though, it's about those loose harmonies - the kind on those old Buck Owen's songs or the Louvins. They weren't structured at all... it was just the feel and the way the people's voices came together. To me, that's what I loved - and what we tried to get."
Certainly with guest vocalists including Lovelesss, Gill, Beard, Swafford, Bowman, Isaacs, as well as Melonie Cannon, Buddy Cannon and Chesney, this is about people coming together for the sake of the songs, the emotions, the revelations that melody and harmony can convey beyond the words. With a band that included acoustic guitarists Swafford and Wyatt Rice, dobro player Rob Ickes, mandolinist Adam Steffey, fiddlers Aubrey Haney and Loveless badnmate Deannie Richardson, banjor player David Talbot, as well as bassist Kevin Garrett and Hensley himself, this is music from soil and the mountains and the valleys of Kentucky. But it also reflects that wide open part in anyone who hears it.
"It seems like it's all so easy to remember, but there are things that make these songs... more," Hensley says of the reasons for what's on his debut. "You know, it's a huge rush doing what Kenny does. You go onstage and sometimes the flashes from the cameras is so bright, it's blinding... but for us, the soul of it happens after. You know, the heart of the music is about the people making it, living it, sometimes from odd places...
"For us, at the end of the night, there would always be acoustic music, always be bluegrass. You know, it's why we had to do 'Working On A Building,' because when it was all over and almost packed up, we could play that - and you'd hear the crew guys loading up the trucks... literally rolling the gear into the semis and they'd be singing 'Working On A Building' along with us. They were just so much a part of it...
"And that's the way this album came to be. Whether they were friends of mine... or bluegrass friends of Kenny from way back... to me, this record proves the way playing and singing brings people together. Over time, over miles, over commitments. We were all there to make this music, and when people hear it, I think they're gonna feel all the joy we had making it - and living it, too.
"I may have 275,000 miles on my pick-up truck, but I've followed the music all my life. It's never let me down. It's taken me places and given me a lot things I'd never dream... and this album is one of 'em. It's pretty crazy to look at who helped me make this happen, but it sure makes me proud. What else is there?