Monthly Archives: July 2008

Thoughts on improvising are on hold yet again. I just got in from teaching and I am zoned out! I did pick up one tidbit from a student that I want to pass along. Mark has been taking lessons for a couple of months now and is doing well on the current BIG THREE for beginning banjo students: Banjo in the Hollow, Cripple Creek, and Boil Them Cabbage Down, low and high breaks. He is also going great guns on his vamping, which is something I try to introduce as early as possible now so that students will have the necessary tools to play in a jam session. (If you can vamp, you can jam!) Once he learned to make those awful four-finger chord shapes (OUCH!), he really put in the hours of practice. And one of the tools he was using was our new Slow Jam DVD. He’s been playing along with that a lot.

So we’re jamming today at the lesson, both on banjos, trading breaks. S-L-O-W-L-Y of course. Mark is doing great but he keeps having trouble with the chord changes in Cripple Creek. I am concerned. I ask him what he’s doing differently from what he does when he plays along with the Slow Jam DVD. He thinks a minute and then says, “I usually watch Casey’s hands making the guitar chords.” (On this DVD we have one of those little inserts, that little screen-within-a-screen, so you can always see the guitar chords that Casey is making.) [Editor's note: Through the magic of video editing, the hand in the box is actually Murphy's.]

Aha! I think. He’s not really listening to the chord changes, he’s just changing when he sees Casey change. He was thinking the same thing. “I think it’s becoming a crutch.” You’re darn tootin’! And furthermore, it seemed to me that he might actually be COUNTING the number of beats for each chord. (Always risky because what if you get lost? And you will get lost, you will!)

So of course I told him to stop counting and to START LISTENING! And because he really does have a good ear for the chord changes (he plays some guitar), when he started listening, he did much, much better. It wasn’t perfect, but he could tell when he missed the chord and the next time through was more likely to get it right.

The moral of this story? Don’t let watching the guitar player’s hand become a crutch for you. Even on a DVD! Use it to get your bearings, but then stop. And start using your ear. I don’t call it learning by ear for nothing! Listen, listen, listen. (See Mark, I warned you. Everything is now fodder for The Blog! Tell Ellen heads up! Next time I might talk about Beginning Guitar!)

If you've been reading this blog for the last couple of days, you'll be aware that I spent last weekend playing with the Dixie Bin-Liners, I mean Bee-Liners. I returned home today and, upon reflecting on the trip as a whole I believe it is one of the best road trips I've ever been on. The Bee-Liners are all funny, intelligent people, and they were a hoot to travel with. The six of us piled into their Chevy van, burning up the road between Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Being the guest banjo player, I didn't have to drive (an unusual occurrence, to be sure), so I got a lot of Jane Eyre read.

Our first gig, in Kent, Ohio, was opening for Blue Highway. The way it worked out, we didn't get a chance to practice much of their material. We did run over three or four songs about ten minutes before the show started, but that was it as far as rehearsal for the whole weekend. I was glad that I'd done my homework and felt (almost) comfortable walking on stage with little group rehearsal.

We all got too-little sleep that night, arising at 5 am to drive to Carlisle, PA, to make a 1:00 pm set. We shared the bill at the Bluegrass on the Grass festival with some of my favorite people: the Steep Canyon Rangers, and the Dismembered Tennesseans, among others. The weather was perfect---warm and sunny---and we had some great Pad Thai for lunch. You can't ask for better than that.

The Dixie-Bee Liners

Casey Henry, Buddy Woodward, Rachel Johnson, Brandi Hart, Jonathan Manness, Jeremy Darrow.

The following two days found us in Winchester, VA (I believe Murphy filled you in on that gig) and Maumee, Ohio, for the Glass City Opry.

Dixie Bee-Liners

In Maumee the promoter housed the band in a Holiday Inn that was attached to a small water park with huge tubular water slides. I was bummed that I had to leave to drive home and didn't get to partake of the aquatic amusements. Their regular banjo picker, Sam Morrow, met us in Maumee to play the next day with them in Chicago. I took his car and headed south. The only bad thing about filling in for Sam is that I didn't get to hear Sam play, because I do love his Stanley-style pickin'. But I know I'll get to hear a lot more from them in the future. And Sam, don't even worry about those dents in your car...they're so small you won't even notice!

