Red Henry

When you're learning to play, or even after you've been playing for a long time, there's a natural tendency to play your newest tunes. After all, they're new and much more exciting than your OLD ones. But you can get bored if you only play the tunes you learned most recently, and your musical skills can suffer.

When you're practicing, or even when you're picking with other folks, remember to play your old tunes too. This does several good things. Among them: (1) You keep your fingers playing a wider variety of licks and melodies. (2) Your friends will enjoy the variety when you dig up a tune from the past. (3) You have the pleasure of re-discovering a great tune or song you'd almost forgotten.

But one of the best things about picking your old tunes, is that it keeps your brain working. If you play just half a dozen or so songs all the time, it's easy to get into a musical rut and stay there for years. Instead, consciously go back and find tunes and songs you used to play. Keep learning new tunes too. Go through our Slow Jam DVDs and remember some songs you used to like. Your brain will like it, and your picking friends will thank you for it!


Red Henry

I'm just back from Hiawassee, Georgia, where I was one of the judges at the Georgia State Fiddlers Convention. There were contests for fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin, Dobro, and other instruments, so we did probably 15 hours of judging over two days.

The judges, along with contest MC Barry Palmer and friends, played a set of music each day-- after all, since we were judging the contest, we needed to show that we could play! Our Saturday set went real well (no surprise, since the five people on stage probably had 150 or 200 years of professional musical experience between them), and afterwards I was talking with Chuck Nation, another of the judges, about how much fun our set was. Chuck expresses himself very well, and he commented about playing in a band: "The difference between amateurs and professionals, is that amateurs are competing with each other, and professionals are helping each other." Well said!

I've talked about it before on this blog, but Chuck's comment really put it down plainly where we can understand it. If you're playing in a group-- on stage or off-- are you listening? Are you trying every second to help the BAND (not just yourself) sound as good as possible? Are you playing so as to support the other musicians, not just to make yourself sound good? Your level of proficiency doesn't matter, and plenty of people who can play well don't play in a professional manner, in this respect!

You may be an amateur player, but you can play in a professional way. Think about it.


Murphy Henry

I thought I’d ease back into the blogging groove by trying to find some connection between my latest passion—square dancing (been at it a year now!)—and banjo playing.

We started a new square dancing class in Winchester last week (first two classes FREE! Y’all come!) and four of my students earned stars in their crowns by coming out for the event. Fiddle sister Sandy declined to get on the floor but gamely stayed for the whole two hours, watching us whirling and twirling. Thanks, Sandy. I felt supported.

Fiddle sister Robyn honored her promise of months ago (given under some duress while we were hiking) and came, thinking she too would sit out and talk to Sandy but I said, “No, no. That’s not what you promised. Saying you would come implied that you would come dance. If I tell you I’m going hiking with you that doesn’t mean I’m going to sit at the trailhead and watch you hike.” So, she danced. And had a good time. But she’s already told me she just can’t add one more activity to her already busy schedule. Maybe another time. Logan, beast that he is, did not come. But he was working his part-time job at Chick-Fil-A so he is somewhat forgiven. (Exciting news about Logan: he was nominated for Homecoming King at Winchester’s Handley High School! Go, Logan!)

Susan and Bill Morrison, banjo and bass students, also showed up and danced all night long. I was Bill’s “angel” [partner who already knows how to dance] and danced with him most of the night. Both he and Susan caught on quickly and they said they’d be back. They were surprised at how vigorous the dancing was and both thought it was good exercise.

And then there were Liesel (rhymes with “diesel” and “weasel” she says) and Lars (rhymes with “bars”), a twenty-something couple who showed up. I was in Chicos shopping one day and one of the sales clerks ask me how my square dancing was going. I said “Fine” and then Liesel, who was working the register, chimed in and said, “Square dancing? I’d love to learn to square dance!” (She had just gotten back from the big Clifftop Old-Time Music Festival and was smitten.) I immediately said, “There’s a class starting here in Winchester next month.” I gave her all the info and then said, “Give me your number and I’ll call and remind you.” Which I did. But she and her fiancé, Lars, had remembered all by themselves and were already planning to come. And they were SO enthusiastic. And adorable. And did I say young?

