Tuesday Jam: Lost Without Kasey!


Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Alternate titles suggested by the group:

Flying Solo

Alone and Forsaken

    Love Don't Forsake Me


What is this all about? Ben was at the jam last night, but Kasey was not. (The excitement at the Bristol Motor Speedway and meeting Trevor Bayne for the third time and getting her picture in the Bristol paper just flat wore her out!) We all were missing Kasey but Ben most of all because Kasey usually takes her improv breaks before her dad does so he can copy her! (That's not really true but we do kid Ben a lot about it!)

We welcomed another one of Casey's beginning students into the jam last night. She (the student) had called me that afternoon to let me know she was coming. When I answered my cell, I heard a voice say, "This is Betty Fisher...." Well! Betty Fisher was the name of the woman who lead the first bluegrass band I was in, Betty Fisher and the Dixie Bluegrass Band, back in the early '70s. She has a chapter in my book. The thing is, Betty died last July. So to hear someone on the phone say, "This is Betty Fisher" was downright eerie! I expected to hear harps and angels in the background! Then I remembered Casey had told me she had a student named Betty Fisher and all was made clear.

I'm sure this Betty didn't realize that she would be fodder for my jam blog, but she played so well that I have to brag on her. I've learned a lot about integrating beginning students into the jam from having Mark at the Wednesday jam the last two weeks.

First off, before the jam started, I asked Betty which songs she played. She knew the Big Three (Banjo in the Hollow, Cripple Creek, and Boil Them Cabbage Down) plus Cumberland Gap. She also knew her G, C, and D vamp chords, in the F shape. Then, when everyone got seated and tuned, I asked her if she wanted to play something right off the bat or if she just wanted to listen. She just wanted to listen. Fine by me. I cautioned her not to be freaked out by how fast the songs sounded. I told her these folks--Bobby, Janet, Kenney, Scott and Ben--had been jamming together for months. I said that when we played her songs we would play very slowly and that all the banjos would all play the lead together.

So we played a couple of songs that I hoped wouldn't be too intimidating: Blue Ridge Cabin Home and Long Gone. Then I asked if she was ready to try one. She said she was. I asked if Banjo in the Hollow was a good one for her. It was. I picked a few notes at a very slow pace and asked if this was slow enough. She said yes. "Then we'll all play together," I said. "One, two, ready, go!" And slowly but surely we played BITH. Betty did great! She hung right in there.

We played it through three times and then put the ending lick on. Then, I asked Betty if she'd feel comfortable taking a break by herself, if she could kick it off. I told her I'd be right there to fill in any missing notes if she stumbled. Brave soul, she again said yes. So I said, "After you play, then Ben will play, then me, then Scott. Then, do you think you can come back in and play again after Scott finished his break? I'll be right there to help you if you get lost." She agreed to all this and kicked it off. Again, she played great. Slow but steady and in good time with good tone. I didn't ever have to jump in to get her back on track. And she just loved playing. She said it was so much fun with all the guitars and bass backing her up.

Through the course of the evening we did all four of her songs in this same way. And when she was not playing lead, I could see her working on her vamping.

I know I'm preaching to the choir here, but jamming is so important in learning to play bluegrass. Outsiders think this music is easy but is it NOT! Learning to pick tunes at home: that's the easy part. It's trying to play with others that is the hard part. There is so much to learn about the art of jamming. And you can't learn it except by jamming!

The biggest surprise of the evening came when Scott did not take that extra break when he had a chance! He had kicked off Long Gone and was singing lead and everyone had taken a break (except Ben who didn't have Kasey there to point the way....!) and when the song got back to Scott, he sang the chorus again and put the ending lick on, catching me completely off guard. I was blissfully whiling away the time looking for different G chord formations on the banjo neck and I missed singing the first few harmony notes. When I asked Scott about his passing up a break he said, "Bob gave me the skunk eye and it scared me." Skunk eye? Sucking eggs? Longbeards? I am learning so much in this jam, and much of it has nothing to do with bluegrass!

Scott and I did share a excellent moment later on in the jam. Kenney wanted us to do Glendale Train, even though Barbara was not there to sing it. (I sang it.) As I've mentioned before, the break to Glendale Train is long (and we've not gotten to "turnarounds" yet) and I've always wanted to split it. I've been working on art of "splitting a break" with some of the students so I asked Scott if he wanted to split the kickoff with me.  He said, "Yes, if I can take the first part!" I said that was fine. Ben then took the next break all by himself, and then Janet and Bobby split the next one.

Then, after I finished singing the second (and last) verse (and chorus), I decided, on the spur of the moment, to take that extra break. So I hammered down and then  thought, "I'll split this break with Scott." Of course, I'd not told Scott that! But that's the way split breaks work in a jam: you have to be ready for the nod. I kept playing till the last possible second and then I looked up and nodded at Scott. Bless his heart! As he told me afterwards, as soon as I started that extra break he thought, "I'll bet she's going to give me the nod." And he was ready! He jumped right in and finished 'er off. I sang the last chorus, we ended the song, and then Scott and I gave each other high fives! That is one of the funnest parts of a jam--having that "Vulcan mind meld" thing going on, where you anticipate what the other player is going to do and respond exactly right. That's heady stuff. (Although I will have to say it is worrisome that both Scott and Bobby have been reading my mind lately!)

And hey, Mark and Ellen, we missed you. I was so looking forward to doing some Peter, Paul, and Mary. For one thing, I really like it. But for another thing, I know it really annoys Bobby! Two good reasons! Maybe next week! Ta ta, you all!