Every year, Eldred Hill (of the Patent Pending band) and his wife Dena host a night of picking at their house. It's always a good time, and this year was no exception. I started out with some bluegrass together with Eldred's bandmates Rusty Williams and Leigh Taylor, and Matty Levine and others, turning out some rarely-heard songs like the Stanley Brothers' "Poison Lies" and and a pretty good high-harmony trio on "Your Selfish Heart." Matty got out his super-rare late-40's flowerpot RB-250, and we put down some bluegrass notes.

I'd been too lazy to change mandolin strings after the big White Springs festival, so I started breaking them early. The first one broke a few minutes after we started.

The music was flowing by that time, so I went out on the porch and got with the Critten Hollow String Band folks, who'd started picking out there: Joe, Sam, Joe, and Robbie. Those people sure can play. Bill Young and his son Paul joined us with some good guitar rhythm, and we did a pile of great old traditional numbers like

Old Mother Flanagan
Laughing Boy
Lady in the Lake
Robinson County
Angelina Baker
Jimmy in the Swamp
Mississippi Sawyer
Cowboy's Dream

...and a bunch more.

It just went on and on, and it was great fun. But a little before midnight I broke my fourth string of the evening. Since I hadn't replaced any after the first one, I was now playing a 5-string mandolin in the dark, with no A strings at all, and decided to quit. Passed some pickers in the dark on the way out, but I had to get back to the house--about an hour's drive.

It was a great session. The more of these, the better!

I’m sorry to have to put off talking about improvising again, but it can’t be helped. I’m just back from spending a delightful afternoon watching daughter Casey play banjo with the Dixie Bee-Liners. (She was filling in for their regular banjo player, Sam Morrow, who will be back in the saddle again directly.) Casey played with Tone, Taste, and Timing— the Big Three of banjo playing—and did her parents proud. She’s a keeper, fer sure.

The band was holding forth at Brill’s Barber Shop in downtown Winchester, Virginia, (home of Patsy Cline, Lynn Morris, and the Murphy Method). A barber shop may seem like a strange place for a gig, but this particular tonsorial parlor is also a music store where I’ve been teaching banjo for the past 22 years. In addition, it houses a coffeehouse-type listening area in its nether regions, that is to say, below street level. We occasionally host a musical event in the basement of the shop, but have yet to come up with a catchy name for the venue. This is primarily due to the fact that everybody in town knows where Brill’s Barber Shop is, but nobody would know where a place with a funky new name was.

The Dixie Bee-Liners were playing what is informally called a “gas gig.” That is to say, the band had a free day in its touring schedule and was willing to play for whatever the venue could provide. Luckily, we were able to muster a small crowd on a Sunday afternoon, and the band picked up a few bucks, sold some CDs, and made some new fans.

The Bee-Liners are anchored by genial emcee Buddy Woodward on mandolin and the gorgeous voice of Brandi Hart on guitar. A few years ago Buddy was tapped for the role of guitarist George Shuffler in a play about the Stanley Brothers, which toured for several seasons. As it happened, Red and I saw the performance at Wolf Trap, Virginia, and enjoyed it immensely. It was a pleasure to meet Buddy in person.

The rest of the talented Bee-Liners, who hail from Bristol, Virginia, include Jonathan Manness on guitar, Jeremy Darrow on bass, and Rachel Johnson on fiddle. Naturally, I was thrilled to see three women in one band, two of them playing lead instruments. I spent some time musing happily on how mixed-gender bands seem to becoming more popular.

I would write more but half of the band is spending the night at our house, and I think I’ve stayed at the computer just long enough so that I didn’t have to help put clean sheets on any of the beds! And I want to spend a little time visiting with Casey, although she was the one who reminded me it was my night to blog! If the Dixie Bee-Liners make it to your neck of the woods, be sure to go out and see them. Tell them Casey's mom sent you.

I write to you tonight from beautiful Abingdon, VA, where I am staying with Buddy Woodward and Brandi Hart in preparation for leaving in the morning to do a four-gig stint with their band the Dixie Bee-Liners. Buddy, as it happens, is a wonderful cook, in addition to being a great musician, and he fixed his famous coffee-smoked chicken, grilled corn on the cob, grilled onions, and iced tea, which we enjoyed in their convivial back yard before gathering around the fire pit to watch the sun set.