Then I found out that Lars is—can you believe it?—an old-time fiddle player. So, this Thursday he is going to bring his fiddle and I am going to bring my—guess what?—banjo and we are going to pick some in between dances. He told me he has a great love for “crooked” tunes (which usually means extra beats per measure when you’re not expecting them!). I told him I’d do my best to follow him. So we will see......

I realize this is a stretch, writing about square dancing and working banjo playing into the corners. But, hey, it’s a start!

Red Henry

"When should I change my strings?" That's a question we often hear. New strings usually sound better, but there are as many answers to this question as there are musicians. Some things that you can consider are:

1. There's no 'official' time to change strings. I used to change the strings on two guitars and two mandolins every day when we played bluegrass festivals, but Bill Monroe changed his strings once a year-- at New Year's-- and from then on, he just changed them when they broke (which was pretty often, by summertime).

2. Some people like the sound of old strings. Our Cousin David loves the sound (or lack of it) that old strings have, and would probably prefer never to play on new-sounding strings. I think that brand-new strings can sound a bit tinny, myself, but sometimes-- such as when I have a big stage show to play, or a noisy party gig or bar gig where there's going to be plenty of musical stress and challenge-- I'll make sure at least that my strings aren't too old.

3. Generally speaking, newer strings make your instrument get in tune (and stay in tune) better. This is because (a) a new string isn't worn from playing and is still about the same diameter from one end to the other, so it "frets" more in tune; (b) the string is not very corroded yet, so it slides through the nut-slots and bridge-slots more smoothly as you twist the tuners; and (c) the lack of rougher, corroded surfaces on the string make its vibrations more coherent so you (or your electronic tuner) can hear the string's note better. Also, new strings (or preferably a day or two old. so they're "stretched" and stable) are usually better for recording, because getting exact tuning, and having the strings stay there, is really critical if you're in a recording session.

. . . . .

So those are some things you can think about.

Editor's Note: For even more detailed info on this topic, you can see Red's previous post on this same topic.

This is one in our continuing occasional series of excerpts from Murphy’s Banjo Newsletter articles. This is from the September 1990 issue, and appears on page 127 of Murphy’s book …And There You Have It! If you're a long-time Red and Murphy fan you're recognize the events in this column as inspiration for Murphy's song "How They Loved To Sing."

When I was little, growing up in northeast Georgia, we spent a lot of time going to church. As many people in Georgia did, we attended the Baptist Church. My favorite part of church was the singing. I could have a good time just looking through the hymn book. I was always very conscious of the songs we sang, and some of them I liked better than others. The Sunday morning selection of songs was never high on my list because, for one thing, we didn't do enough of them. I mean it was like, poof, two songs and then they were taking up the offering. In addition, the songs we did sing were too formal, to staid, too lifeless: "Crown Him With Many Crowns"; "All Hail The Power Of Jesus' Name"; "Holy, Holy, Holy." They were good for practicing your alto and for seeing how many versus you could sing without looking at the book, but that was about it. There was no joy.

Sunday evening was better because it was more relaxed. The men came without their coats (although not without their ties), and the ladies came without their hats, the choir forsook their robes, and the singing was "all together lovely." (Sorry. I couldn't resist. "All Together Lovely" is a song that only the most dedicated Southern Baptist would recognize.) Sunday evening was when we did the good singing: "Washed In The Blood"; "The Old Rugged Cross"; "Amazing Grace"; "Glory To His Name"; and maybe even "When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder", although we didn't do that one much because it generated too much toe-tapping. And you know where toe-tapping leads. Straight into dancing. And that is a no-no. Now, those were some songs you could put your heart into. But, even those songs paled alongside the singing that the folks did at our family reunion.

