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Murphy, BJ Dove, Bob, Barb VanMetre at the Apple Blossom After Party

Murphy, BJ Dove, Bob, Barb VanMetre at the Apple Blossom After Party

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.

Chick Caldwell, Steve, Bob VanMetre, Murphy, Mark Zimmerman, Susan Morrison, Bob McQueen

Some of Murphy and her latter-day Misfits: Chick Caldwell, Steve, Bob VanMetre, Murphy, Mark Zimmerman, Susan Morrison, Bob McQueen (Ellen Zimmerman photo.)

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.

I asked Bobby to write a few paragraphs about this week's Tuesday jam. He's always sharing pithy comments with me, some of them insightful, some of them instructive, some of them rated R, and all of them entertaining. So I figured I would share the joy. Please respond to the blog. The boy likes feedback! And maybe that will encourage him to write again.

Now, here's Bobby:

First of all, a well deserved "great job" to Betty Fisher for such a good first time Tip Jar Jam performance. Although you, Murphy, broke the ice earlier on the phone with Betty by saying, "Don't be intimidated about your self-perceived level of playing. This is a student/teaching jam, and everyone that will be at the jam started out just as you are doing now, by coming to the first jam". As everyone of us at the jam knows from previous experience, playing with someone other than your instructor, in front of other people, for the very first time can be a challenging and terrifying moment in your early playing career. Good job, Betty!

Re beginning student woes in general (if this makes it to a blog, I'll never hear the end of "Who's sucking up now, Bob?"): As I have at every opportunity in the past, I recommend reading Murphy's earlier book And There You Have It. This book address some of the issues each of us as students, at least from my experience, struggle with. PRACTICE,  timing (my specialty), hearing the song in your head, you've got to think about it all the time, PLAYING WITH OTHERS, etc. You name a "rule" in the book, I've broken it. However, I soon found out that I was not alone in my misery, we've all "been there, done that." Nonetheless, recommended reading for beginning students.

Now on to "Ben, Binky, and the Banjo." Although he was "alone and forsaken," as his extremely talented daughter (coach/critic) Kasey could not make the jam, another "great job" to Ben on his solo breaks. Have you been holding out on us, Ben? Who says an old dog can't "hot trail" every once in a while?




Murphy Henry

I know we mostly write about banjo playing here, but I thought a word or two about Bob Van and his guitar playing was in order. Since he’s doing SO WELL.

As you may recall, Bobby has been taking guitar lessons from me forever. One of my favorite stories about him is when he came in for his first lesson, lo these many years ago, before either of us were wearing glasses! He’d been learning to pick the lead on some songs from our CASSETTE series, Carter Family Guitar. Songs like Will The Circle Be Unbroken and Worried Man. He said he’d gone through all the songs in the series. I was impressed.

“Play one,” I said. So he did. And, yes indeed, he had all the notes exactly right. But he was leaving out all the strums! And thus began our long-term battle over timing. Which happened again yesterday as he was working on the lead break to the Stanley Brothers song Could You Love Me One More Time. (His choice.)

“Bobby,” I said, “would you do me a favor and play again, this time using the correct timing?”

“Hell,” he says, “I’m having enough trouble remembering the notes. I can’t worry about the timing.”

My response?

“If you can’t play it in time, then you can’t play it.”

His response?

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. What else is new?”

It has always been thus. Fortunately we’ve always been able to laugh (and cuss!) at whatever is going on in the lesson.

But lately Bob’s lead guitar playing has taken quantum leap, due, in part I think, to his learning to pick Salt Creek. Note by tedious note. Let me be quick to say he didn’t do it without a monstrous amount of complaining. “I hate this song. It doesn’t have a melody.”

My response?

“Yeah, yeah. Try it again and this time get the pick strokes right.”

We latched on to Salt Creek only because he’d tried to pick the lead to Ashoken Farewell in the key of D. It’s a hard song on guitar to start with, and the key of open D is not an easy key to pick in. And did I mention he’s pretty bullheaded? So we went around and around with Ashoken Farewell for several months. Frankly, I think we lost.

So I said, “Next time, let ME choose the tune.”

Amazingly, he said, “Okay.”

So I chose Salt Creek. Why? Mainly because the banjo pickers that he plays with somewhat regularly (Ruth, Susan, Logan) all know this tune and he’d actually get a chance to perform it in a jam. And it has become sort of a flatpicking standard.

I taught him the old-fashioned way, by recording it onto a cassette! Explaining it note-by-note, including the directions of the pick strokes. And yes, it took a while, but, by Jove, he finally got it! And while he still professes to hate it, he can play it, chord it, and come back in for his break after the banjo plays. At least he could do that yesterday. Marty is coming for a marathon lesson on Saturday and I’ve arranged for some students to come jam with him. Bob is one of them. We’ll see how he does on Salt Creek then. Pressure’s on, Bobby! Step up to the plate!

