As an up-and-coming Knoxville musician, Brock Henderson learned at the feet of some of the best.
Eric “Samurai Celestial” Walker, the noted drummer who manned the kit for nine years as part of the Sun Ra Arkestra. Jimmy Herring, currently the lead guitarist for Widespread Panic and a founding member of the seminal rock fusion outfit Aquarium Rescue Unit. Col. Bruce Hampton, the unit’s leader, whose template Henderson has adapted for his own leadership of The Brockefellers, who perform Sunday at Barley’s Taproom in Knoxville’s Old City.
In fact, it was the late Hampton’s approach to making jazz fusion palatable to rock ‘n’ roll audiences that informs much of The Brockefellers’ style, Henderson told The Daily Times recently.
“In some people’s minds, they think we’re a surf band, and to be fair, that was the format for quite a while,” Henderson said. “But now, where else can you hear ‘The Imperial March’ and ‘The Cantina Theme’ (both instrumentals from “Star Wars”) and ‘Peaches En Regalia’ by Frank Zappa? It’s a fun balance of tunes, and it’s a lot like what Bruce did with those guys in The Aquarium Rescue Unit. They’re all monster players and amazing people, but Bruce knew that he couldn’t expect people to come out to a bar and listen to Chick Corea-style playing all night long.
“He had to bring it down to their level, and he knew people wanted a good time, and that he had to entertain them. So we do a lot of that. If we mess up a song, we’ll start it over, and I might say something like, ‘These people didn’t have to pay to get in, but they deserve a better show than this!’ Or we’ll get them involved, and I’ll say something like, ‘Surely there’s someone over at Table 12 who can add a little cowbell to this song!’
“It’s a lot of entertaining myself, which hopefully entertains other people, and it seems to work,” he added.
Henderson has cultivated his mastery of both music and showmanship over nearly a quarter-century in the East Tennessee music scene, ever since he came of age loving the surf music of his father and the percussive preferences of his mother. He remembers when Knoxville’s Old City resembled a miniature French Quarter, and he fondly recalls while trying to keep up sitting on the edge of the stage at long-gone venues like Lucille’s, listening to Walker and others whose names are now relegated to local lore.
“Back then, if you didn’t go down to Turtle’s or Record Bar or Cat’s Cassettes and Tapes, you sat on the stage and learned how to play the songs they were playing,” he said. “These guys would be playing R&B or Stevie Wonder or Herbie Hancock, and I didn’t know how any of the ‘whoop-de-dos’ went, so I made up my own stuff, and that’s how I developed my own sound.”
He’s always been a guitarist, but over the years, he's launched his own studio, The Music Creek, and he's expanded his instrumental repertoire to include pedal steel guitar. He turned out to be just as capable on it as he is on a six-string, and over the course of the past several decades, he’s been “Mr. One Off,” as he fondly refers to himself — tapped by everyone from Sturgill Simpson to the everybodyfields to lend his talents to various combos and backing bands. Locally, the list of acts with which he’s been associated are a litany of long-goners (Creek, Willis, Free Fourmula and Blount County’s The Drunk Uncles among them) and the currently active (Guy Marshall, the Barstool Romeos, Thrift Store Cowboys).
The Brockefellers got their start when he was introduced to the record “12 Golden Country Greats” by Ween. A one-off show to play that album in its entirety at Preservation Pub in downtown Knoxville turned into a residency by a band called Honky Tonks Anonymous, which eventually was rechristened as The Brockefellers.
After a fallow period, Henderson revived the band in 2014, and today the trio includes Jason Day (a member of Smooth Sailor, J Day's Gris-Gris, Frog and Toad's Dixie Stomp and more) holding down the low end on organ and drummer Shaun Schuetz (a member of Electric Darling), both veterans of the local scene.
“When it started out, it was kind of a different thing than what it’s morphed into,” Henderson said. “Jason is playing the organ, but he’s doing that left hand/right hand thing where he’s also handling the bass roll, so we have the bass covered. And as the keyboard player, he’s got a lot of room to follow me, and the drummer does too. Both of those guys have a jazz background, so there’s some really cool room for improvisation. We don’t do free jazz, but we do get out there because the trust is there, so the sound is really interesting.”