My real subject for today is the group of women I've been jamming with for the last couple of months. A bunch of friends of mine, who are all married to professional musicians, are in various stages of learning to play their instruments. Earlier this year we all walked in a half marathon together, and we wanted to find a way to keep getting together after our marathon was accomplished. I don't know who it was who suggested that we get together to play music, but they nominated me to be their leader. I agreed on the condition that I could play the fiddle.

We assembled for the first time on a Sunday afternoon and had such a good time we decided to continue to meet every week. Musically, to the outsider at least, what we play wouldn't sound like much. Accordingly I decided to call our little group "At Least We're Hot," as in, we pretty much suck, but at least we're hot.

At Lest We\'re Hot

The women of At Least We're Hot, and some friends. I'm in the purple dress in the middle. Photo by Ned Luberecki.

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Red and Chris played at the Florida Folk Festival over Memorial Day weekend. This is Red's account of the trip.

We had a terrific time playing with our band at the Florida Folk Fest at White Springs. All of us--Chris Henry (guitar/mandolin), John Hedgecoth (banjo), Barbara Johnson (bass) and I, say "Thanks!" to all the folks who came out to see us.

The Friday night set on the main stage drew a big crowd, and they were listening. On-stage sound was uncertain due to the lack of monitors, but the main mix was good. I had a time getting the crowd to start responding to our stories, but they caught on and really started digging it. We finished up with "Helton Creek," and the folks really liked John's banjo (a pre-war style 75, by the way) and Chris's guitar (hot picking there).

Outstanding picking in the campground both Friday and Saturday night-- I didn't make it much after midnight, but certain persons were up till dawn. And they could still stand up the next day!

Folk Festival Picking

Chris Henry, John Hedgecoth, Barbara Johnson, Red Henry, Dale Crider, Renee Henry. Photo by Ira Winarsky.

Our Saturday set was on the Marble Stage, and the place was packed. We put my new tune "Centerville Road" into the set, and the folks liked it. Many thanks to all who heard us and enjoyed the show. We finished out with "Rawhide"-- pretty fast for an old man. Thanks to Michael Monroe for a great mix.

We had a lot of good students with good questions at the mandolin and banjo workshops. It makes us feel good if you leave knowing something more about playing than you did before.
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I was planning on talking about improvising today, but we got such a nice response to my first blog, asking how I learned to play that I thought I could justify taking off on that side road for a bit.

So thanks for asking! Here we go....

“How did you get into Bluegrass and who taught you to play the banjo? Did you learn to play by ear or did you dabble in tab? Be honest now, were you ever tempted to take down any notes?”

I got into bluegrass courtesy of the great Gamble Rogers. In the early seventies, I was attending the University of Georgia, in Athens, where instead of concentrating on my pre-med studies, I was spending large quantities of time at a club called the Last Resort, watching Gamble pick his guitar, Merle Travis style, and spin tall tales. One night Gamble told the crowd that there was a bluegrass festival in nearby Lavonia, Georgia, and that we should all go. He was going. Well, if Gamble had said we should all jump off the Tallahatchie Bridge, I’d have been the first one in the water.

My friend Paula Lane (where are you now Paula?) and I went and not only did I see my first live bluegrass, I also met my future husband, Bryan “Red” Henry. Gamble introduced us around a campfire. Red was drinking something out of a Mason jar that looked suspiciously like water. He didn’t remember me, but I remembered him!

Shortly after that, I got my first banjo and commenced learning to play. My friend Buddy Blackmon showed me a few things but mostly, at first, I tried learning from the Earl Scruggs Book. Yes, I was using tablature. That’s why I know it doesn’t work! And, hey, I had a musical background. I could read music enough to play church piano, could play guitar by ear, and had taken a year or so of violin. I was not musically ignorant nor slow on the uptake.

