- - Monday, June 8, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Jon Hensley died last week.

You likely didn’t know his name, but if you listen to the music of Shooter Jennings, Wanda Jackson, the Legendary Shack Shakers or any of a number of other country- and roots-centric artists, his creativity touched your life. Mr. Hensley was only 31 when he died June 1 at the home of a friend in Bowling Green, Kentucky, but his influence over artists will live on for decades.

That’s not hyperbole.

This young artist with the old musical soul is the one who teamed Miss Jackson with producer and musical genius Jack White, nudged Mr. Jennings back to his outlaw country roots and helped steer the Grammy-nominated Legendary Shack Shakers toward an expanded fan base.

Those who are not inside the music business and don’t write about it don’t realize the underhandedness of many artists’ representatives. Stories of lies, blackballing and out-and-out fraud abound, but you’ve never heard that type of scuttlebutt about Mr. Hensley.

That was one reason David Macias, president of Thirty Tigers, which handles music for artists including Jason Isbell, Lucinda Williams and Sturgill Simpson, brought Mr. Hensley to his company for a time. As a personal friend of Mr. Hensley, he had a front-row seat to the devotion Mr. Hensley lavished upon his artists.

Jon was one of the most passionate people I ever met,” Mr. Macias told The Washington Times soon after returning from Mr. Hensley’s funeral. “He was so fiercely protective of the people he loved and was the central player in building a scene that thrived on the extremities. It included musicians, of course, but [also] wrestlers, Internet stars [and] adult entertainment stars. Jon saw a common spirit in all of these disciplines and forged connections between these communities, where the outsider was loved and cherished, and God help you if he felt you disrespecting their spirit. It could be a chaotic world, but it was always the coolest place to be. He was funny, he was kind, he was smart, he was fierce, and he’ll be deeply missed.”

As someone who was lucky enough to know Mr. Hensley for several years, I couldn’t agree more.

The last time I saw him was in February, when he sat with me in the audience at Rams Head on Stage in Annapolis during a recent Jennings show. He was one of those people who made you feel as if you had known him all your life.

“Now don’t disappear,” he said, laughing over my well-known habit of leaving right after show’s end without going backstage. “Shooter wants to talk to you, and I want you there too.”

Mr. Hensley’s invitation didn’t come with strings such as more coverage for his artists. It was just a lovely gesture of friendship that he made over and over again.

Those who don’t cover music don’t appreciate what that means to someone who isn’t a major critic, such as Rolling Stone’s David Fricke, Sasha Frere-Jones, formerly of The New Yorker, or author Dave Marsh, formerly of Creem.

Many managers and artists’ representatives look at journalists as annoyances. They rarely return messages, even when those journalists are affiliated with major organizations. When they do, it’s usually to berate them over coverage of an artist or for a perceived misstep.

Mr. Hensley was never that way. Not only did he return my messages instantly, but he also went out of his way to drop me personal notes, always thanking me for straightforward, nonsensational coverage.

“You are the best!” he wrote me last month after he read a story I wrote about Mr. Jennings. “Thanks, Nancy. I always know he’s in good hands when you interview him.”

Coming from Mr. Hensley, one of the most straightforward, ethical people in an often-unsavory business, that is the highest praise possible. I cherish it, as I do his memory.

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