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Murphy HenryGreetings from Georgia! I’m down here doing my weekend with my folks. This visit happened to coincide with the nearby appearance of our friends Robin and Linda Williams, stars of radio (Prairie Home Companion) and screen (Prairie Home Companion). They and their Fine Group were playing at the Crimson Moon in Dahlonega (pronounced “Duh-lon-uh-guh), a mere hour’s drive from my hometown, Clarkesville. So I decided to catch their show Friday night on my way down. I met my sister Claire there for supper at 7, followed by the show at 8.

Robin (whose middle name is Murphy) and Linda were in fine form for two sets of mostly original music primarily drawn from their new album “Buena Vista.” (I was gonna tell you how Robin said that was pronounced in Virginia, but I can’t figure out how to spell it phonetically! Suffice it to say that “Buena” rhymes with “June” or, more precisely, “June-uh.” I had no idea this blog would include so much about pronunciation!)

Linda was playing more clawhammer banjo than I’d seen her play on a show before which was a wonderful treat. Putting the bottom in the band on electric bass as always was Jim Watson whose rendition of “Hesitation Blues,” modeled on that of the great banjo player Charlie Poole, was a highlight of the show. And on the fiddle was none other than Chris Brashear whom I had never seen with the Fine Group before. Chris is a fine songwriter in his own right, and his song “Mason’s Lament,” (which Lynn Morris recorded) is one of my faves.

Robin was kind enough to recognize me from the stage (always flattering! ) and to dedicate “Blue Ridge Cabin Home” to me. Little did he know that BRCH is so widely used by me that I now abbreviate it BRCH! It’s my “go to” song for both vamping and improvising, and at camps it’s become the perfect vehicle for a group lesson in how to play a high break. (And can be found on at least two, if not three, of our DVDs!)

Apropos of nothing musical, the woman I was sitting next to (from Gainesville, Georgia) turned out to be good friends with my best friend from Camp Echoee, Jane Adams. At the closing ceremonies of camp one year, Jane and I both got ribbons for being “Head Skinny Dippers.” Whoo hoo! Those were the days!

And on that note, I will turn myself to checking on my parents, fixing a cuppa, and starting on the unbelievably hard crossword puzzle in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution!

Murphy HenryWe had four people in the jam tonight. The mostly ever-faithful Bob on bass, Mark and Susan on banjos, and Ellen on guitar.
Our song list was as follows:

Cripple Creek
Banjo in the Hollow
I Saw the Light (Bob singing, me harmonizing)
Old Joe Clark (in G this week; no fiddlers!)
Blue Ridge Cabin Home (Bob singing, me harmonizing)
Salt Creek
Foggy Mountain Breakdown

If the list seems short for an hour’s jam, it’s because we got a little bogged down in “Old Joe Clark.” That song often gives banjo students fits when they try to come in off the vamp. The first notes of the break (hammer to second string and then open first) sound like they are the downbeat but they are not. They are the pickup notes. The downbeat is actually the fifth string. And none of this makes much sense on paper, or in a Blog. You just have to experience it. Which is what Mark and Susan were doing big time tonight.

And I hasten to point out that they each play “Old Joe Clark”  extremely well at their individual lessons--even when we are trading breaks on banjos. But there is something about a jam session that reveals the weak places in a break. That's why jams are so valuable! I can’t tell you how many times that’s happened to me. I practice and practice something (usually on fiddle now) and think I’ve got it, and then I take it to the jam and fall apart. It’s painful, but I know that jamming is where I will really learn to play the fiddle.

Now, I have to brag on Mark a little bit. At his lesson this week he started learning to improvise. To that tried and true improv number, “Blue Ridge Cabin Home.” And, with basically no prompting, he came up with a GREAT BREAK! (Of course this wasn’t the first time he’d heard the song, which helped. He sorta knew the chords and melody from hearing it at Casey’s Banjo Camp last fall.) He based his break on the low break to “Boil Them Cabbage Down.” With tag licks. Never thought of that! And I’ve never seen another student do it that way. So, tonight, just one day after he figured out the break, I asked him to play it and he did—beautifully! I was so proud of him. He seemed to catch onto the whole concept of improvising, which is playing licks you already know against a chord progression. He said, with an amazed look on his face, “This means I could play almost any song if it had just G, C, and D in it.” I said, “Yeah, don’t tell anybody. I’d be out of a job!”

I will remind you that Mark has been playing less than a year. A key factor to his being able to improvise so early is that he has been jamming since November. Not every week, but probably once a month. And it also helps that his wife Ellen is learning to play guitar and they play together a lot. It makes a difference. You learn the songs at home, but jamming is where you really learn to play. What are you waiting for?

