My dear friend and long-time guitar student Bob VanMetre, 68, died Thursday, October 15, 2015, after a valiant battle with kidney cancer. He was buried October 19 in Martinsburg, West Virginia. At his request, I got together a band and played at the funeral. Since Red and Casey and Chris were all out of town, I called on mutual friends David McLaughlin and Scott Brannon to help out. Patty Massey, also a Bob friend, volunteered her husband Tim to play bass. We sent Bob off in style! I'm sure he was tapping his toes as he crossed over to the other side of Jordan!
Over the years, I wrote a lot about Bob both in Banjo Newsletter and in our Murphy Method Blog. When my heart is hurting, it helps me to talk. My second-best help is writing. So I will write out some of my grief by telling Bob stories.
Just four days before Bob died, Ben and Kasey Smelser went with me to see Bob and play music. Bob was in a hospital bed in his living room and couldn't play the guitar any longer but he surprised the hell out of me by singing his heart out. I was stunned! He remembered most of the words, too. Or as I told him on an earlier visit, "Hell, you remembered as many of the words as you did before you got sick!" [For some reason, Bob brought out the cussing in me. I include it here because it makes these stories seem more real.] Of course there were tears because who can sing White Dove without bawling, especially if you yourself are on Death's doorstep? And even Blue Ridge Cabin Home, one of Bob's regular songs, ends with the line "When I die won't you bury me on the mountain, far away in my Blue Ridge Mountain Home." Tears! But what a wonderful memory.
Kasey Smelser, 15, played the best banjo I've ever heard her play, loud, strong, and confident. She's another student that Bob helped along the bluegrass path with his kind and kidding encouragement. As Ben told me, when he and Kasey first came to our jam, Bob greeted them in the waiting area and said, "Do you play anything?" Ben said, "We take banjo lessons from Casey." Bob said, "Just what this world needs, another damn banjo player." But it was said with a smile.
I started giving Bob lessons way back in 1995. His first lesson set the tone of our relationship for the next 20 years. He told me he had bought my cassette series on how to play the guitar Carter Family Style. Now, in this style of guitar playing you play two or three melody notes and then you do a strum. And I had explained every note and every strum. I asked him to play one of the songs for me. He played Wildwood Flower. And while he played all the melody notes correctly, he left out all the strums! Which meant the song made no sense. There was no musical timing!
I was so taken aback that all I could do was croak out, "What about the strums? Where are they?"
He fired right back, "I didn't know I was supposed to put them in!"
To which I answered, "Didn't you listen to the cassettes? Didn't you hear me say 'fourth string, STRUM; fifth string STRUM'?"
"Yes, but I didn't think they were important," he replied, defiant to the end.
Thus was born the first Bob and Murphy Story. I've told that many times and I told it again at his funeral. It is now a precious memory.
Another memory from early on was the day Bob came in and sat down and started strumming chords on his guitar. He was doing it in some sort of regular fashion so I figured he was up to something. I kept waiting for him to start singing but he never did. I doubt that I let him go on for very long before interrupting to ask, "What are you doing?"
Bob: "I'm playing a song."
Me: "You are?"
"Can't you tell what I'm playing?"
"No, I can't. I can't recognize a song just from the chords."
"Well, I don't know why not! I CAN TELL WHAT I'M PLAYING."
I'm pretty sure this is before we started cussing freely in the lesson, so I said, patiently, "I know YOU can tell what you're playing because you can hear the song in your head. All I'm hearing is a bunch of chords. It could be anything. I DON'T KNOW WHAT IT IS."
"Well, Jesus Christ, it's (and he named some well-known bluegrass song). I thought anybody would recognize that, especially you. You're a professional musician."
"Bob, nobody can recognize a song just by the chords if you don't tell them what it is first! If I sit here and play this (and here I played a simple chord pattern on my guitar) can you tell what it is?"
"No, but I'm not a professional musician."
Me, losing patience, "Even a professional musician can't tell a song from just the chords! They don't know what's in your head. THANK GOD!"
"Whatever." Which meant he wasn't convinced but he wasn't going to argue anymore.
God, he was hard headed!
