John Henry Pendley was born on Beaver Creek in Mitchell County and raised in a musical family in Spruce Pine. His father played the banjo, and John Henry had five brothers who all played music. He also had four sisters who did not play instruments, but who all sang. “Most of them were good dancers too,” says John Henry. “I growed up with lots of music.” There were frequent family get-togethers, and they always included music.
By the time he was seven years old, John Henry was playing guitar and harmonica. His brother had the French harp, but John Henry would slip off into the woods to learn to play that when his brother was not home. A few years later, he picked up the banjo, first learning clawhammer, then two-finger, then three-finger styles. Today, John Henry continues to play all three styles. “I basically just learned it myself,” he says. “I play by ear.”
When he was younger, John Henry had a band with his brothers, and they performed for local dances, parties, and other social events. He also played with the Golden Eagle Band every Friday night with Bunny Wilson on piano. The band started as a jam session at Bunny’s house, but soon they were asked to give performances as well. The group played bluegrass, country, gospel, and some pop music. John Henry played with them for ten years for dances, parties, churches, and other venues. “We just played wherever people would let us play,” says John Henry.
Since about 1997, John Henry has been playing with Terry McKinney from McDowell County. The two often perform at Orchard at Altapass and Young’s Mountain Music. John Henry has played a lot of music over the years on banjo and guitar. “Banjo is about all I play these days,” he says. When asked about his biggest musical influence, John Henry says, “My daddy is my biggest influence. He always played the banjo. He played the two-finger style. That’s where I got my enthusiasm from. Some of the tunes he played really stuck in my head, and I wanted to do that.”
John Henry has given some solo performances for children at the Orchard at Altapass. His wife also often sings in the band he plays in with Terry McKinney. He is available for performances, but he warns that he is more of a picker than a talker.