Still I hadn’t heard much bluegrass and I didn’t know what the songs were supposed to sound like! So I struggled with the tab, circling eighth notes because they lasted longer, and trying to make some sense of the music. (You should see my Scruggs book. It’s all marked up!) The results were pitiful.
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From the fan mail department, here are a couple of threads on the Banjo Hangout where our students have been discussing their progress with our DVDs:

This is from a student who saw Red at the Florida Folk Festival:

I bought your beginning mandolin DVD from Red at his workshop last November but was so frustrated at that time that I didn't really work with it. I pulled it out when I got home from the festival on Monday and learned more than in over a year of mandolin lessons from a local instructor. ... I would have bought your intermediate mandolin DVD from Red last weekend but I thought I had it, so now I plan to buy it online on your website. Thanks for a super instructional method. ~ JKB

Someone sent this testimonial to us through our website:

To those of you who work so hard to produce these videos, THANK YOU. I had reached a brick wall using tab, when somone suggested I give you a try. What a joy! It is exactly what I needed, and I just ordered the next 2. You have made sure learning the banjo remains more fun than frustration. ~AB

We also received this through our website:

Just want to thank you for your slow jam banjo DVD. I just received it a few days ago, and it is the best DVD I have bought. It lets you play along and keeps you in time. I have bought every banjo DVD you sell, but this one is my favorite. Can't wait for Improvising to come out on DVD and hope you make a slow jam vol. 2 someday...thanks again. ~JM

Here's a review of our Slow Jam DVD from Bluegrass Unlimited magazine.

And check this out, here you can actually rent Murphy Method DVDs online. To be clear, I had never heard of these people before a couple days ago, so we know nothing about them and can't necessarily vouch for them, but it's kinda cool that you CAN rent our DVDs.

Red and Chris played at the Gamble Rogers Folk Festival May 2nd through 4th in Florida. Here is Red's account of the trip.

Went down to St. Augustine and had fun picking at the GambleFest. The folks liked it, and the band liked it too. Christopher and I traded off guitar and mandolin; we had expert picker Mike Johnson on guitar, Monroe veteran John Hedgecoth on banjo, and Barbara Johnson on bass.

Red and Chris at GambleFest

We had good mandolin workshops on Saturday and Sunday, with plenty of folks attending and asking good questions.

The weather was warm and dry, and the music was hot. Thanks for our friends Michael and Andrea for the excellent picking party and supper at their house on Saturday night, and to the festival hospitality room for meals all weekend and lifesaving coffee on Sunday morning!

Here we are on stage, playing my tune 'Helton Creek':

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Ah, yes. One of my favorite topics. Why learn bluegrass by ear? While this subject is surely old hat to long-time Murphy Method students (True Believers) and those of you who have read my book of collected Banjo Newsletter columns (where I ranted about the subject ad nauseum, some thought), those of you who are just discovering the Murphy Method might be curious about the whole “by ear” concept. Our web friends over at Banjo Hangout frequently bat this topic around and, in fact, have been doing so lately with gusto. (Thanks, folks!) (Here's one example.)

There are many good reasons for learning by ear but I will confine my remarks here to the main three:

It’s easier.

It will enable you to play with other people.

It leads to improvising.

Okay. Now to expostulate. (I’m gonna skip over about how much easier it is to learn this way. That’s a bit self evident.)

I assume that everyone who is interested in learning to play bluegrass wants to eventually play with somebody else, perhaps just in a small group of friends. Or maybe you’d like to jam with other people in the parking lot. You see, Bluegrass is a friendly music. It wants to be played with other people.

Okay. Now, think about the nature of Bluegrass Music. Bluegrass musicians do not perform looking at music. You do not see music stands on a bluegrass stage. (Okay, Ralph Stanley sometimes has to have the words in front of him now. But he’s Ralph. He can do whatever he likes!) Bluegrass music is, by its very nature, a “by ear” music. If you were wanting to play in a symphony you’d have to read music. If you were wanting to play church piano or organ, you’d have to read music. Many types of musics call for note reading. But not bluegrass. It calls for playing by ear.

But I can’t learn by ear, I hear you saying. (Whining?) I’m not that talented. I don’t have a music background. I’m too old. I’m a visual learner, I learn better from paper. Phooey to all that. Almost anyone can learn by ear if you just take it slow, a few notes at a time. Which is exactly what we do on all our DVDs. We teach it S-L-O-W. ...continue reading