General

The great J.D. Crowe passed away on December 24, 2021, at 84 years old. He was the biggest influence on my banjo playing right after Earl Scruggs. I spent literally hours trying to get my pull-offs to sound like his. I learned many of his classic songs including "Train 45" and "Blackjack" and his break to "Crying Holy." I was fortunate to get to meet him in 2003 when both of us were teaching at a banjo camp in California. Casey was there too, as a camp helper and gofer. In one of my classes, I needed her to help me by playing guitar, so I sent a runner down the hill to fetch her. The runner came back empty handed. No Casey! Why not? She was helping J.D. Crowe in his class! Or maybe she was just attending his class. At any rate, she would not budge. Not even for her Mama! How could I fault her for that? It was J.D. Crowe!!! Of course, I wrote about the experience. Rereading this now makes me happy that I got to know J.D. just a little bit, and sad that he is gone. I offer this now as my tribute to him. Rest in peace, J.D.

 

WHAT WOULD J.D. DO?
(Reprinted with permission from Banjo Newsletter magazine)

I’ve been a fan of J.D. Crowe all my bluegrass life. The first banjo break I ever learned from a record was J.D.’s break to “Somehow Tonight” on the Rambling Boy album. So it seems amazing that a few weeks ago, at the J.D. Crowe Banjo Camp in Northern California, which was organized by Bill Evans, I was playing guitar and singing “Somehow Tonight” while J.D. picked the banjo. Thank you, Universe! Thank you, Bill Evans!

By then, Sunday afternoon, I had gotten pretty used to being around J.D. and was no longer petrified to pick with him or talk to him. I had gotten “thrown into the fire,” so to speak, at our first rehearsal when I had to join J.D. in picking “Train 45” with him sitting not five feet in front of me. Bill Evans was picking too, but I can handle Bill. Our styles are completely different. (Did I hear you murmuring “thank god,” Bill? Tsk, tsk tsk.) But I had learned to pick “Train 45” from a Crowe recording and was still basically playing it “like J.D. done it.” That works fine as long as J.D. is not in the room with you doing the same thing only better! Fortunately J.D. has a way of making you feel comfortable in a picking situation. He’s relaxed, easy going, takes everything in stride, likes to kid around, and is actually very supportive of the other players. In California-speak, his aura is kind. I suppose it’s significant that the song “Little Drummer Boy” is coming to mind as I write this: “Then He smiled at me, pah-rump-a-pum-pum, me and my drum.” Make the obvious substitution and you’ll have a pretty good idea of how I felt.

Meanwhile, J.D’s son David, 23, who had come along to handle CD sales, had fallen asleep in his chair. As we left the house, I kidded David about falling asleep while his dad was playing. “Aw,” he said, “I hear him pick “Train 45” all the time. Besides, it’s after midnight in God’s country.” “God’s country” is how David would refer to Kentucky, his home state, all weekend. Pretty soon I found myself asking him, “What time is it in God’s country, David?”

In the title of this column I asked the question “What would J.D. do?” Here’s one illustrative answer. Laurie Lewis (bass), Tom Rozum (mandolin), Alan Senuake (guitar), and Chad Manning (fiddle) were serving as the backup band for the two concerts we would be giving. (Some backup band!) At rehearsal, after they ran through “Sin City,” “I’ll Stay Around,” “Blackjack,” and “Old Home Place” with J.D. someone suggested that Laurie sing “Crying Holy.” She was willing, with one caveat: “I’ll have to sing it in D.” Implicit in that response (I think) was the knowledge that J.D. had recorded the song in B, which meant he was playing out of G position. Now, his kickoff—a killer kickoff—is the defining element in the song. To play in D—whether he played in D position or C position—he’d have to change the kickoff. (Or capo up seven frets, which I didn’t think he’d do.) What he did speaks volumes about his character and the way he views the music: he never hesitated for a moment. He just grabbed his capo, put it on at the second fret and starting working up a new kickoff out of C position. It took a few tries until he was satisfied, but when he had it, it was outstanding. I was so impressed. You see, with J.D., the overall band sound comes first. And he always defers to the singer.

Shift now to Sunday afternoon. Camp is winding down. I am teaching the Beginning Level class. All weekend we have been working on vamping I, IV, and V chords in different keys. Without a capo. Today we were learning to vamp to “Old Home Place” in the Key of G because it’s a J.D. Crowe standard and has two “off” chords in it: A and B. (Or as Janet Davis might say, “A II chord and a III chord.”) Normally I sing while the students vamp, but I have to keep things interesting for me, too, so I decided to play a banjo break. (And pretend I was J.D.!) Then I had an epiphany. (It was Sunday, you know. Epiphanies are allowed.) We had a group session coming up with J.D. What if J.D. himself were to play “Old Home Place” and the students were to vamp along? Then they could all go home and say that they’d played with J.D. Crowe. I got tears in my eyes just thinking about it! The students loved the idea! I cautioned them: “I’ll have to clear it with Bill and with J.D.” They understood.

