General

This month, in this Season of Giving, I want to share a story that my friend Ben Smelser wrote. Ben is a back-slidden banjo student, a bass player, and father of Tip Jar Jam fashionista Kasey Smelser. I’ve shared some of Ben’s wisdom before and I’ve also shared some of his non-wisdom, like the time he kept working on Fireball Mail after Casey Henry, his banjo teacher, told him not to!

The Universe dropped Ben into our lives when one of my students backed into tree alongside our driveway and I decided to have the offending object removed. (Tree, not student!) Thus, I stumbled onto Smelser’s Tree Service. This tree removal begat banjo lessons and which begat playmates for grandson Dalton (Ben, Kasey, and his grandson Cam), which begat a babysitter for Dalton (Kasey), which begat a friendship between two families. When we visited Ben’s family for a Fourth of July party, I admired the gorgeous table he’d made for his wife, Tina, and I said I’d love to have a table like that. Ben being Ben, the rest is history. Here is the story, originally handwritten, that Ben delivered along with the table.

I Am Your Table

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I am your table. If you are reading this, then I have made it into the home in which I will stay. You see, I wasn’t always like this. So take a second and admire my beauty.

Many years ago I stood tall and proud. I was a walnut tree in a family’s yard. I’ve seen many seasons come and go. I’ve survived powerful thunderstorms, crippling ice, blazing hot summers, droughts, and snow up to my first limb. My canopy was huge and it shaded the family home and the children who played under me. I’ve seen a lot. I’ve held the nest of many robins and watched the mother care for and nurture her young until they took flight. Squirrels would race across my limbs gathering nuts. Kids would swing from my branches. An old man napped in his hammock while I held him and I cherished that.

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by Dalton Henry age 3 3/4

by Dalton Henry
age 3 3/4

This weekend, my grandmother Murphy (alias Gran) and my mama Casey put on a big banjo camp. There were 14 banjo students there, which is a lot. (But I can count to more than that. I can count all the way to twenty-eight, twenty-nine, twenty-ten and twenty-eleven.)

Naturally, the best part of banjo camp is that I get to play with Granddaddy for three whole days. I get to do a lot of stuff. For example, I like to play with Tinkertoys. I really get into the intense Tinkertoys experience:

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I make lots of interesting shapes:

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Then whenever I want to, we can go outside and I can play with the hose. I do good work with the hose. I wash the swing set:

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I wash the Dinosaur Rock:

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I wash the tree:

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...and I wash the bushes. I am very careful about washing the leaves:

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Then we go back inside and I get dried off and we do some more stuff. I like to build robots with my blocks. This is a robot car which I made all by myself!

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In case you couldn't see it well enough in that picture, here it is again:

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And then, sometimes Granddaddy reads me a story. But is is more fun when I read HIM a story. I especially like the sound effects. Here I am reading the story of Oink, when it comes to the part where the greedy pig bites the fake apple (which is really a balloon):

Well, as you can see, we had a good time. And I forgot to tell you about the pillow-fights, or the time we spilled the peas, or other good stuff. Those will just have to wait till next time.

Love,

Dalton

 

XmasTree2014

Decorations by Dalton's direction!

On the 1st day of Christmas my true love gave to me,
a banjo in a pear tree!

On the 2nd day of Christmas my true love gave to me,
two mandolins and a banjo in a pear tree!

On the 3rd day of Christmas my true love gave to me,
three violins, two mandolins, and a banjo in a pear tree!

On the 4th day of Christmas my true love gave to me,
four good guitars, three violins, two mandolins, and a banjo in a pear tree!

On the 5th day of Christmas my true love gave to me,
five.....doghouse......basses! Four good guitars, three vi'lins, two mandolins, and a banjo in a pear tree!

On the 12th day of Christmas my true love gave to me:

12 jammers jamming

11 singers singing

10 tuners tuning

9 Dobros dancing

8 vampers vamping

7 chunkers chunking

6 cloggers clogging

5 doghouse basses

4 good guitars

3 violins

2 mandolins

And a banjo in a pear tree! (Hope it's a Stelling!)

