By Kendal Groner
Lincoln Hensley, a Unicoi County High School Bluegrass Band alum and current East Tennessee State University student, had the performance of a lifetime when he recently played on the Grand Ole Opry stage with bluegrass legend Bobby Osborne and his band, the Rocky Top X-Press.
“I had a goal that I never really told anyone just in case I didn’t make it, but my goal was to play on the Grand Ole Opry stage before I turned 20,” Hensley said. “I played on April 28 of this year, and I turned 20 on May 15, so I was able to get it in.”
The Flag Pond resident, whose primary instrument is the banjo followed by the guitar and pedal steel, said his first recollection of connecting with bluegrass music dates back to when he was five or six years old and he heard his uncle’s old cassette tapes of Flatt & Scruggs.
“I was always drawn to the banjo, but I didn’t have an interest in playing until I was about 13,” said Hensley.
Once he started attending high school, Hensley joined the Unicoi County High School Bluegrass band, becoming the first banjo player in the band.
“That really got my feet wet,” he said. “That was the first band I was in and it really showed me what was expected of me in a band.”
Hensley said his high school band experience prepared him for playing in front of large crowds, and said that with Lori Ann Wright’s leadership, the high school band is a great opportunity for any young musician.
Hensley’s ties with Bobby Osborne and the Rocky Top X-Press started when he began connecting with his brother, Sonny Osborne. Hensley first started speaking with the famous banjo player and master of the “scruggs style” on Banjo Hangout, an internet forum similar to Facebook for bluegrass players.
“The way he plays is very hard to learn … he’s one of the greatest players in my mind that will ever be,” said Hensley. “I messaged him because I was learning something of his and I was having a hard time figuring out what he was doing.”
Osborne tasked Hensley with learning to play everything off of a Flatt & Scruggs album on the banjo.
“If you learn every note of that, I’ll teach you whatever you need to know,” Osborne told Hensley.
Shortly after, Osborne began teaching Hensley via email and after about a year of correspondence the two met for lunch one day back in August.
“He was really nice and kind of took me under his wing,” Hensley said. “We meet every two or three weeks now.”
Since he began spending time with Osborne, Hensley said he’s learned almost every song the music legend has recorded and even works with him on songs that didn’t make it to the studio.
Then in April, Hensley received the surprise of a lifetime – a text from Osborne asking if he’d like to fill in with his brother Bobby and the Rocky Top X-Press the following Saturday night.
“I had come in from school that day and I was really tired and had laid down … then I heard my phone ding,” said Hensley. “I brought it up to my face and read it and my first reaction was I’ve got to be sleeping.”
After letting it sink in for a few minutes, Hensley wasted no time in responding to Osborne with an enthusiastic yes. Immediately after, he called to tell his parents.
“I asked my mom if she was sitting down and I said ‘I’m about to tell you something I never thought I’d get to tell you’,” Hensley said.
After calling his parents, he called his original banjo teacher, Edison Wallin, who Hensley said he owes a great deal to for getting him on the right track with his banjo playing. He also called his high school band instructor, Lori Ann Wright, who has always had a goal to have a student make it to the Grand Ole Opry stage.
“The day of the performance, I woke up as a nervous wreck,” Hensley said.
Some of the nervousness began to subside throughout the day, and once Hensley arrived at the Grand Ole Opry, Bobby Osborne met him in the parking lot and took him through the musician entrance before they got situated in their dressing rooms.
“He never told me what we were going to play when he called,” said Hensley. “I had no idea, going into it.”
About six minutes before they were about to go on stage, Hensley still had no idea what they were going to be playing. Then, Osborne suggested they run through “Rocky Top” really quick, which they ended up playing on stage.
“Standing on that stage, especially if you’re a musician … there’s nothing like that,” Hensley said. “The only thing between you and 5,000 people is a microphone.”
The next day, Hensley said his legs were sore from trying to keep them from shaking with nervousness. However, Osborne let him know that the performance went very well and informed him that they would be having him back on.
“I’m anxious to do it again,” Hensley said. “Once you know what it’s like, you can’t wait to go back. When I got off the stage I thought ‘wow, I would definitely do this again’.”
Aside from his recent performance on the Grand Ole Opry stage, Hensley stays busy with his coursework in ETSU’s honors college where he is majoring in Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Studies. In addition to teaching some on the side and playing in a bluegrass band at ETSU, he also plays with his local band Lincoln Hensley & Straight Drive.
Hensley has even attracted the attention of a banjo company called “Recording King,” which recently made him a custom, one-of-a-kind gold banjo to play on.
“I would like to play on the road for a little while to get my name out there and get more experience,” Hensley said about his career aspirations. “After that, I’d like to become either a studio musician or maybe an instructor over at ETSU.”