NASHVILLE, Tenn. — After serving 15 years as the touring and recording bassist for country mega-star Eric Church, Lee Hendricks hasn’t changed.
“I really feel like the same person I always was,” he said. “Growing up in Boone County was a lot of fun and it was a good foundation for me as I became an adult.”
Originally from Sylvester, he and his mother Anita and sister Nikki moved to the Danville/Madison area just as he started middle school. Anita had a hair salon on Main Street. Half siblings Roy and Sallie make their home in Florida today.
“My life as a kid would be considered pretty normal, and things, of course, were a lot different back then,” he said. “You went outside and you played all day long. You didn’t want to come inside. Kids today are all about their tablets and the internet. We were different.”
Anita and Nikki make their homes in Kanawha County today.
He was 14 when he learned his first chords on the guitar. His mother’s boyfriend at the time, Elmer Mitchell, sparked a fire in Hendricks when he put the instrument in his hands.
“I was fascinated with it and I played guitar for about a year and nobody wanted to play bass growing up,” he said. “It was a typical bass player story. Some guys had a band and they had a bass but no bass player. They let me be in the band as long as I played the bass, and here I am.”
Hendricks said he fell in love with the instrument in a short period of time. He never looked back to the guitar after that.
“I still play a little guitar, but I learned what the ultimate role of the bass is and I fell in love with the concept,” he said. “I floundered around for a while and then I met John Williams.”
The late Williams was a 1986 Sherman High graduate and known locally as a budding teenage virtuoso on the electric guitar.
The pair signed up to study music at West Virginia State University under the direction local teaching legend Chuck Biel.
Hendricks left his studies after two years and began playing on a hotel circuit throughout West Virginia, North Carolina and Virginia — a lucrative gig at the time for a musician in his early 20s.
His trek to Nashville in late 1991 wasn’t something he necessarily planned to do. It just seemed like the right thing to do at the time. After all, he had decided that he wanted a career in music.
“We were doing that hotel circuit and I was drinking a little too much at the time and I just didn’t want to continue on that path,” he said. “I had one friend in Nashville and he asked me to come down for a weekend and check it out. I was thinking about Los Angeles or New York but I thought I’d give it a try. I never left, I’m still here. I fell in love with the city.”
Hendricks took a job in a warehouse by day, and by night, he participated in what he termed as the “Nashville Shuffle” — a moniker he used for musicians networking for gigs and contacts.
His first “real job” came with a signed duo that would elevate his playing environment from clubs to larger theaters and halls. He signed on with John and Audrey Wiggins in 1994.
“They were my first real gig and they had a record deal for about a year so it gave me a taste of what that situation would be like and how things worked at the next level,” he said. “I learned a lot in that time and made a lot of professional connections on tour and festival dates that helped me later on for sure. To this day, John and I are still in touch.”
Hendricks said the ability to blend and thrive in an environment with different personality types, combined with the ability to “play for the song,” are the two most important factors for any musician looking to expand their career.
“Look, great musicians are everywhere, but it is more than that,” he said. “You are on a tour bus and dealing with people all day long and you’ve got to be able to get along with people and at the same time, do your job and provide the support the artist deserves. If you are a good hang and you do your job, you’ll succeed and always find work.”
Hendricks said he spent two years subbing for various acts before landing a slot with Bryan White, a young country sensation in the 1990s. The Grammy award winner charted 19 songs, including six No. 1 tunes.
“What a great singer that guys is,” he said. “That band was incredible. We rehearsed so much it was like a show band. That band was super tight.”
Once that gig had run its course, through the management of Vince Gill, who were managing Olivia Newton John, he landed another quality job.
“Around 2000, I got the call to see if I’d be interested in playing with Olivia for a while and what an honor that was,” he said. “She’s a great person and a spectacular lady.”
He said there were times that he almost had to pinch himself onstage. Adding that he isn’t the type of person to be star struck by anyone, she fell into that category.
“I would have to gather myself because that was really Olivia Newton John right there,” he said with a laugh. “I was in her band for about three years and I still stay in touch with her. She is such a sweet person. There are absolutely no bad vibes from Olivia, she’s amazing.”
Following that stint, he toured with 90s soft rock hit-maker Edwin McCain and then supported Billy Ray Cyrus for a summer.
“I was shuffling gigs left and right trying to stick somewhere good and a buddy of mine called in 2006 and said he was on a gig with an up-and-coming country artist and that they couldn’t find a bass player to lock in, and would I be interested in doing it,” he said. “I said that I’d check it out for a weekend and I learned some songs. I went out to play with them and it was Eric Church.”
