Tag Archives: Rocky Top

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

I don't know what got into us last night but from the git-go, we were playing fast, fast, fast! I finally had to suggest we slow things down!

Dan, the prodigal son (for whom we killed the fatted calf, metaphorically speaking), started things off with Cumberland Gap. That's not a tune we play a lot (for some reason) but since last night's group comprised experienced jammers, I figured we could skip The Big Three. [I hope I used "comprised" correctly. That's a tricky one!] {Editor's note: yes, you did!} Since Ben and Kasey both went wide-eyed when I said we'd play Cumberland Gap I decided on the spot that the banjos should all play lead together to give them a chance to remember their breaks. I let Dan set the tempo, and buddy he blistered it! After a few fumbling fingers, everyone got on board and we were cooking! I mentioned afterwards that this is one of those tunes that really doesn't sound like much until you speed it up. That's when you can start to feel the guitars and the banjos coming together in that tight pulsing rhythm, which is the essence of the tune--and the essence of bluegrass. ...continue reading

Murphy Henry

Okay, so this is about me. (Fancy that!)

Red and I had an opportunity to play some gospel songs for a friend recently. I had the banjo and Red had the mandolin so we were guitarless, but who said you need a guitar to play bluegrass?

The last song we did was Jesus Loves Me which I, of course, having been raised Baptist, have known since I was a wee bairn. (Somewhere along the line I also accumulated all three verses, but that’s just what I do, memorize lyrics without even realizing it.) All this to say I know the song Very Well.

Still and yet, I’d never played a lead break on the banjo. I’m not sure I’d even vamped it on banjo. But I wanted to sing it so, since I don’t regularly sing Jesus Loves Me, the first thing I had to do was figure out what key might be good for my voice on that day, at that time, which happened to be before noon.

I started in G (a very good place to start) and since that seemed too high, I backed it down a notch to, gulp, F. Now, unlike the great Alan Munde, I don’t play a whole lot in F. And if I do have an occasion to play in F, I almost always capo up three and play out of D or capo up five and play out of C. (Don’t ask!) Casey, on the other hand, brave soul that she is, is more likely to play in open F. That is, without a capo, using the natural, open chords F, B-flat, and C. (1, 4, 5.) So, on this day, for whatever reason, I chose the Casey way. Open F.

As Red was kicking it off, playing the simple melody on the mandolin, I found myself playing the melody along with him. I have NO IDEA how I was doing that, it just seemed like the melody notes were right there under my fingertips. Of course, I did know the chord progression inside and out, so I wasn’t having to think about that. And I do know, somewhere in the back of my brain, that usually the melody notes can be found somewhere on the strings that are being held down. But still, I have to tell you, that playing a straight melody on banjo is not my forte. Rolls, yes. Melody, not so much. And I was really pleased when the song shifted to B-flat that I was even able to find the melody notes in that chord. (I think there were only two, on the first and second string. I was using the barre at the third fret.)

By the end of the song Red and I were twinning the break, verse and chorus. He, of course, was doing the harmony and I the lead. Simple but ethereal. If I do say so myself.

So, all I have to say, again, is the Murphy Method works! Even for Murphy! Whoo hoo!

PS: This is not about improvising but I have to tell you. Bill Morrison, who is taking bass lessons from me, is progressing very nicely on the instrument. He jams a lot with his wife Susan on banjo, and Zac on banjo, and in a Sunday jam some of the original Misfits hold fairly regularly. And let me add, because it is relevant to the story, that he can play Rocky Top in the Key of G pretty well.

So last weekend he and Susan went to a new jam where one of the singers did Rocky Top in the key of B-flat. Well, Bill has ventured into the key of B, but we haven’t done much, if any, work in B-flat. And Rocky Top, as you may know, has a tricky progression and several “off” chords in it. (F, Em) So what did Bill do? As he told it, “So I just played it in G.” I thought I was going to bust a gut laughing. He went on to explain that he did play very quietly and that there were lots and lots of guitars. So it wasn’t likely that anyone heard him anyhow! Never would have thought of that, Bill! That brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “Whatever you do, don’t stop playing!” You go, Bill!

And a great big Happy Birthday to my youngest sister, Laurie. I’m heading down to Charlotte, N.C., this weekend to celebrate with her and two of my other sisters. We’re going hiking! And shopping! And I’m taking my fiddle so we’ll also be playing music! Christmas carols! I can’t wait.....