The Hicks-Sisk Reunion was held each August, the hottest month in the Georgia year, at a little country church that my Granddaddy Hicks had attended as a boy. The road leading to Amy's Creek Baptist was red Georgia clay, the cardboard fans found on the back of the pine pews were from the local funeral home, and a Sears Roebuck catalog graced the outhouse, which was a three seater.

I always rode to the reunion with Granddaddy and Grandmother so I could get there early without having to wait on Mama and Daddy who usually arrived at dinner time (that's lunch time to you) with my younger sisters and our portion of dinner on the ground. Getting there early meant I had to sit through a fire and brimstone sermon, but it was worth it because to get to the sermon you had to go through the singing. And those people could flat out sing. They were still using the old Stamps-Baxter paperback hymnals with the shaped notes and they sang all the good songs: "I'll Fly Away"; "Precious Memories"; "Life's Railway To Heaven"; "Farther Along"; "Just A Little Talk With Jesus"; "On The Jericho Road". It was the custom at that little church to invite everybody in the congregation to sing in the choir (otherwise they wouldn't have had a choir). Not wishing to appear to anxious, I always said "no" two or three times, just to be polite, you know, before I gave in. At the time, I hardly knew any of the songs but that didn't bother me. I made a joyful noise as loud as any of them. They didn't care.

After the preaching we would adjourn to the outside where already some of the ladies would be spreading out their tablecloths on the raw pine boards stretched between saw horses in one continuous long line. They would open the trunks of their cars and bring forth picnic baskets and pasteboard boxes full of fried chicken [Editor's note: no Kentucky Fried for them, no ma'am!], potato salad, green beans, homemade rolls, watermelon rind preserves, chocolate cake, and every good Southern delicacy that you could think of. We would eat until we were about to pop and wash it all down with Dixie cups full of iced tea or lemonade.

When all the eating was over and the tables had been cleared and the men had finished smoking, someone would toll the church bell and back into the church we would all go for my absolutely favorite part of the whole day: more singing. This was the time when you could call out the number of the song you wanted to sing: "Never Grow Old" (Number 210); "Come Unto Me" (142); "Victory In Jesus" (92). Different men would get up and lead the congregation in singing their favorite song. Granddaddy would always lead "Amazing Grace". When things started to wind down someone would get up and mention by name all the relatives who had passed away since our last reunion. Then we would sing "That Glad Reunion Day" (Number 300) and it was over. Except, of course, for more visiting and the lengthy Southern goodbyes. Those are my musical roots. This is where my musical soul lies. When the single exception of having to wear a dress, it was just about a perfect day.

[The article continues on to tell about going back to Amy's Creek many years later with her kids. But if you want to read that, you'll just have to get the book!]

Casey Henry

Because I have NO ideas for what to blog about today, here's a picture instead. Amy Harrison and the Secondhand Stringband shared the stage with us when we played at Cold Dog Soup in England a couple weeks back. Their banjo player, Malc McLeod is a Banjo Newsletter subscriber and was excited to meet me. (As I've previously mentioned, he brought me beer!) On the band's site they've posted a picture of the two of us, along with Rachel Renee Johnson, the fiddler for the Dixie Bee-Liners. Take a look at it here. Not a bad shot, if I do say so myself. And I do.

Casey Henry

. . . actually, two funny things happened yesterday. Only the first is topical for this blog, but I’m going to tell you about both of them anyway.

When I sat down Sunday morning to check my email, I thought it was going to be quick: in and out and I’d be on my way to Kroger to get jar lids so I could make apple jelly (Murphy’s favorite!). But I’d been getting some comments lately from people who said “I tried to email you,” whose messages I’d never received. Usually all my email from my five different addresses lands in one Gmail account so I can check it all in one place. I don’t know what it was this particular morning that made me think to log in to my Murphy Method email account separately and see what was there.