And here is another of my favorites from Banjo Newsletter, August 2002:
"Bob, who is from West Virginia, describes himself with pride as a Southern Redneck. He's recently been working on moving from the chords to the lead when flatpicking Old Joe Clark. I explained the mechanics of it over and over and recently concluded that he just wasn’t hearing it--he couldn't get the timing right. Finally I sang the words onto a cassette. He comes back next week and says, yes, that did help and he thinks he’s got it. I say let’s play it. So I’m sitting there with my banjo, running my mouth, reminding him that he should be hearing the words to the song while he’s playing his guitar break. Bob is sitting there, apparently deep in thought, and I think he’s hanging on my every word. I feel a little like God giving the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai. When I finally wind down, Bob says to me, in his blunt West Virginia way: “I’m just trying to figure out how to kick the sonofabitch off, Murphy.” Touché, Bob!"
And one more short story. I was having a small student jam in Brill's Barber Shop where I was still teaching in 2004. Bob is by now playing bass. I have a new fiddle student, Sandy, who can play a simple melody break to any song she can hear. She and her husband have recently retired to Winchester and she barely knows me and doesn't know Bob at all. After nine years of lessons, Bob and I had a comfortably cantankerous relationship and were going at it tooth and nail about something. Probably about him missing some bass notes. Finally Sandy asked, "Are you two married to each other?" "Just shoot me!" said Bob. "Ditto!" said I.
Bob's long tenure as a student was broken only twice. Once, when he had the insane idea to start working for the railroad and once when I raised my prices. That did not go well!
"Fifty dollars an hour? Jesus Christ! I don't make fifty dollars an hour."
"But, Bob, I don't work forty hours a week. I also have to pay for my own health insurance. And I don't have a pension plan!"
"I don't care. I'm not paying fifty dollars an hour for guitar lessons!"
So he quit. He stayed away for about a year. But eventually he came back. We forever more referred to that as our "divorce." I think we both missed each other!
Before he died, knowing that eventually I'd be writing this very blog, I asked Bob to jot down some thoughts about our lessons. This is what he wrote:
"Fact: I bought guitar new in 1995 I think, first approached you about lessons at barber shop in ’94 maybe. No openings at time. This went on until sometime in fall of ’95 before you had an opening.
(BS on my part) First lesson, you ask me if you could see my guitar. I said sure. (Being the pessimistic SOB I am, I’m thinking “this gal is thinking: this dumb-ass 50 some year old redneck will drop taking lessons in 6 months and I’ll buy that new guitar cheap. (Fooled you on that scheme didn’t I. Don’t laugh now, you asked me to help tell this story)."
OMG, that story tickles me! As many of you know, I'm probably the least instrument-aware person in professional bluegrass. I didn't give a rat's ass about Bob's guitar, other than I was glad he bought a Martin. I only asked to see it because I knew that he would expect me to! So, I am laughing now, Bobby, because it's so damn funny. And I wish you'd told me this earlier so we could have laughed about it together. I would have called you a "dumbass redneck" and you would have said, "Bullshit! You know you wanted that guitar!" And then I would have said, "The hell I did. Let's pick Salt Creek." (Knowing he hated Salt Creek!) And he would have said, "Where's the duct tape?" Meaning, he should have just kept his mouth shut.
Bobby, wherever you are, thanks for the friendship, thanks for the laughter, thanks for all the help you gave me whenever I needed it, thanks for all the calls to say, "Just checking in to see how you're doing. How's Red? How's Casey and Chris?" As Chris said to me when we were talking about you recently, "He's just about my favorite redneck." I agree with him. I am going to miss the hell out of you. In fact, I already do.
Here's the song we did that I loved the best, Step Off On That Beautiful Shore by Paul Williams. I loved your guitar break. (Readers, check this out on YouTube!)
Down here we have family reunions
Where we'll visit for just a short while
Then we'll part and we'll not see each other
For a year or more at a time
But someday when life here is over
And all of our troubles are o'er
There'll be an everlasting reunion
When I step off on that beautiful shore.
Someday (yes, someday)
I'll cross the river (cross the river)
And step off on that beautiful (beautiful shore)
After while (after while)
I'll see my Jesus (my Savior)
And live in His presence evermore (evermore)
I've got (yes I've got)
Lots of loved ones (friends and loved ones)
Who are waiting for me to come o'er (to come o'er)
I'll be (yes, I'll be)
There forever (yes forever)
When I step off on that beautiful (beautiful shore).
I'll see you again, my friend.