As you probably know, playing banjo is not always fun. What keeps me—and most of us professional players—going are those few shining moments when we are IN THE ZONE.
Being in the zone means you are firing on all cylinders, you are tight with the band. When you’re in the zone the music seems to flow from your fingers and you can’t play a wrong note. It doesn’t happen often.
One of these shining moments happened to me at Mid-West Banjo Camp a couple of weeks ago when I was playing at the faculty concert. Ken Perlman, co-director of the camp with Stan Werbin (of Elderly Instruments), encourages the teachers to ask other musicians to perform with them and this year I asked the great fiddler Byron Berline to play "Sally Goodwin" with me. His first response was that he thought he might play "Sally Goodwin" himself. Okay, says I, just let me know. (In the meantime, I’m feeling a little embarrassed at having been so bold to ask him to play "Sally Goodwin", a tune he recorded with Bill Monroe!)
I decided to do a couple of singing songs instead. So, the next day at lunch I asked Byron if he’d feel comfortable playing on a couple of easy vocals, 1, 4, 5 progression, no rehearsal. And, much to my surprise, he said, “We can do "Sally Goodwin" if you like.” I said, “You didn’t decide not to do it yourself on account of me, did you?” [Like he would! Duh!] He said, “No, I’m gonna do something else.” I said, “Great! Key of A? No minor chord?” (I was teasing him a little there, as well as indicating I was doing it straight. Just like Earl.) He asked if I was going to have any other players and I immediately dropped the idea of us doing it as a duet and said, “Yes, I’m gonna ask David Grier to play guitar and Tom T. Ball [that’s his name, seriously!] to play bass.” I’d never played with either of them, but I know David and know how good he is and I had been impressed with Tom’s bass playing on stage the night before. They both said yes.
I hadn’t planned on doing any rehearsing since it didn’t seem right to ask Byron to rehearse a tune he’d played 50 million times AND recorded with Monroe. But as it turned out, when I arrived in the “green room,” David Grier was sitting there with his guitar so I asked him if he’d warm me up on Sally Goodwin. And, oh my gosh! I knew what a great lead player he was (IBMA Guitar Player of the Year three times) but I had no idea how wonderful his rhythm playing was. We fit each other like a glove. And then Byron and his fiddle showed up, along with Alan Munde, Bill Evans, and Tom T. Ball. They were going to rehearse their numbers. But before they started I asked Byron if he’d mind going over "Sally Goodwin". He graciously said yes and asked if I was going to kick it off or did I want him to. I said I would. (Just like Earl, of course!) He wanted to know the arrangement. I said, “I play, you play, David plays, I play, you play, David plays, I play and end it.” He said, “So David and I take two breaks and you take three.” I said, “If you want to think about it that way, yes.” He laughed. That’s one thing that made playing with these incredible musicians so delightful. Everyone was so loose.
So I did Earl’s two introductory pinches and away we went. Tom T. held back on the bass for some reason so I leaned over, while playing, and said, “You can come in any time now.” I was that relaxed. When Byron added a little bit of Bill Monroe’s tune Scotland to his break, I was grinning from ear to ear. I’m sure he’d done that many times before, but it was totally unexpected to me and I loved it! Our playing sounded great, I had hit a good rhythm, and Byron even commented on it after we finished. “That was a good speed,” he said. Yes!
We played the tune through one time and quit. We all knew what we were supposed to do. (We also ran through my singing song "East Virginia Blues", which I sang with Janet Beazley and Kathy Barton Para but that’s another story.)
Then I had the great fortune to sit and watch Bill Evans rehearse "Deputy Dalton" (an Alan Munde tune) with Alan Munde and Byron. Bill’s and Alan’s twin banjo break was in perfect sync. And both of those guys are such great players, it was a pleasure to hear them play. Then Byron ran through his tunes, the instrumental "Oklahoma Stomp" and "Fiddle Faddle", which, to my surprise, he sang. (It was a funny song about playing the fiddle and how easy it is! Not! He did some intentional squeaking.) I suppose I could have become unnerved by all this incredible music and talent, but for some reason I didn't.
After they were done Byron said, “Now if we can only do half that well on stage.” How true, how true.
We then walked over to the performance hall, and waited in the wings (we could see the stage) for our times to play. Bill played first, then Byron, then someone else, and then I was on. Bill, who also doubled as emcee, gave me a lovely intro, saying “The first thing you need to know about Murphy is, she is always right!” Thank you, Bill, for admitting that publicly! (I later told my class that even though I am always right, Bill Evans knows everything!)
Byron Berline, Tom T. Ball, Murphy Henry, and David Grier (Photo from midwestbanjocamp.com)
I had decided to do "East Virginia Blues" first, to sort of warm up. It is also in the Key of A, so I wouldn’t have to move my capo. (And neither would Byron.) I noticed then that I was playing pretty well, hitting the licks I was going for, and getting good, solid tone. Then Kathy and Janet left the stage and I introduced "Sally Goodwin". “Here’s an old-time fiddle tune that Earl Scruggs played, 'Sally Goodwin'!” I did my two Earl pinches and we were off. Once again, I hit that perfect speed, and David Grier was playing perfect rhythm guitar and Tom was right there with him on bass, so all I had to do was sit on top of all that steady rhythm and play the banjo. And, buddy, I flat-out played it! I was sitting on top of the rhythm and sitting on top of the world!
I didn’t try anything fancy, just played the same "Sally Goodwin" break I’ve been playing for years, the same one I’ve been teaching Zac, the one I worked my butt off to learn, the one I learned wrong to begin with because I didn’t understand Earl’s timing in the high B part, the one I had to give up playing “just like Earl” because my hands never instinctively understood those notes he used to connect the high A part with the low B part. That’s something I never learned to “hear.” Casey, on the other hand, heard it and played it easily when she was learning the tune. So I had to get okay with the way I played the tune. And that night I was totally okay with it. I was so okay with it that I was able to sit back and let my hands do the playing leaving room for my brain could think a little more about pulling good tone and staying in perfect time with my great rhythm section. I could sit back and enjoy my own playing! Wow!
And of course having Byron over there on the fiddle was simply awesome and I’m sure my good playing was pretty much in direct response to how excellent and smooth his playing was. He also brought a lot of energy to the stage but it was supportive energy, not spotlight stealing energy. He was supporting me, and boy did that feel good. David Grier was the same way. Each time he finished his guitar break he looked over and gave me the nod to start my break, making that little connection that means so much. There was no “hot-dogging” by either Byron or David. They played good, solid versions of "Sally Goodwin", which complemented my no-nonsense version of the tune. I’m sure if I had played a wilder version, they would have stretched out and played wilder, too.
I believe we played it as well on stage as we’d played in rehearsal. Maybe even better! (I only hope no one puts a video of us playing up on YouTube because I don’t want to have my illusions shattered.) I received some extremely nice compliments from two other banjo players when I came down from the stage. Both said, “I’d like to play some tunes with you!” High praise!
I’ve been floating on this high for a couple of weeks now. I suppose the euphoria will wear off in time, but the memory of playing "Sally Goodwin" with Byron Berline and being in the zone will remain. And I am so grateful for that experience and for those three minutes of pretty-much-perfect music. To paraphrase slightly: “Don’t let it be forgot / I once stood in a spot / For one brief shining moment / And it felt like Camelot!” Thank you, Byron, thank you, David, thank you, Tom T. Ball, and thank you Earl!