I figured it would be okay with Bill. He is one of the most enthusiastic and cooperative people I’ve ever worked with. J.D., team player that he is, said it would be okay with him. I told him he’d have to play it really slow for the beginners. He understood. So, all the teachers, including Ron Block and Casey Henry, are sitting in front of the whole camp; everyone has their banjos out. I have the guitar. I tell the students what they are going to do (vamp), then I turn to J.D. and say (I loved this part!), “Kick it off, J.D.” “How fast do you want it?” he says. I strum the guitar really slowly. He immediately says, “No, that’s too fast!” I told you he’s a kidder. We arrive at a tempo and he kicks it off. I sing the first verse. Everyone is vamping. When it comes to the end of the verse, I listen expectantly for that classic Crowe fill in. Nothing. “Aren’t you going to put in some fill in?” I ask petulantly. “Oh,” says J.D., “you want me to do some fill in?” “Yes!” “Do it again,” he says firmly. “It’s been ten long years since I left my home....” And then J.D. is all over the neck with That Signature Sound. And Bill, Ron, Casey, and I are about to split our faces grinning because it sounds SO GOOD and we are playing with J.D. Crowe. The students are in hog heaven because THEY are playing with J.D. Crowe, and J.D. is handling all this collective worship with much dignity. He’s just doing his job, calmly and serenely, playing the banjo. Is this guy classy or what?

Shift now to Monday night and our concert at the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley. I was going to do my original song “Fried Chicken.” As part of the song, when I get to the chorus, the band yells “fried chicken!” with me. I had done the song at the concert on Saturday night, and when I came off stage, J.D. told me that I should have yelled “fried rabbit!” (It’s a Southern thing...) So Monday night I was on stage doing the song with Laurie, Tom, and Chad while the rest of the musicians were in the warm-up room behind the stage. When I got to the chorus, I noticed the audience was really cracking up over the shouts of “fried chicken.” But it wasn’t until the last chorus when I heard shouts of “fried rabbit!” that I knew that J.D., the trickster, had been up to something. Unbeknownst to me, he and the other players—Bill Evans, Alan Senauke, and, if you can believe this, David Grisman!—had snuck out during the song, crouched down behind a low wall at the back of the stage, and had been popping up yelling “fried rabbit” and then popping back down. That’s why the audience was in hysterics. It was exactly like something you would see on Hee Haw! To think I have lived long enough to be pranked upon by J.D. Crowe. I owe you, J.D. Watch your back!

When it was time to fly home, Bill dropped J.D., David, and me off at the airport. As Bill was trying to slide into a parking spot, I heard David softly singing the Mickey Mouse song: “Now it’s time to say goodbye....” and I finished it up with “to all our family.” I honestly felt like I was leaving part of my family. There were big hugs all the way around: David, Bill, J.D. David had given me three of J.D.’s CDs, and I had given David (if you can believe this) my Beginning Banjo DVD! (He’d told me he was learning to play the banjo.)

Since I’ve been home I’ve been wearing out my Jimmy Martin “Big and Country Instrumentals” album and my J.D. Crowe “Live in Japan” CD. What a weekend! As we say here in the Shenandoah Valley, J.D. is “a prince of a fellow.” Or as banjo picking Jim Fee would say, “He’s a dandy!” Thankyoubillevans, thankyoubillevans, thankyoubillevans. I’m already looking forward to the next one!

I’m sure you all have heard by now of the passing of the great banjo player
Sonny Osborne. As a tribute to Sonny, I’m writing an article for Bluegrass
Unlimited magazine based on Sonny’s Banjo Newsletter column. It was
called “Keep on The Sonny Side,” and every month Sonny answered
questions that readers would send in.

So…… that gave me the idea that I could follow in his footsteps and do the
same thing. So we’re gonna give this a try. And since “Keep On The Murphy
Side” doesn’t have much of a ring to it, we’re just gonna call it, “Ask
Murphy.”

If you have a question you want to ask me, email it to
themurphymethod@gmail.com. If you do NOT want me to use your
name in my answer, please say so, otherwise I will assume that it’s okay.

