Tip Jar Jams: Growing Pains

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Tuesday's Tip Jar Jam was kinda light--Ben, Kasey, and Scott--so Ben picked up the bass and turned the jam into a two-hour long bass lesson for himself! Nice trick, Ben. I hope that counts against all the snow plowing you did for us this winter! And the grass mowing you did Monday! Seriously, I was glad to have Ben pounding out the "I, IV, V" and I made sure to give him a workout by singing plenty of songs in the keys of B and B-flat which have NO OPEN STRINGS on the bass. (They also happen to be great keys for me to sing in! So we even did Crying Holy Unto The Lord, so Scott could play his J.D. Crowe break!)

Things got even "funner" when Kasey played See Ya Tonight, a Scotty McCreery song she's been working on in A. I'd never heard the song, but with the small jam I thought we could give it a try. Plus that, I'd do anything for our Banjo Fashionista, who was decked out in a hot pink skirt, a big gold necklace, and WHITE CONVERSE ALL-STARS!

Totally irrelevant aside about me: It was my old pair of white Converse All-Stars that served as my introduction to a teenage Marty Stuart, who was, at the time, playing with Lester Flatt. When I was in college, my friend Paula Lane and I had driven to Atlanta from Athens, Ga., to our second-ever bluegrass festival, held indoors at a big coliseum. Being bluegrass newbies, we'd ordered our tickets early and had front row seats. We could have had seats anywhere in the house because there was almost nobody there! But the bands! Oh, the bands! Lester Flatt and the Nashville Grass with Paul Warren on the fiddle, Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys with Curly Ray Cline on fiddle and Roy Lee Centers on guitar, the Osborne Brothers (in one-piece, stretch jumpsuits!) with Ronnie Reno on guitar, the Lewis Family, Jim and Jesse. Anyhow, Paula and I had gone to the concession stand to get a Coke, and as we were standing there, this cute little black-haired kid saunters up to me and says, "Aren't those Converse All-Stars?" What a pickup line! His second line was even better: "You want to meet Lester Flatt?" Of course, I wanted to meet Lester Flatt. I had seen him on TV! So Marty--for it was he!--took us out to Lester's bus and we got to meet Lester, and Paul, and Roland White, and banjo player Haskell McCormick. Looking back on this now, I'm sure Marty was as proud as a peacock, picking up two college girls! Lester always introduced Marty in his classic Lester drawl by saying, "This next one here is the 'lady killer' in the group. Actually, he don't kill 'em, he just cripples them up so the rest of us can catch 'em!" I guess Marty was just doing his job! Anyhow, Marty and I became sorta friends and there's more to this story, but I think I'll stop right now because I'm supposed to be writing about the Tip Jar Jam!

Back to earth and Kasey's song: Since I couldn't pick up on the chord pattern from Kasey's banjo playing, she let me hear the song on her phone. Fortunately the chord pattern (which I've forgotten now) turned out to be simple but it did include the "relative minor" chord. On the banjo, that was the E minor position from Foggy Mountain Breakdown but on the bass....HA! It was an F#. Something else for Ben to worry about! Luckily, we'd already been playing in the key of B where the V chord [the "five" chord] just happens to be an F#. Handy-pandy, jack-a-dandy! Ben found it easily. We went through the chord pattern a few times, and Scott improvised a break on the banjo, so he and Kasey traded breaks on what turned out to be a nice instrumental.

The Wednesday jam was jam-packed with nine pickers. Seeing four other guitar players in the house, Bobby gave up his seat beside me and brought out Kenney's bass. Thanks, Bobby! After a couple of opening tunes and since everyone was at an Intermediate level, I thought we'd make another stab at "real" jam procedure. So we went around the circle, letting everyone choose a song. That person then became the "boss" of the song. As we discovered, if it's an instrumental, all you have to do is kick it off, play it, and then nod to the next person. The break continues around the circle, with each player nodding and passing the break to the person seated beside them. However, if you're singing the song, then after you finish singing every chorus, you have to be the "nodder." And as Diane discovered when she "bossed" her first song, Will The Circle Be Unbroken, you cannot arbitrarily decide who gets to take the next break! You have to go in order around the circle!

After everyone had had a chance to "call" a song, we graded ourselves on how we did. Dan thought we had improved from our first time and gave us a B+. Diane, who wasn't there for our first trial, gave us a C. I thought our performance was about a B. We did many things well, but the idea of staying alert to what is going on during the song is a hard thing to put into practice! You also have to stay alert between songs in order to know the name of the next song and the key in which it's going to be played. We started off on one song, in the Key of C, and Bobby, bless his heart, was playing in G. Naturally, I stopped the song.

"Bobby, what are you doing?"

"Playing the song."

"Does it sound right?"


"Do you know why?"


"You are in the wrong key."

"I knew something was wrong but I didn't know what."

"What key are we playing in?"

"I thought we were playing in G."

"No, we are not."

"Well, I thought we were."

"Well, you were wrong. Look at all the instruments. Where are the capos?"


"When you are capoed up five frets on the guitar, what key are you playing in?"

"C, dammit. I thought she said G."

"No matter. Look around! Use your ears and your EYES!"


Just a standard Bobby and Murphy conversation! Apparently we can still carp at each other from across the room!

The song selection from each person was actually pretty good. Most everybody remembered the KISS rule: Keep It Simple Stupid. We also discovered that it's a good idea to check with the other folks in the jam to see if enough people know the song to make it fly. As I told Bob Mc, after the fact, Salt Creek is probably not a good selection. It's a hard song to start with and not enough people could play it or vamp it. The only way that song survived was because I was pounding out the chords on the guitar. So a really good rule for student jams is to STICK WITH THREE-CHORD SONGS.

We also did Daybreak in Dixie, Cripple Creek (after the Fireball Mail suggestion "died at first"), Circle, Cumberland Gap, John Hardy (after Salty Dog had no takers), and Long Journey Home. Then since everyone had called a song (Tim passed, I passed, and Bobby got overlooked!), I assumed control of the jam. I actually think some folks breathed a sigh of relief!

It is so much easier to jam when there is a strong leader. I personally think that almost all jams beg (silently) for leadership. As I wrote in my latest Banjo Hangout article, if you have leadership skills--even if you're not the strongest player in the group--don't be afraid to step up to the plate and utilize them.

The growing pains we are undergoing as we press onward toward "real" jamming are, in fact, wonderful! Just think, 18 months ago these jammers were still trying to play in time, trying to play without stopping, trying to vamp, trying to come in on time with their breaks, trying to learn to use capos, and trying to learn how to play when surrounded by so much racket! Now, having accomplished most of these things, we are moving on! Is it hard? Yes! Frustrating? Yes! Out of our comfort zone! Yes! ("That was your cigar smoldering in the ashtray! Yes!") But, in the long run, it will make everyone better players. So, as the song says:

Press onward, climb upward, the top is in view

There's a crown of bright glory a-waiting for you!

We'll be jamming in Winchester next Tuesday and Wednesday, May 13 and 14. NO Frederick jam until May 25.

PS: That quote about the cigar is from the movie Young Frankenstein! I couldn't resist. I love that movie and I love Frau Blucher! (horse whinny!)

3 thoughts on “Tip Jar Jams: Growing Pains

  1. B. Van Metre

    Congradulations Ben, B & Bb are killers on the bass. Take the “Attaboys” as they com; from my experience, they are hard to come bye.

    Re “Will The Circle Be … . My eyes seen a “5G” position, ( from the guitar), brain not alart enough to convert to “C” on the bass. Just another “dumba..” attack. If it was easy, anybody could do it!

    “Carping”, just another MM session, life goes on … .


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