Murphy HenryIt is best to practice sitting in a chair.

Preferably a chair shaped something like the chair you’re going to be sitting in during your lesson. A chair with a reasonably straight back that will allow your legs to rest comfortably on the floor.

I’d not given much thought to this, but lately several new students have had problems playing their best when they are seated in front of me. (Yes, I know, it’s a common occurrence, and not just with the newbies!) This is when the “I can play it fine at home” syndrome firsts rears its head. In trying to troubleshoot some of the possible reasons for what’s going on (other than “I’m scared to death!), it has come to light that these beginners often practice sprawled out on the bed. (Isn’t “sprawled” a great word?) Or in some other ungodly position that is impossible to replicate in a teaching studio. Like on the couch in front of the TV with one leg tucked up under them. Or with their stocking feet resting on the coffee-table in front of the couch. Or kicked back in a Laz-E-Boy-type chair.

Thus, when they move to an upright position their hands—both right and left---are going to be a slightly different angle.  Things are not going to feel the same. And this one little change is more than enough to throw their playing off track. Hence the suggestion: practice sitting in a chair! And don’t slump!

That reminds me of my high school band director, Ann Alford. She taped thumb tacks—points out—to the backs of the chairs so that the clarinet section, especially Jimmy Holbrook, would have to sit up straight! (I just put Jimmy’s name in there so that if he ever Googles himself, he might find this mention in a banjo blog!) Thank goodness I was not a “real” musician in the band. I was in the color guard one year and played the bass drum the next. If I had a chance to do that over, however, I would most definitely play an instrument. First choice: snare drum. Second choice: that other drum. The one that’s not the bass drum. Tom-tom? After all these years I still want to be the loudest instrument in the band! Now you know why I play the banjo!

Murphy HenryThree people showed up for our regular Wednesday night Misfit jam session. Susan with her Goodtime open-back banjo and Bob on bass were the regulars. (That’s west-by-God-Virginia-redneck Bob not to be confused with golf-playing non-redneck Bob who did not show up.) Sandy, on fiddle, was the newbie to this gathering, but not to jamming because she is one of my Fiddle Sisters and was also part of an earlier group of Misfits. I, as always, played guitar. Logan, 16, who had come earlier for his lesson (he’s learning Redwing at his request), could not stay for the fun and games because he had gotten behind in his homework. We busted him for that, and told him not to let it happen again! However, we gamely carried on without him.

Our song list went something like this ri-chere:
Cripple Creek (in G)
John Hardy (in G)
I Saw the Light (sung by Bob in G)
Salt Creek (solo by Susan in G)
Old Joe Clark (in A)
Two Dollar Bill (sung by Bob in A)
Foggy Mountain Breakdown

By then a whole hour had gone by! But I wanted to play some twin fiddle with Sandy, so Bob kindly took over on guitar and Sandy and I played some of our “hits” from the past: Faded Love, Golden Slippers, and Down Yonder. It was so much fun to revisit these numbers! I guess Sandy and I haven’t played bluegrass together in way over a year, maybe two years. (She’s been slumming, playing Celtic fiddle. Reading music! I slummed too, on guitar, when she had a paying gig last summer!)

When we at last had to put our instruments up and call it a night, Sandy uttered the words that give this Blog its title: “This beats doing almost anything else!” You said it, Sandy!

Murphy HenryI was there. In the audience. At the Grand Ole Opry. Cheering wildly. Because my daughter was playing banjo on stage. With Michael Martin Murphey. What a thrill!

Casey Henry on the Grand Ole OpryCasey looked poised and wonderful, attired in a new wine-colored top with black pants and white Doc Marten boots with pink flowers, and she played as if she’d been born with a banjo in her hands. The group did two songs on the first Opry show, “Lone Cowboy” and “Carolina in the Pines,” and two on the second, “What Am I Doing Hanging Around?” and “Fiddlin’ Man,” and Casey was accorded long banjo breaks on each number. Breaks which she nailed to the wall with her fancy Kel Kroyden banjo.

After her first break I applauded and yelled frenetically as did the guy sitting next to me. When the song was over he turned to me and said proudly, “I take banjo lessons from her.” And I said, even more proudly, “I’m her mother!”