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Hey, hey, hey! Our son Christopher is featured in the December issue of Bluegrass Unlimited magazine! The article talks about his band, Hardcore Grass (recently returned from a month-long tour in Australia, or Oz, as they seem to refer to it on Facebook) and also focuses quite a bit on Chris's songwriting. As some of you know, Chris wrote the song "Walking West To Memphis" which was recorded by the Gibson Brothers and was nominated for IBMA Song Of The Year in 2011. ChrisBUArticle

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Ten years ago when Casey and Chris were living in Nashville, struggling along as musicians without much ready cash, they decided to record a Christmas album for their family. After a couple of practices to decide which songs to include, the two of them gathered around Chris's computer in the living room of his apartment and laid down eight tradtional Christmas carols (instrumentals) and one Stanley Brothers' Christmas song with Chris on guitar and Casey on banjo.

The relatives loved it. (Murphy got tears in her eyes.) There were no plans to ever release this album commercially. Except for family and friends, no one has heard it. Every Christmas when Murphy first listens to it she calls both Casey and Chris to tell them how much she likes it and how good it is. (And she still gets choked up!)

When trying to think of a present for our customers we remembered this album. It has never been sold. The ONLY way to get this CD is as part of this free gift promotion. We thought it would be the perfect way to say "Thank You" to our students for sticking with us and keeping us in business all these years!

Every order this week (Dec 7-13, 2014) will include a free copy of the Casey and Chris Christmas album. Physical orders will get a CD in the package. Download orders will receive an email with the audio files.

Casey Henry

Casey Henry

At long last, and after MANY requests from people, I finally figured out how to get the blog to send people email when we make a new post. Just enter your email address in the box beneath the "Get Our Blogs By Email" headline to the right and you will receive each new post in your email box. Easy!!

This guest post is brought to us by Betty Fisher, who takes lessons from Casey and regularly attends the Tip Jar Jams.

So it’s New Year’s Eve and I am picking up my banjo for the first time in more days than I care to admit. (Sorry Casey and Murphy. You can kick me later.)

I had gone through my repertoire and have now capoed up to A. I don’t know what happened but somehow things got badly out of tune and I seriously over cranked the first string and it snapped. Scared the bejeebers out of me! (Couple of bad words flew.) So now I knew I had to re-string it. I had bought new strings on the advice of Murphy after the last jam that I attended. She told me if I was the least bit mechanically inclined, I could do it on my own. I am mechanically inclined. Having been a previous surgical nurse, there were many occasions when I had to get a malfunctioning piece of equipment working again in the middle of surgery while a surgeon stomped his feet and yelled, “Just fix it!” Also there is a very embarrassing story (for my husband) about a broken washing machine that he couldn’t fix, but I did in about 5 minutes….but I digress.

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The blog theme we were using started to not display our blog title, so we had to change. It's still a work in progress, so bear with us. All the content is still here, though!!

...and it looks the same again! Still going back and forth!!

Thanks for your patience!

Casey

Making My Way To You
Peter Rowan Tour - a PG report from the road - Part One
November 9, 2013 at 7:36pm
I've really been looking forward to this trip for a long time. Peter's album, The Old School, came out in spring of this year, and this is really our first tour for it. Yungchen Lhamo, is a wonderful friend that we met at the Leaf Festival in North Carolina. Peter and Yungchen hit it off with their connection to spiritual music and Buddhism and Yungchen has brought a great balancing energy to our performances with her zen improvisational style of singing. She's also really funny, thoughtful, and is really easy to be around.

Our first gig was up near Maggie Valley, North Carolina at the Cataloochee Ranch. Keith and I flew into Raleigh on Sunday night, and drove up there. We stayed in a wonderfully comfortable and cozy ranch style wood and stone lodge that had been built back in the 30's by a family that still runs the place. Waking up there the next morning felt a little like Christmas with the fire burning, lots of food, and good vibes. We met Peter downstairs for lunch and played some tunes, and caught up.

