Abigail Henderson, the voice that roared

When her friends and the people who loved her most are asked to describe Abigail Henderson, a lot of words come to mind.

“We were both stubborn, opinionated, stomping-around, big-personality, lots-to-say, unsolicited-advice-giving (bleeps),” said her friend of 13 years Amy Farrand. “So, naturally, we hit it off. And we fought like crazy. That combination lends itself into getting into it. And we both had a deep passion for music.”

“Abigail was the most passionate person I’ve ever met,” said Angela Lupton, who became friends with Henderson 13 years ago, when both were students at UMKC. “She was a fierce defender of anything helpless that was being taken advantage of. She could not tolerate injustice.”

Henderson died Tuesday at her Kansas City home after a five-year battle with cancer. She was 36. She left behind her husband and longtime bandmate, Christopher Meck, and scores of friends and admirers, most of whom came to know her through the local music scene and the four bands she was in. Saturday afternoon, they will gather to remember her at a memorial service.

Henderson also leaves behind the Midwest Music Foundation, the group she co-founded in 2009 to help local musicians with no insurance get through health-care crises. Music and the local music scene, her friends will tell you, were her greatest passions.

“Music was the most important thing to her,” Lupton said. “It became her way of making sense of the world.”

“It was everything to her,” Meck said. “When she first started playing in a band, if she wasn’t playing that night she was right in front of the stage, watching. She couldn’t get close enough. She wanted to absorb it.”

Henderson was born in New York City on April 8, 1977. She moved to Kansas City around 1997, Meck said, to be with her mother, actress Carol Pfander, who had cancer. Pfander was a member of the first professional acting company at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre. She later played a role in the NBC soap opera “The Doctors.” Pfander died in July 2010.

Henderson graduated from UMKC in 2002 with a degree in English. “She wanted to be a poet,” Meck said, “but she became a songwriter.”

When she was 22, she started playing guitar. Two years later, she started a cow-punk band called Trouble Junction. Her bandmates recalled her nascent passion and molten personality.

“Abigail cornered me at a Neko Case concert and all but strong-armed me into the group she was starting,” said guitarist Mike Stover.

“We were going to change the world with music and touch each soul, one by one,” said Calandra Potter.

But the band started living up to its name.

“Eventually, strife and trauma took its toll,” Stover said. “It was hard to watch it all fall away, but in the fullness of time I’ve come to realize that it needed to come to an end, that the next chapter was waiting to be written.”

That chapter started in 2003 and it included Meck, the man she would spend the rest of her life with. In a 2011 interview with The Star, Henderson said: “I met my match and I met my heart. I met a creative sparring partner.”

They started a band called the Gaslights, who would release three albums and tour the United States and Europe. By then, Henderson was writing prolifically.

“She did the lyrics and wrote what she called the ‘bones’ of the song,” Meck said, “then I’d figure out the rest of it.”

She had also developed a voice that arrested a lot of attention.

“It was always funny to watch: During sound-check the sound guy would see a woman singer and turn it way up,” Meck said. “Then she’d sing and flatten the system, and you’d see the sound guy dive at the board to turn it down. We’d giggle about it. It’d happen every night. She almost didn’t need to be in the PA. She could sing over everything.”

During a Gaslights show in 2005, Meck hurt his back hauling amps to their van. A chiropractor told him not to carry anything heavy for two weeks. So Henderson did some of the heavy-lifting. Then she developed a severe abdominal pain that needed attention. It turned out to be a pivotal injury.

“We were in New Orleans and somebody told us to go to the Musicians’ Clinic,” Meck said. “Abby said, ‘We’re on the road. We have no money.’ They said, ‘No, just take one of your CDs and they’ll see you.’ So we did. They diagnosed it as a hernia and told her how to treat it for the rest of the tour.”

The experience changed her. “She thought it was so amazing how the musicians in New Orleans cared about each other and took care of each other,” Lupton said. “She said, ‘We need that in Kansas City.’”

So she and others in the music community started to build one.

The group began as the Kansas City Music Coalition. Its goal was to create a health-care collective for musicians. Plans for that stalled. Then Henderson found out in 2008 that she had Stage 3 inflammatory breast cancer. Several months before, she had bought a catastrophic health-insurance policy.

“I got it in case I got in a car wreck or hit by a bus,” she told The Star in 2008. “Then — ha ha ha! — I got cancer.”

At first, the insurance company refused to pay for her treatment. The music community held a series of fundraisers called Apocalypse Meow, raising about $20,000. Henderson and Meck used part of that to hire a lawyer and fight the insurance company, a fight they eventually won. The rest of the money was used to start the Midwest Music Foundation.

Since its inception, the MMF through its Apocalypse Meow Musicians Health Care Fund has granted more than $30,000 to local musicians. In January, it co-sponsored a Well Women’s Clinic, which offered free screenings for women musicians.

At the MMF website, a grant recipient posted a note of deep gratitude: “I was to the point of financial panic that I couldn’t even sleep at night. Its amazing how people like the MMF can make such a massive difference in people’s lives. ... I hope I can repay the debt someday.”

While the MMF was growing, Henderson kept fighting cancer. And she kept playing music. After the Gaslights folded, she and Meck started another rock band, a four-piece that included Farrand and Dutch Humphrey of Cherokee Rock Rifle.

“It was fun being in a band with her,” Farrand said. “Talk about catharsis. Most of the songs were about dealing with her mom’s death. That’s how she processed things: in a very public manner, singing them to you.”

Atlantic Fadeout played its last show at the 2011 Plaza Art Fair. “We didn’t know it would be our last show,” Farrand said.

Henderson was getting sick again. By January 2012, she was gravely ill. She took a last-ditch experimental drug and recovered, but not unscathed. The cancer had paralyzed one of her vocal cords. Still, she did not give up her music. Instead, she and Meck started Tiny Horse, a folk duo that would grow into a full band.

“I used to nail notes to the walls,” she told The Star in October, days before the fifth annual Apocalypse Meow. “I can’t do that anymore. I had to find a different path. It’s like a guitar player who loses fingers: You can still play, you just have to figure out how to do it differently.”

“All her range and power went away,” Meck said. “She couldn’t project. But she almost sang better. It was awe-inspiring to watch her deal with her diminished instrument and make it work.”

“She couldn’t nail notes to the wall at the end, but her voice was still so emotional,” Farrand said.

She performed live for the last time on July 11, when Tiny Horse opened for the BoDeans at Knuckleheads.

“She sang everything great,” Meck said. “She had a hard time talking between songs. She’d get winded. We knew she was sick and things weren’t good, but neither of us knew how close we were.”

She died on Tuesday afternoon, with her husband and friends at her side.

“She didn’t want to go,” Farrand said. “She loved what she did. She loved her friends. She loved Christopher. And she still had a lot of songs and ideas that she knew she wouldn’t be able to get out.”

Meck said that toward the very end, Henderson expressed some fear. “Yeah, she was scared,” he said. “She was worried she’d be forgotten.”

That seems unlikely for someone who left behind so much music, an abundance of friends and so many signs of a personality that roared.