Perched next to me on the other side was my oldest friend in the whole wide world Sharon Ramsey. Casey’s father and brother, Red and Chris, were booked at a festival in Florida that day and couldn’t make Casey’s show so I called up Sharon and said casually, “Wanna go to the Grand Old Opry Saturday night to hear Casey play?” Her answer? A resounding (and extremely satisfying), “YES!” Sharon and I grew up in the same neighborhood in Clarkesville, Georgia, and went through high school together. We were a little like Mutt and Jeff. And still are. She is tall and blonde, I am short and dark haired. (It is still mostly dark!) She was almost as excited about Casey’s Opry appearance as I was. In fact, when we made the obligatory pass through the gift shop before the show she bought Casey a coffee mug with a picture of the Opry house on it and the name “Casey” emblazoned across the top.

Casey Henry, Jake and Michael Martin MurpheyWe couldn’t stay for the second show as we had to hit the road back to Chattanooga, where Sharon lives on top of Lookout Mountain and where I was spending the night. By 12:15 a.m., after picking up my car in the Wal-Mart parking lot, we had just about reached Sharon’s house. We were both listening to the Opry on the radio and Michael Martin Murphey had just taken the stage. Sharon was leading the way and without any prompting from me she pulled over in the empty parking lot of a school. I came up alongside of her and rolled my glass down. Through her own open window she said, “I was afraid we’d lose the signal by the time we got to the house.” So we sat there, side-by-side in our cars, and listened to Casey play. And twice we heard these melifulous words coming over the airwaves. Coming from the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. Coming out of the mouth of Michael Martin Murphey. “Folks, that’s Casey Henry on the banjo!” And sitting there on top of Lookout Mountain were two old friends, grinning from ear to ear.

Murphy HenryI thought I’d give all y’all a weekly report on the Wednesday night beginners’ jam session I’ve started with some of my banjo students. (I’ve not added the fiddle students yet, but I’m thinking about it.) We jam for an hour, from 7-8.

The group is small yet, but I’m hoping it will grow. Tonight we had just three people: Logan, 16, our resident teenager, who’s been taking from me for about six years. Long ago, I told his mom I’d teach him as long as he didn’t cop an “attitude.” He hasn’t yet. He can play really well, and really fast, and knows lots of tunes and can even improvise, so he’s coming to this beginners’ jam mostly out of the goodness of his heart. And also because he likes to play and doesn’t have many opportunities. We also had two adults, Bob (the golfer) and Susan, the banjo fanatic. (I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone practice so much!) Bob’s been taking two or three years, and Susan about six months.

We started out with some warm-up tunes: "Cripple Creek" and "I Saw the Light". Feeling sufficiently limber, we then moved on to "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" and "John Hardy".

Bob and Susan rotated the honor of starting the tunes, so they could set a comfortable pace. As the tune was passed around, the starter got a total of three turns, and everybody else got two. At first we instigated the jam rule of whoever starts the tune puts the ending on, but that proved to be a little too difficult (something else to think about!), and so I decided that for the final go-round, they could all play in unison and put the ending on together. That worked much better.

After the first few tunes, I got Logan to play "Wildwood Flower", which he has just learned out of C position. He and I traded breaks (me on guitar) while Susan and Bob watched. We then talked a little bit about how much harder it is to play of of C and why.

Then it was on to "Lonesome Road Blues", "Salt Creek" (which Susan loves), "When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder", and then we closed out with a rousing version of "Boil Them Cabbage Down". Then for dessert, so to speak, I got Logan to play "Earl’s Breakdown", so that Bob and Susan would have something to “aspire to.” He knows all three breaks including that fancy walkdown that Earl does. I think they were “aspired.”

All of the songs were done in G (except the aformentioned "Wildwood Flower"). Perhaps later we will delve into capos but right now I’m all about keeping it simple.

We’ve been jamming now for a month and already the improvement is monumental. I’ve just started a brand new batch of banjo students—four to be exact—and I’m hoping to get them involved in jamming before too long. As I’ve come to realize, students need to start jamming as soon as possible. I’ll keep you posted.

Murphy HenryI want to answer a question I got about the song “Ballad of Jed Clampett” which Casey taught on our new DVD Easy Songs for Banjo. The inquirer wanted to know if we taught it exactly like it is tabbed out in the Earl Scruggs Book. (Actual title of the book: Earl Scruggs and The 5-String Banjo.) The answer to that would be “no.” But it is very, very close. Except for those darn D licks. Let me ‘splain.

Just because I abhor tab doesn’t mean I didn’t dabble in it myself while learning banjo. (That’s why I know it doesn’t work!) You should see my Earl Scruggs Book! Even the tape holding together the first layer of tape on the spine has now pulled away.

I was totally incapable of learning the “Ballad of Jed” out of the book. And it was those darn D licks that got me. Specifically the phrases “poor mountaineer barely kept his family fed” and “up through the ground came a bubb-a-ling crude.” The rest of the song, even from tab, is a piece of cake. Of course, those darn D licks comprise a “right smart” of the whole song.

