INTRODUCTION: One of the most popular songs on the album TIME AFTER TIME is the country-style ballad “Penny To My Name,” which was written by local singer-songwriter Roger Henderson. Roger came to Chris Biondo’s studio in 1988 to record songs for his second album, A SONG AWAY. Biondo had just recently met Eva Cassidy, and he was beginning to help Eva to get work as a singer. Originally titled “Gas Station Mountain Home,” Henderson’s song was the second project Eva worked on for Biondo’s clients (the first was back-up work on the E.U. album LIVIN’ LARGE).
Roger Henderson also played an unsung role in the history of the Eva Cassidy Band when he brought a talented friend to Biondo’s studio to play keyboard parts on his album. The pianist’s name was Lenny Williams.
Like many of the most successful country-style songs, “Penny To My Name” is a first-person story. The character of the narrator, a country girl who longs to escape to the lights of the city, is based on the songwriter’s real-life encounter with a barefoot Appalachian woman who was in a very bad mood. Here is Roger Henderson’s account of how the song “Penny To My Name” came to be written, recorded, and released on an internationally-bestselling album.
“PENNY TO MY NAME”
by Roger Henderson, as told to Laura Bligh
I pulled into a gas station on the side of one mountain overlooking a valley and another mountain. It was a breathtaking view! As I was pumping gas at the self-serve pump, a young girl came out and stood behind me to take my money. She looked to be about 18 or 19 years old, with a baby in her arms, two other small children running around her, and no shoes on. To break the silence and to sort of share my enthusiasm, I commented out loud, “That’s a beautiful mountain over there!”
She snapped back at me, “What do ya mean, beautiful? That mountain’s not beautiful. It’s just a dumb old mountain. It just sits there. I get up every morning, it’s still sittin’ there. That mountain don’t know nothin’ !”
Well, that sort of killed my whole mood for the moment. Without saying another word, I paid for the gas, I got in my car and drove on down the road. It ruined my day, for about ten minutes. The idea came to me that I should write a song about that, but I didn’t really start to write it until a couple of years later. The idea had always been with me, the phrase “Gas Station Mountain Home” came to me first, which is why I titled the song that way, and I kind of wrote the song around that title.
Then, as I was starting to record my second album, which was at Chris Biondo’s place, I tried the song out. As I would sing it, I wasn’t really crazy about it, I said maybe this is one I should just throw away. Chris said, “Listen, man, I’ve got someone who could sing this song so you’d love it.” I said “OK, if you think so.”
He brought in Eva, who at the time was virtually unknown. I remember she was working at Behnke’s Nursery at the time, she came over with her Behnke’s uniform on, she still had some dirt under her fingernails from doing the planting and what-not. I thought she was a pretty girl and everything, then all of a sudden this voice came out, it blew me away! She didn’t really change the song that much, she just breathed her life into it. She put a sort of West Virginia accent lilt into it on her own — it was just perfect, she nailed it down. It was so incredible, it knocked my socks off, it was like “Gosh, that’s a song that I wrote?” All of a sudden, it became one of my favorite songs that I’d written, instead of something that I was going to throw away.
We ended up putting the song on the album (“Replugged”) with her singing it instead of me. Eva arranged all the background vocals that she did herself, and I was just incredibly awed by her talent. I played guitar on it, I think I did two guitar parts, and Chris played bass. I said I’d like to have a fiddle player in there, and Chris brought in Eva’s brother, he is a great fiddle player.
I only got to see Eva sing live one other time, when she did “Over the Rainbow” at one of the Wammie awards shows. Afterward she came over to our table, and even though she blew the place away, she was so sweet. She was very nervous and kept asking if she had done okay. I thought that was so cool! She was so humble and didn’t act a diva at all. I feel blessed that I was able to work with her in the studio, because a lot of people envy me for that.
At the time, I was on a pretty short budget, and when Chris came up with the idea to have Eva do the song, I really didn’t have any money to pay her. Most of the musicians, I didn’t pay, because they were friends of mine. So I thought, the least I could do is buy her dinner, so we went out to dinner one night, and that was great. I found Eva to be pretty introverted at the dinner, she didn’t talk a lot. I do remember one conversation we had where she asked me what I thought about what she should do, because a lot of people were trying to get her to do more pop stuff, and she just wanted to do the stuff she wanted to do, which was mostly, at the time, rhythm and blues, she said. I told her, “Just do what you want to do, don’t listen to other people, whatever it is that you want to accomplish within music, I think you should do that.” She seemed to take that to heart. Years afterward, when her album EVA BY HEART came out, she did a long list of people she thanked, and I found my name there. That was the biggest honor I could ever get! I never thought I did anything for her, but I guess, maybe, part of it was that conversation, because after it was over, one of her things was that she didn’t want to do a lot of that “pop crap.”
When Chris Biondo told me that the posthumous album [EVA BY HEART] was coming out, I sent the song to Bill Straw. He was really impressed by it, he told me that he didn’t have anything by Eva that was like that, it’s kind of country but still kind of folky, it’s like a crossover. We changed the title of the song, which was “Gas Station Mountain Home,” because “Penny to My Name” seemed a more marketable title. This is the first song of mine that has been covered on this kind of scale, the whole thing has been surreal!
*PSI = tire pressure, “Pounds per Square Inch”
Roger Henderson died July 29, 2011, in Arlington, Virginia. His family and friends maintain this web site in his memory. I urge you to visit the site and enjoy some of his music. “A Song Away” is a particularly fine song that resonates with me as I urge Eva’s fans to support the hard-working performers who haven’t yet “made it.”
Photo Credits: Thank you to Carey Colvin for the use of her snapshot of Chris Biondo and Roger Henderson from 1988. The photos of the Blue Ridge Mountains were graciously provided by Dorlyn and Bob Williams of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. The photo of Roger is from his web site.