Nashville’s Chris Hennessee is one of country music’s brightest stars. His newest album is called Ramble, and, after basing his sonic signature on greats like Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt, the 45-year-old has grown into one of country’s brightest performers. Recently named by Rolling Stone, “one of 10 new country and Americana artists you need to know,” the former baseball player is making his second Canadian appearance this Friday night in Toronto at the Horseshoe Tavern. Ben Kaplan talked to him about running, drinking, harmonica, marriage, and life on the road.
iRun: It’s exciting to have you coming back to Canada.
Hennessee: I’m excited and the Horseshoe, you know, it reminds me a lot of the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville.
iRun: That’s high praise, but I think if there’s any place in Toronto that comes close—it’s that.
Hennessee: Yeah, well, the Bluebird, to me, is really special. It’s where Steve Earle in the late-70s became pals with Townes Van Zandt, they helped put that place on the map and I guess in the late 80s or early 90s, River Phoenix, I think, shot his last movie here, I don’t know. But I worked here for a long while, you know Steve Earle is one of my favourites.
iRun: I love the story of how you started there.
Hennessee: I moved to Nashville, man, I didn’t know squat. All I knew was my man Steve Earle used to play the Bluebird, so I got a job at the Bluebird. I couldn’t have been more green, but I got a job working the door and listening to them play: it was mind-blowing. I learned my trade.
iRun: You’re a terrific guitar play, harmonica, and have great vocal tones and distinct phrasing, but you weren’t always a singer. You were on the track to play baseball, right?
Hennessee: Growing up where I grew up, you played baseball, basketball and football. I was in East Tennessee and yeah, I played baseball, that’s actually where I learned to run.
iRun: What’d you learn?
Hennessee: That I was running in shoes I had for five years and that ain’t the way to make it work!
iRun: People usually say shoes are good for about 400 kilometres.
Hennessee: I learned that the hard way, but I did get proper shoes, over time, and tried to keep them nice. I like running now, it doesn’t always like me, but I’ve stuck with it and really like how it feels. Man, I’ve done a lot of running and weight training over the last 30 years. Probably why I’m able to come on up to Toronto now.
iRun: Some of your heroes, they didn’t really live like that.
Hennessee: I was fortunate enough to have a background that taught me to learn from other people’s mistakes rather than your own and as much as I love those guys, it’s not my lifestyle. I don’t smoke and if I drink, it’s sparingly. That older generation, they didn’t stick around that long, but even these guys, they slowed down. Over time, you have to if you want a career.
iRun: How’d you find your centre?
Hennessee: I have to give a ton of credit to my wife, number one, and my spiritual background. For the first ten, twelve years, in Nashville I went hard like a lot of those old guys. We grew up hearing Hank Williams, Jr. talking about drinking whiskey and staying out all night—thank the lord for my loving wife. When I met her I realized all those things were wrong to base your career on, it’s not healthy. I give credit to her [my wife] and I have kids now and that motivates me even more to think about longevity rather than rock ‘n’ roll tonight, every night.
iRun: You went from working the door at the Bluebird to playing stadiums with Jamey Johnson and performing with Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris. Maybe it’s that you were an overnight sensation 15 years in the making, but what else helped you keep your head?
Hennessee: I’m aware that there’s this new age and way of promotion and becoming recognized, but I’m not the type to spend hours on social media or that kind of thing. I don’t think of music as a competition, that can drive you crazy and in the past decade, they turned music into something else with these TV shows and everything. It’s not me.
iRun: Thankfully now, it doesn’t need to be.
Hennessee: You know what, man? No matter what happens I’m going to do my thing and it will work out or it won’t, but I’ll be right here. I’ll write the same songs on the porch.
Chris Hennessee plays the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto on May 3. For more information, see ChrisHennessee.com.