During their first show together, which was actually an audition of sorts during a short 30-minute set, Church leaned in to the bassist and said, “Hey man, you wanna stay?”
The bassist remembers the long days on the road during those years.
“In those early years, we were playing over 200 shows a year and we were busy, man, and I really liked the way things were ran and managed,” he said. “To this day the gig just feels like home. In those early years, radio wasn’t paying attention to us but we had tons of gigs.”
Through those heavy touring years, Church built a dedicated fan base.
“It doubled, then tripled with very little help from radio,” he said. “Finally, it all connected on the third album.”
With the exception of about three months in the very beginning, Hendricks has held down the bottom end for the artist for nearly 15 years.
With eight Grammy nominations and a trio of CMA awards among a laundry list of accolades, and more hits to his credit than you could shake a microphone at, Church remains one of the hottest and most in-demand artists across any genre today.
With influences that reach beyond traditional country, the band is as much versed in the stylings of classic rock music as it is Nashville’s influence, the appeal for Church reaches the masses in ways that many artists dream about.
Hendricks has found his way onto Church’s records — an opportunity in Nashville that is usually reserved for a select group of session players.
“That is an honor and I know what that means and it really was a big deal to me,” he said. “That isn’t the norm in Nashville and being an exception to that is a tremendous honor and opportunity for me. I have always tried to keep my foot in touring and in sessions in general. I like the balance of live and studio work.”
The current COVID-19 pandemic has affected his work on many levels, Hendricks said.
“There is zero session work going on right now,” he said. “We definitely aren’t doing gigs. We wrapped up the new record in February. We holed up in the mountains of North Carolina and the songs were written by day and we recorded at night. It was a really great, creative experience. We returned in March to find that the pandemic had broken loose.”
The 1985 Scott High graduate said Church is the same person he was all those years ago when they met, despite his undeniable fame.
“Not much has changed except there are a lot of demands for his time,” he said. “To us, he’s still Eric. We can joke around and make fun of him. He’s a bud. He’s the same guy and to his credit, it doesn’t always happen that way. I’ve seen it happen with friends in the industry, an artist gets big and they separate themselves and it isn’t that way with him. We’re treated well and he takes care of us.”
Hendricks used a 1965 Fender Jazz Bass for much of the new Church record. The bass has a storied pedigree, as it was once owned by the late Ed King of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Strawberry Alarm Clock fame.
Now in his early 50s, the bass-slinger makes his home with his wife Molly in northwestern Nashville.
“We don’t have kids but we have two cats,” he said, laughing. “We live a quiet life out in the country. We found a place we love and we’ve worked on it for the last eight years making it our own.”
Hendricks spends his spare time being creative in another way. He discovered a passion for welding and woodworking.
“I make custom furniture like tables and record racks among other stuff,” he said. “I have a shop and I come up here and it gives me an outlet away from music.”
He uses a combination of traditional and modern welding techniques while incorporating a dash of digital technology to his work.
“It’s primarily MIG welding and woodworking, but recently I’ve gotten into epoxy resin and incorporating that into my pieces and it has been really fun,” he said. “I have an Instagram page that is @11metals with examples of what I’ve done and I can be contacted through that.”
He said the temptation to do it full time at some point when he retires from music isn’t something he gives a lot of thought to.
“I think that it might take a lot of the joy out of it,” he said. “You never know how I might feel about it in the future. I’m just enjoying myself, really.”
Generally, he makes it home to Boone County to visit once a year, but he said he wants to make that more frequent.
“It gets really hard with touring and that whole schedule that comes along with this profession,” he said. “I want to do better at that. I really do miss my West Virginia folks. I plan to get back early summer this year depending on how things go with the pandemic we’re experiencing. I wish I could have stayed there and made a living doing what I wanted to do with my life, but that wasn’t possible. I took a chance and bet on myself.”
He added, “I doubt we play a single gig the rest of the year and that would depend a lot on what the sports teams do; I think the industry will follow suit in that way.”
Hendricks reflected on growing up in Boone County and what it meant to him. He added that career highlights include CMA Awards performances and an appearance on the “Conan O’Brien Show,” among all of the historic theaters, venues and halls he’s crossed the stage of in his career.
“I just remember the parades and downtown Madison and how it was always jam packed,” he said. “The place seemed so huge to me as a boy. It just seemed massive. It was a fun town to be a teenager in, too. I’m really pulling for the county to make a comeback. So many good people there and in the end, good people make good things happen.”
Hendricks is endorsed by Ampeg amplifiers, DR strings and Clayton picks.