The last time Judy Henske was on stage at the Heyde Center for the Arts in Chippewa Falls, it was for her senior recital as a student at McDonell High School.
“The Heyde Center is so beautiful! It didn’t look this good when I left ... It had the good fortune of getting a facelift — and I haven’t,” joked Henske, a Chippewa Falls native who went on to find nationwide fame as a folk singer/songwriter in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Henske put on a hometown performance Tuesday night as a capstone to the Chippewa County Historical Society’s newest exhibit, showcasing some of the area’s most notable musicians — Henske being one of them.
“I’m very happy to be back here,” Henske told the packed auditorium.
Henske, accompanied on guitar by local musician Jerry Way, performed a number of songs she had written herself, as well as a few other favorites. And while she may be older now, her voice still has a smoky edge. She still stomps out a beat, and has a performance style all her own, with a unique blend of storytelling and humor.
For her third song, she sang “a vulgar barnyard song” called “Maurice Maurice,” from her 2004 album, “She Sang California.” The song was a plaintive ballad listing all of the absurd misfortunes that befell the family farm since Maurice had left.
“I’m proud of my songs — I probably should be less proud,” Henske joked. “I guess there’s no accounting for taste.”
She also debuted a new tune she wrote about the famous writer Virginia Woolf.
“It sounds intellectual, doesn’t it? Well, it’s just about her suicide,” Henske quipped, drawing more laughs from the crowd.
Along with her eclectic narratives, Henske’s lyrics also featured sentimental personal references, including “Western Wisconsin,” which touched on childhood memories with her cousin, Nancy McCarthy of Chippewa Falls.
And another song, “Tin Star,” featured the offbeat but honest lyrics, “Truth and beauty aren’t the same thing, after all; the things I’ve been reading on the bathroom wall; are often true; but very seldom beautiful.”
“The songs I have tonight are about my life,” Henske said.
The audience was kept in stitches over Henske’s songs and color commentary, and sang along with a few of the songs.
Before the concert, Historical Society President Dave Gordon read a proclamation from Chippewa Falls Mayor Greg Hoffman declaring June 4 as Judy Henske Day. And, of course, she was delighted by the recognition.
“I’ve never had a day before,” she said. “I may get greedy and want a week, a month or a year!”
Henske joked that she took particular glee in receiving the news earlier in the day while standing in an old classroom at the Area History Center, formerly McDonell High School, where one of the nuns told her she wouldn’t amount to anything.
“Now I’m going to hell,” she said with a laugh.
After the show, Henske stayed at the Heyde Center to meet with several audience members, who came up to thank her for a great performance, as well as to see if she remembered a few of the people she used to know.
One of those was a former teacher of hers, Gene Krhin of Chippewa Falls.
“She was wonderful,” he said of Tuesday’s concert. “I knew back then she had talent. She hasn’t changed a bit.”