There were two supper seatings for about 30-40 people each and the food that was served was excellent. At supper we talked about what we should do, to kind of make a plan. That is an interesting somewhat ossilating subject because Peter is a fellow who doesn't like to hem things in and rather enjoys the zen and spontaneity of the exploration in the moment. But we did need to go over a couple things and had a few minutes before the show to mull it over.

Yungchen showed us one of her new songs of which the subject was the secret moment of revelation that comes when you never expected something to happen and it happens. We clearly didn't have the vibe right at first, much too common bluegrassy. She has a very effective and calm way of directing us to access more of the spiritual energy that is required to help express the sentiment. She said things like "You must feel the Earth, and when you like it, we go on to the next part." The phrasing was not square, and although the melody was fairly simple, almost like an American old-time mountain melody, the ornaments were subtle and beautiful and the vibe was intense, perhaps nocturnal, looming, and expansive like a blanket that was rolling out through the night. We did the best we could and had our work cut out for us there. It's really different, challenging, and enjoyable to pay so much precise and careful attention to the zen vibe of this Tibetan spiritual music and to see how that carries across into the rest of Peter's music, and hopefully some of my own music too.

Our concert that night was an all acoustic one with just Peter, Keith, Yungchen and myself. The audience was mostly folks who live up that way and they were quite receptive to our show and many even got up and danced on the finale. I think that was the first time Yungchen had danced to american-hillbilly music, it was great. I put together a short compilation of some of the best moments and uploaded it to Facebook. Peter and I scarfed up on six or seven different delicious desserts after the concert before joining a small group of folks in front of the fire for a really enjoyable conversation about Monroe, bluegrass and mountain music.

The next day I had a really nice horseback ride up to the high ridge called Hemphill Bald which looked out for a hundred miles through the Smokey Mountains in the area that was named by the Cherokee indians, Cataloochee, or "wave upon wave", of mountains. It was gorgeous. I was a little bit embarrassed and sorry when I got back and Peter and Keith were waiting with their bags at the door to leave, the ride had taken about 2 and a half hours, somewhat longer that I had thought it might be. It was about 12:30 and we rode up to Asheville for lunch and loaded in at ISIS that afternoon.

Asheville is a hippy town in a way that has a a bunch of enthusiastic folks who were ready to drink and have a good time. They have a regular bluegrass night on Tuesdays and some good local musicians opened the show up. I got to see my aunt Claire and her friends, and a couple of other folks that live around the Asheville area. It was the first time that I tried to set up Yungchen's nice camera to tape the show. It was awkward trying to find a spot right before the show that would have a clear view amongst the crowd that was already hanging out. Once I did find a spot, it was hard to tell if the angle would be sufficient to capture the whole band because there was no one on stage. Yungchen would gently encourage me to do better the next day. The crowd was loud and we played two sets and had a good time.

We went on down to Athens the next day - about a 3 and a half hour drive. The promoter fellow, Adriane, has a club called the New Earth there. The stage had some nice reclaimed wood, and there was some psychedelic original art on the walls. We had a good little jam before the show working up Little Rabbit and one of Peter's friends brought a nice Weber mandocello around and we had fun with a little jam outside. I had been singing one of my songs on most of the shows since a couple months back. This night I couldn't get it going, I was trying to play it too fast, and it ended up just being a little wonky and that threw me off a little bit funky for the rest of the night. Peter suggested that I slow it down to give it a more grand treatment.

The hotels we're staying in are nice, usually the Country Inn and Suites. Good rooms that don't smell funky, with wifi - what more could a 21st century bluegrass musician want. The drives are manageable and it seems like we always get at least an hour or two of downtime every day to catch a quick nap. Paul, Michael, and myself have been riding in the van, and Keith, Peter, and Yungchen in the Charger.

