The Patuxent Banjo Project

Casey Henry

Casey Henry

This article originally appeared in the pages of Banjo Newsletter magazine in December 2013. They kindly gave permission for us to reprint it here. Buy the CD here!

When I heard about the forthcoming CD project from Patuxent Music featuring Washington D.C./Baltimore/Northern Virginia-area banjo players I got super excited. The list of participants includes both legendary players and up-and-comers, bluegrass and old-time. Here, to whet your appetite, is a partial list: Tom Adams, Eddie Adcock, Paul Brown, Donnie Bryant, Bill Emerson, Cathy Fink, Joe Herrmann, Pete Kuykendall, Reed Martin, Doug McKelway, David McLaughlin, Mike Munford, Bill Runkel, Mark Schatz, Dick Smith, Roni Stoneman, Steven Wade, and Chris Warner.

I first heard of the project when my mom and I were both asked to participate. Co-produced by ace picker Mark Delaney (who plays with Danny Paisley and the Southern Grass) and Randy Barrett (president of the DC Bluegrass Union) the as-yet untitled project [now titled The Patuxent Banjo Project] will be released in the Spring 2014. 

Mark Delaney had been percolating the idea for quite a while before it got put into action. I’ll let him explain:

“I grew up in Montgomery County, Md., and got my first banjo in 1980. Being a kid, I didn't know what a huge deal it was being taught how to make an F chord by Porter Church, or Don Stover giving me tips on how to play in D tuning, or being told not to play so hard by Bill Emerson. Growing up here, I just took it for granted. When I started touring, I heard things like, "How in the world did you learn to play the banjo growing up in a place like Washington, D.C.?!" I got tired of explaining how prevalent the D.C. area was, and still is, in regards to bluegrass banjo playing. Then I decided that a record representing the D.C. banjo scene was in order! Of course, being the extremely talented procrastinator that I am, I did little more than talk about it for a long time. I called Randy Barrett one day on a whim and asked if he would be interested in doing this with me. Once Tom Mindte [owner of Patuxent Music] was on board it took off.

“The idea started as a 12-14 song CD representing some of the past and a few current players, including a few old-time cuts. As you can imagine, names started popping out left and right and the geography circle started expanding and before we knew it, it took on a life all its own. Now we're at 40 and had to stop. There are some people that have slipped through the cracks, but we had to wrap this one up. If it's well received, we'll do a second one.”

It is a huge honor to be included on what is sure to be a landmark recording. Tom Mindte suggested my mom and I each record an original tune. She chose Hazel Creek, her signature tune. I didn’t have anything I hadn’t already recorded because I just don’t write tunes unless I have a deadline. (Much like writing magazine articles, but I digress.) The last one I wrote was for the Stelling Banjo Anthology CD and I finished that one two days prior to recording it.

This time I had more lead time. About week before the session I sat down and said to myself, “Holy crap, I have to record next week! I need to write a tune!” I started digging around in the voice memos on my phone (so much more convenient than my old work tapes on cassette!) for any old scraps of ideas I could pull out and expand into a tune.

I found inspiration, but not in the place I expected. My mom sings this little song for my son that goes:

Dalton’s got a band-aid on his tummy
on his tummy, on his tummy.
Dalton’s got a band-aid on his tummy,
and we can’t take it off.

I asked her if she had borrowed the tune from somewhere, or did she make it up? She said it was old, but couldn’t put her finger on it. Eventually she recognized that the rhythm of it is much like Mary Had A Little Lamb, and Old Grey Mare, although the tune differs from both of those. Those sources were old enough and PD enough for me, so I turned the song into an A part for my new tune.

The B part actually came fairly quickly. I like using Keith tuners in songs. Because it is not done that much, there is a lot of unexplored territory there. I set the tuners on the second and third strings to the Flint Hill Special tuning and started playing around with different patterns for getting them both down and back up. I hit upon a phrase where you hear both tuners go down, and up, but the second string goes down again and you don’t hear it come back up. I pull it up after the end of the phrase, before starting the next lick. It worked great at slow tempos, but I quickly realized I was only going to be able to play the song as fast as I could do the fancy tuner turning. Much practice ensued.

The title of the song, Purple Creek, is also inspired by my son, who is two. We sometimes watch my banjo lesson videos on the computer and in one lesson I’m explaining the “Cripple Creek” lick, which he heard as “purple creek.” His sign for purple is pointing to his eye (because of the song One-Eyed, One-Horned, Flying Purple People Eater), so every time I said “Cripple Creek” he would excitedly point to his eye.

Most of the tracks for the CDs were recorded at Tom Mindte’s studio. The two tunes not recorded there were done at the Bluegrass Unlimited office where Tom set up his equipment to record Pete Kuykendall and Tom Adams, who both did fiddle-banjo numbers with Michael Cleveland. Tom does the engineering and made the whole process smooth as silk. Never before in my life have I been able to walk into a studio, sit down at mics already correctly set up for all the acoustic instruments and just play and have it effortlessly captured and sound great. I wish that all recording could be like that!

The day we tracked there were five banjo players on the schedule. Our house band was David McLaughlin on mandolin, Danny Knicely on guitar, Tad Marks on fiddle, and Mark Schatz on bass. For the old-time sessions they also used Mark on bass and Danny on guitar, but had Nate Leath on fiddle. And for most of the other bluegrass cuts they used Marshall Wilborn on bass, Michael Cleveland on fiddle and mandolin, and Danny on the guitar.

Right now all the recording is finished and they are working on mixing and putting the liner notes together. With such a variety of players the final product will be stylistically diverse. Even the ages of the players cover three generations, from pre-teen to mid-70s. I’m waiting impatiently for this to be released and will be first in line to get my copy. Thanks, Mark, for having this great idea, and Randy and Tom for helping make it happen!

Buy the CD here!