As was often the case what was easy for Earl and came naturally to him was hard for me. So when I got good enough on banjo, I just substituted some different Scruggs licks into those two spots, and bingo! I had a perfectly good break, albeit not note-for-note like Earl done it. I finally realized that, when people asked for “Jed Clampett” or “The Beverly Hillbillies” they didn’t know and didn’t care if I was playing it exactly like Earl. They just wanted something that sorta sounded like what they heard on TV. Which, when you get right down to it, could just be as simple as a few banjo rolls and someone singing the lyrics.

We’ve given you a lot more than that. We’ve given you a banjo break that is actually learnable and playable. And one that sounds a whole lot like Earl’s. I can’t say that it’s actually beginner level, but it shouldn’t be too hard if you’ve gotten “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” under your belt and can hold down a 4-finger D chord. We put it on Easy Songs for Banjo because so many people had been asking for it, and we wanted to get it out there ASAP. Even if it is a leetle harder than strictly-speaking-easy.

So, have fun with Jed!

Murphy HenryJust wanted to report that I have another group of Murphy’s Misfits who are meeting every week to jam. We’ve just started, so we have only two jams under our resonators (so to speak) but already I’m seeing great improvement.

You know, it took me a long time to figure out what is now as plain as the picks on my fingers. You can’t become a banjo player by just picking alone at home. Even if you’re learning by ear, using the Murphy Method. Sure, you can learn a bunch of songs, songs that even sound good!

But you’re not likely to pick up on all those other little nuances of playing that you learn from trading breaks with others in a jam. Most of this stuff involves simply being able to think fast on your feet. To be able to play a banjo tune and think about something else at the same time! How and where do I come in for my break? On every song I know how to play. What are the chords? To every song I know. How can I quickly get back into vamping after I’ve finished my break? What do I do if I forget my break? (Keep trying!) What do I do if someone else forgets their break? (Help them out! Play a little of the break and see if they can pick it up.)

That last reminds me of something one of my beginners told me about learning to jam. When she was next in line to play a break and the person in front of her got lost, she would often jump on in and start playing her break from the point that the person had faltered. I told her that was, in my book, considered bad jam etiquette. You can help a person out by jumping in—to show them where they should be playing--but when they recover then you should back off and let them finish. I told her that a person’s allotted time to play is sacred. Okay, sacred is not the right word, but sink or swim, it’s all theirs. And, yes, it is hard sometimes to listen to someone floundering. And it’s even harder to watch them come back in at the wrong place. But this too will pass, as my student and friend Bob Van Metre is wont to say. A student jam is all about learning. And I have learned the best thing to do is just grin, keep going, and come in at the correct place when it’s your turn. After all, somebody did this for me once upon a time when I was learning to play. Hope each and every one of you will make an effort to find somebody to pick with!

Murphy HenryI have one thing to say about right-hand position on the banjo: if it hurts don’t do it! If someone tells you you should hold your hand in a certain way and it hurts don’t do it! If someone says this is the way Earl did it or J.D. did it and they are great banjo players so their way must be the right way and their way hurts you don’t do it!

And now I’ve said more than one thing, but the sentences all end the same way so it really is just the one thing, said three times in different ways in case you didn’t get it the first time: If it hurts don’t do it!

I don’t care what anybody says you do NOT have to keep both fingers (ring and little) down on the head. Nor do you have to have a great deal of arch in your wrist. There is NOT NOT NOT only one “correct” way to hold your right hand. There are many “correct” ways to hold your right hand (that’s the hand with the picks on it [unless you play left handed 🙂 ] ), and you have to find the one that is right for you. And once you’ve found something that works and is comfortable, stick with it. Don’t be changing your hand position just because someone tells you to.

Murphy HenryOkay, this is about a different Bob. This is Bob from West Virginia. Guitar and bass student and friend. He’s been taking off and on (mostly on) for 15 or 20 years now and can play some really nice basic lead breaks on the guitar, breaks he comes up with all by himself. I help him occasionally with the timing.

So I’m sitting by Bob and his wife Barb at a recent bluegrass show at a new club in Winchester. The group on stage (Chris and Red Henry, Jimmy Steptoe, Wayne Lanham, Teri Chism) is singing “Angel Band.”

Me, to Bob: Do you play that yet?

Bob: No.

Me: We should work on that. It’d be a good one.

Bob takes his pen from his shirt pocket and starts writing the name of the tune in his hand.

Me, ragging on Bob: I guess that’s your Hillbilly Blackberry.

Bob, without missing a beat: No, it’s my Palm Pilot.

And I just cracked up.