The next day we hauled up to Charleston to the Pour House, about four and a half hours. I played the guys what Sarah and I have been working on and they were gracious listeners. It's always good to hear the music in a new sound system, I can tell some things sonically about the music, where to relieve some compression, etc. Mike played some good tunes off his laptop including one new tune he was working on and also some good live Stanley brothers including "They Say Love is Blind, But I See Through You." Hard to beat that.

The Charleston show was interesting. It was another rock club. We had a good meal beforehand, and started the show about 45 minutes after we were scheduled, a late hour of 10:45. Leftover Salmon had played two nights in a row before us and I think a lot of the young hippy crowd was fairly spent from chasing the elusion. Usually Peter has been starting out solo, then introducing Yungchen, then blowing a conch shell while we come out to start playing the Methodist Preacher. He'll bring Yungchen out early and introduce her, and she frequently does an offering, then they'll do a couple together. We slowed my song down quite a bit, and I just reproached it mentally from a go with it don't try to make it something it's not trying to do mentality. I have never sung a song that slowly on stage, but I really enjoyed it. It made me really concentrate on getting good tone and staying in the moment. I loved it and it went over much better and I got a slap on the back from Peter which made me feel good.

We've been doing a healthy smattering of songs of Peter's new CD, The Old School. Usually the title cut, often Drop the Bone, Letter From Beyond, Ragged Old Dream, and occasionally Oh, Freedom. Keith usually sings a good old Stanley brothers tune like Little Maggie or On a Lonesome Night and we've been doing Panama Red on almost every show. Mike has been doing Gold Rush a good bit and did Cherokee Shuffle one time. Padma Sambade is one that Yungchen sings with us on and the closer is usually Land of the Navaho, and then sometimes we'll follow that with Midnight Moonlight. A couple of other tunes that we have done are Lonesome L.A. Cowboy and one time we did Mississippi Moon. After the break, Peter said "Let's go back out there and have some fun." Which was a great mantra for me the second set, because it's easy to try to hard and miss the real muse, and to go out having that fresh on the ears helped me remember what the goal was.

Our timing has been getting a lot better, and we reached a new level of precision on this particular gig. We had been experiencing some nice pockets here and there and by the time we got halfway through the set I was dialed right in on Peter's right hand and started to intuit in a natural way where his groove was. As we were playing The Walls of Time, I was able to really understand what Peter meant when he said he became the Walls of Time, because there it was - the groove locked and in this nothing happening everywhere moment I felt like, at least for a bit that I had stopped scaring off the wildlife and was able to be a welcome walker in the forest.

Augusta, Georgia was our next stop. I watched the new documentary about Peter called "The Tao of Bluegrass" in the van on the way to the venue. I was really inspired to see Peter talk about the music, and hear other great musicians talk about Peter. What he has done with regard to his own spiritual work and how he has been able to put so much of that feeling into his songs that he shares is absolutely astounding. He has searched and explored, had revelations, and opened his heart tempered with his formative bluegrass experience to channel universal truth in an accessible, fascinating, and compelling way. I was stoked when we got to the place.

The Imperial Theatre is a really nice old building with an excellent sound system. It's got a big old ceiling and a large balcony and it was a big change to go from lots of loud people in a loud rock club to a classy soft-seater theatre like that. Unfortunately the word did not get out too well in town and the audience was little and not so loud. But, we had some good moments and I especially enjoyed the quintet on Let Me Walk Lord By Your Side. After the show, Yungchen said, "Let's make song." She's always wanting to make some new music, and I love going on the improvisational explorations with her. I was happy on this one because it was just the two of us and I felt like I had more freedom do move around in different chords a little bit because usually we just rock on the one the whole time, which works and gives her plenty of space to do her thing. This time I was happy to be able to sing lots of melodies with her and the funniest thing was that it ended up being a song about chicken which we had eaten all day. That's a testament to Yungchen's sense of humor. We start out with a hybrid Tibetan/Appalachian mountain spiritual offering and it turns into a silly freestyle song about eating chicken. I love it.