When I did, to my extreme surprise, I found two months worth of mail that had not been forwarded to my regular account. The last message I’d seen from that address had been on June 21st. And I NEVER NOTICED! I just kept wondering why nobody was answering my emails. They were—I just wasn’t getting it! Included in all these emails, of course, were all the custom lesson sale orders, so instead of my planned grocery store trip and jelly making I spent three hours answering hundreds of messages and sending many very apologetic emails.

Most people were very understanding and I think I’ve almost caught up. So, if you sent me a message in the last couple of months and haven’t received a reply, please resend!

The evening held a hot dog roast at Kelley and Ned Luberecki’s house. I swung by Kroger on the way for the aforementioned jar lids. When I got in my car I smelled gas, but I didn’t give it too much thought since I sometimes fill gas cans for my lawn mower and usually the smell goes away shortly. I began to get concerned when the smell did not start going away and had reached a peak when my car stalled at a four-way stop in Kelley and Ned’s neighborhood.

A nice old man in the car behind me got out and looked under the hood. Even I could see the gaping hole in the hose that was running gasoline. He would have helped me push my car out of the intersection, but, he said, he’d just gotten out of the hospital with a heart condition! I called Kelley and Ned who sent someone down to pick me up (I was only about three blocks from their house), but before he got there a nice younger man drove up and did push me onto the shoulder. A very speedy tow from AAA (typical, since I was in no hurry and had nowhere I needed to be…) rescued the car and hopefully it won’t take too long for my garage to fix.

I’m thankful that my car didn’t catch on fire, and thankful to Ben Surratt and Missy Raines for giving me a ride home after we were all stuffed full of hot dogs and s’mores. The general consensus seems to be that a squirrel chewed through the fuel line and I totally believe that because the squirrels I have in my yard are greedy, aggressive little buggers. But since I don’t have a way to get to work today, I’ll have plenty of time at home to finish catching up on all those emails!

Casey Henry

Yesterday the Henrys popped up in a couple of other places around the internet:

First, Ted Lehmann, photographer and blogger, posted an illustrated account of his visit to the Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival. He talks about the Dixie Bee-Liners about three-quarters of the way down the page and there are a couple pictures of yours truly.

That's it for today. Our half-price sale is really keeping us hopping. It ends Friday at midnight, so order now if you haven't already!

(edited 8/27/2010)

Casey Henry

Today the Dixie Bee-Liners take off for England where we’ll play two days: Friday at a big folk festival in Cropredy put on by the Fairport Convention, Saturday at a mini-festival called Cold Dog Soup, held at the Face Bar in Reading. It’s great to have the opportunity to play in the UK, but a bummer our trip is so short. We come back Sunday morning.

I’m taking CDs with me (duh), packed in my checked luggage, as well as a few DVDs. It was hard to decide which DVDs to bring, since we have so many. I settled on ten, which was all that would fit in my suitcase and still leave room for clothes. Two each of: Beyond Vamping, Easy Songs, Slow Jam, Picking up the Pace, and Beginning Banjo Vol 1. I know it’s sometimes challenging for UK customers to get our products, and I don’t even know if I’ll see any of our students while I’m there, but if I don’t sell all the CDs and DVDs the people at the end of the night on Saturday are going to get some extremely good deals!

My plane reading material (because I know your’re curious) will be Barbara Kingsolver The Lacuna and Colleen McCullough The Thorn Birds, both of which have been sitting on my unread shelf a long time.

I’d better go change my strings, so that I can take my wire cutters out of my case. They don’t like them in carry-on luggage. I once had my bracket wrench almost confiscated and I had to mail it back to myself from the airport. If ever there was a more innocuous piece of metal than a bracket wrench I don’t know what it would be! But it’s now worth $5.95 more to me than it was before.

Many of you may be familiar with this song, which Murphy wrote years ago and performed regularly on stage as part of the Red and Murphy set. This is the recording we made of it, I think from the first Red and Murphy and Their Excellent Children album. Murphy on banjo and lead vocal, Red on mandolin and baritone vocal, Casey on bass and tenor vocal, Chris on guitar. (Click on the title to listen.)

When My Mama Sang To Me