Sonny said in his first column, “Any questions you would will ask, I’ll try to
answer.” I’m not sure I can be that bold, but I will try to answer any
questions relating to learning by ear, banjos, bluegrass, jam sessions, and
my book about women in bluegrass, Pretty Good for a Girl. Looking forward
to hearing from you!

Also: I still have room for a few more students. Either online (Zoom or Skype) or in person. Email me at murphybanjo@gmail.com  or text 540-533-9685. Beginners most welcome. I also teach guitar and beginning mandolin.

I don’t remember who sent me this photo of Janet Davis and me, but
apparently this was (or is?) an exhibit at the American Banjo Museum in
Oklahoma City, Okla. I knew nothing about it! I am honored, however, to
have been featured. If anyone knows anything about this, please let us
know! The museum includes banjos of all types, not just the five-string.
Here’s the link to their site: https://americanbanjomuseum.com/

By Red Henry

Ever since we founded the Murphy Method in 1982, one thing we’ve been proud of has been customer loyalty. Many, many of our Murphy Method students keep ordering lessons year after year, and we appreciate all that repeat business.

Some customers may take off several years, and then come back and order again. It often happens that people take off four or five years in their lessons before resuming them. Sometimes it is a ten-year gap. One day a man called who had ordered some audiocassettes fifteen years before, saying that one of them had gone bad. Fortunately it was still in print, and he was amazed when we replaced it for free.

But we recently had a record-breaker:

A customer in New England ordered some of our audiocassette series in 1989 and 1990. After that we did not hear from him until last month, when he called and ordered a DVD. That was an astounding gap of THIRTY YEARS between orders! But when he called us, of course we were glad to do business again.

Don’t wait 30 years yourself! Order any time. Murphy Method DVDs are waiting for you!

I thought I’d add a word or two here to Casey’s always-excellent newsletter, just to let you know how we’re faring at Murphy Method headquarters (aka Our House) during this stay-at-home time.

I’m missing my Tip Jar Jam! I miss hearing David sing In The Pines with the “woo woos” at the end, just like Bill Monroe done it. 😉 I miss singing Where The Soul Of A Woman Never Dies with Kathy. I even miss hearing Banjo In The Hollow!

Both Casey and I were bummed to have to cancel our Intermediate Camp this month. We had so much fun stuff planned: Geoff Stelling, The Fly Birds, Karaoke, Gregg and Chuck’s band (back by popular demand!), food from Bonnie Blue, a singing workshop with David McLaughlin, jamming, Murphy and Casey’s Sunday Morning Gospel Show. We still have our fingers crossed for our July Women’s Camp, but we’ll just have to wait and see.

Like many of you, I am mourning the loss of John Prine. The Tip Jar Jammers are already planning a John Prine Night when we get back together. We were already occasionally doing Speed of the Sound of Loneliness, Souvenirs, Spanish Pipedream (aka Blow Up Your TV), and Paradise. Now some of the Jammers, having time on their hands, are learning other Prine songs so we can celebrate his life.

On the non-musical front, Red and I killed quite a few hours re-watching all the Harry Potter movies and now I’m rereading all the books. Just finished Goblet of Fire this morning. Now my TV time is taken up with the new season of Dr. Who, which I am somewhat ambivalent about.

I’m also trying to keep focused on the biography of Maybelle Carter I started writing in January. But, I’ll admit, it’s hard to find the energy. So, I try to be kind to myself and just do what I can do.

Also, like many of you, I’m getting really good at using the Zoom app! I’ve found the “mute button” and the “gallery view”! I use Zoom to take online yoga, which I love. Now if the poses are too hard (Firefly? Plow? Shoulder Stand?), I can revert to Child’s Pose and nobody can see me! I’m also trying to walk almost every day, which is easier now that it’s warmer. I’ve discovered listening to Podcasts on my phone with earbuds makes me more likely to get out the door, so I feel very “with it,” being able to do all these complicated techy things. Yesterday, I listened to an interview with Iris Dement and I remembered how much I love her music. Might have to download her latest album, IDK.

Since Red and I are some of the “olds” (a term my niece came up with and I have embraced), we are being extry careful about going out and when we have to go out, we wear our masks and carry hand sanitizer. And when we come back in, we wash our hands like crazy. Thankfully, we are able to limit our trips to town because my former banjo and guitar student turned singer/songwriter Kasey Smelser is doing our grocery shopping. She leaves them on the front porch and then we visit from six feet away! Thank you, Kasey!

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go online and order a T-shirt that says, “May Birthday 2020. The one when we were quarantined.”

And then it’s time to Maybelle. I hope. Well, maybe after lunch. Or after my nap…

Stay safe, y’all.

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

img_5847
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.

...continue reading

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

...continue reading

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.