Chris Henry

There are so many different musical situations in Nashville. Often times I find myself surrounded by the best of the world-class professionals, and many other times I like to jam with folks who just do it for fun. There is an event right outside of town called the Full Moon Pickin' Party, and it was a continuation of a party that got started in the 80's by our lawyer friend and bluegrass enthusiast, Ted Walker.

The party is located in a beautiful section of Percy Warner park and is attended by several hundred folks every full moon. They have a stage set up and bands play from about 7-11, but the main attraction for most of the folks that come is the jamming. It costs $20 for a regular adult admission, but only $5 if one shows up with a qualified musical instrument.

I rode with some friends and got to the park about 9:30 and walked in to see a whole lot of people had showed up as it was a very pleasant Friday evening with perfect weather and a huge Supermoon beaming beautifully overhead. I made the usual rounds and took in the lay of the land as it were.

Johnny Campbell, an ardent Bill Monroe style bluegrass fiddler was there with his dad, Bob, and we started off with "The Old Mountaineer". I rarely get to play those tunes and so that was fun. We then played "The Lonesome Old Farmer", a tune that I had learned off Johnny's brother, Jimmy's album that featured Monroe on the mandolin. Another fine moment.

My buddy Adam Olmstead, my favorite songwriter under 50, is visiting for a couple of months from New Brunswick, and we sang "Sweetheart of Mine". That was the first song we ever sang together one night at the Station Inn about seven or eight years ago. He usually sings lead, but this night I rendered the verses and sang lead on the chorus. Next, we did the Delmore Brothers tune, "Here Today, Gone Tomorrow", a good jam number that is easy to follow. Then I saw Ted Walker.

Ted and I visited and reminisced for a while until he said something to the effect of, "you better get back in there". One of the party's only drawbacks is that it ends promptly at 11pm and that's right when a lot of people are just getting warmed up. So I took his advice and came back to assume my position in the jam.

I took a mandolin break on whatever was playing when I got back - I can't remember. I dug in and played hard and loud and the crowd responded, and that was satisfying. We got through with that number and someone asked me to sing, so I thought quickly, then launched into the most recent tune I have learned, the Stanley Brothers' "Paint the Town".

I started the tune out by playing the verse and then I sang a verse and chorus to realize that it wasn't a number the folks were very familiar with, and so when the break after the chorus came around, I went into "Say Won't You Be Mine", which I thought would be more familiar. I've had good luck switching tunes at the blink of a hat recently with my band, and I was feeling confident that the switch could be made easily. Wrong!!

At these parties, not only is it a little raucous with jams going on every ten feet or so, but the adults of 21 years have the opportunity to consume four complimentary beers with the price of admission. So, folks weren't entirely sober to say the least. When I realized that half of the people were still playing the chords to the original song I had kicked off, I thought it would be a good idea to use my hands to show everybody what chords were in the new selection. Wrong!!

The first chord in "Say Won't You Be Mine" is a G chord. It's also what we call the "one" chord in the Nashville numbers system which is used on stage in tight spots but mostly in the studio to write chord charts for folks who have never heard or played the song being recorded before. When I raised my hand to communicate the "one" chord, two things happened: I had to quit playing the mandolin for a moment. and also, with my monodigital articulation, I inadvertently communicated to several that what I wanted was for people to stop playing, as in the one finger meant - "Hold on a second!".

So with half of the people in the jam stopping, the momentum of the song had ceased, the song was awkwardly and uncomfortably ended, and I had earned another lesson in what not to do in that situation. Next time I will most likely, A) Play songs that I am quite certain will be more accessible(Rollin' My Sweet Baby's Arms, How Mountain Girls Can Love, etc.), and B) Don't assume people are going to know what I am doing if I hold up a finger in hopes of communicating the right chords.

These are a couple of lessons that I am surprised I had not fully comprehended and put into practice, but it just goes to show, that in the thick of things, it's easy to forget simple things that help avoid getting into a jam within a jam!