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Well, we really missed Bobby Vee tonight. No bass. We were baseless. Nevertheless, we—Mark, Ellen, Susan, Logan, and I--tried to carry on as best we could. (Am I laying it on too thick, Bobby?)

Since Bobby wasn’t here, however, Logan felt free to entertain us by sharing the disparaging thoughts he (Logan) used to have about the bass. You see, when Logan was younger, he had some timing problems on the banjo. So, we'd make him sit beside Bobby and the bass, hoping the steady thunk-thunk would help keep him on track. It did not. We know now, from what he said tonight, that he totally didn’t get it, that he thought the bass was a useless instrument since it didn’t play any leads!

Thank goodness Logan grew out of that! He now has excellent taste in bluegrass and tonight made me very happy when, at his lesson, he asked if I’d ever heard of the Vern Williams Band. Yes, indeedy. Logan had heard them on some computer music program (Pandora?) and liked them. I was able to go to my CD shelf and pull out a Vern Williams CD for him to listen to. I was also boastful of the fact that I knew Keith Little, who played banjo on the disc. This did not seem to impress Logan as it should have. Perhaps after he listens to the music....

The program tonight was as follows:

Cripple Creek (unison, then with breaks)

Boil Them Cabbage (unison)

Bury Me Beneath the Willow (Logan playing solo lead)

Bury Me Beneath the Willow (the group playing)

Old Joe Clark

John Hardy

Wagon Wheel

We did “Willow” twice to give Logan a chance to show off his fancy (and fast) version, learned from the Stelling Anthology CD. Logan volunteered that this number was a “break through” for him, because it was the first song he tried to learn—mostly on his own--from a CD. In fact, if memory serves me correctly, when he initially told me he wanted to learn “Willow” off the CD I told him no. I thought it was way too complicated. But when he came into the next lesson with part of it learnt, I had to relent. And he was off and running.

We finished with our theme song, “Wagon Wheel,” singing it with much gusto, and I declared that Old Crow Medicine Show would have certainly gotten Ellen and me up to sing with them if we’d been able to stay till the end of the concert. But, alas, we were too worried about staying awake on the two-hour ride home so we left early to avoid the traffic. Mark said that they were waiting for us to leave so they could safely do the song without us singing! (Ha, ha Mark!) And then we said that one day maybe Logan would be performing on that very stage, and that we would go see him, and that Ellen and I would be down front dancing. And then somebody said that that would embarrass Logan, and I said, yes, that would be the point.

And then we digressed into talking about a recent study that shows that drinking beer (in moderation, of course) helps to prevent osteoporosis. And then we segued into a discussion about whether it was ethical to put a sticker from a security company on your house if you didn’t actually pay for their services. But we decided we needed to save that talk for a time when we were building strong bones. See what all you missed, Bobby? And Bob. That’ll teach you to go on vacation!

Murphy HenryJust back in from playing at a high school graduation party with a couple of the Misfits, Bob Van Metre and Logan Claytor. The party was for Logan’s lovely sister Hannah who is now college bound. Son Chris was kind enough to join us for a set and I must say, with him on the mandolin, we sounded mighty fine! All that practice we’ve been getting at the Wednesday night jam stood us in good stead.

Logan was sounding particularly strong on banjo, probably the best I’ve heard him play. He was playing Dalton Brill’s old RB-250 (possibly an RB-800), as you can see from the picture. (Chris calls that banjo Wildcat #1 after Dalton’s old group the Wildcats.)

Logan Clator

Logan Claytor

Bob Van Metre (also pictured) did himself (and us) proud on the bass, even if I did throw him for a loop by calling for “Salt Creek” in A, when we usually do it in G during the jam.

Bob Van Metre

Bob Van Metre

A partial song list includes most of the songs we normally do on Wednesday nights plus:

I’m On My Way Back To the Old Home
East Virginia Blues
You Go To Your Church And I’ll Go To Mine
Foggy Mountain Special
Salty Dog (Logan’s request)
Hazel Creek (Ditto, as Logan had just learned it. Sorta.)
Down Yonder
Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms
Wildwood Flower

I had to laugh after we did our first tune because, while people had been milling around on the porch and telling us how much they were looking forward to our playing, as soon as we started, they all left and went inside the house. Where the food was! Just one of those weird party things. Eventually they came back, causing Chris to refer to them as the “prodigal crowd.”

After we finished (with a rousing two-banjo version of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”), Bob and I headed over to Cork Street Tavern for a “sasparilla,” as Marshall Wilborn is wont to refer to golden nectar in long-neck bottles. (And which I just found out is spelled “sarsaparilla,” thanks to Google. Who would have thunk it?) We had a fine time solving all the problems in the world while declaring things were much better in the good ol’ days. As we were getting ready to go, the perfect ending for this Blog landed in my lap, so to speak. A man walked in with one of those T-shirts that said, “Paddle Faster. I hear banjo music!” And there you have it!