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Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Just got the last dish put into the dishwasher after Red’s birthday party this afternoon. It was a picking party, of course. We don’t know how to have any other kind! What do you do at a party if you don’t play music? I played banjo all afternoon and one of my fiddle sisters, Charlotte, said several times that it sure was nice to hear me picking banjo for a change! (I took that as a compliment on my banjo playing and not a reflection on my fiddling!)

Our friend Scott Brannon came over and I had the BEST time singing with him. He also plays a rock-solid guitar which makes it really fun to play banjo. He’s a very genial kind of guy and most often lets me pick the songs for us to sing. So, naturally, I suggest as much Stanley Brothers as I can think of!

We did Riding On That Midnight Train, How Mountain Girls Can Love, If I Lose, and Hey, Hey, Hey. Then since those weren’t morbid enough Bobby Van and I did Sweeter Than The Flowers. Along with the non-Stanley and not quite as pitiful Mary Dear.

Other tunes we did included I’ll Go Drifting With The Tide, Kentucky Girl, I Want To Be Loved But Only By You, Pain In My Heart, Little Girl In Tennessee, I’ll Never Shed Another Tear, and East Virginia Blues, which Red and I did as a duet with Pete Kuykendall (General Manager of Bluegrass Unlimited) adding the baritone part, which he does so well. Instrumentals included Salt Creek, John Hardy, Wildwood Flower, and Foggy Mountain Special.

Logan was in on the picking, too, and he did great. We played some of the tunes--Shucking the Corn, Bluegrass Breakdown, and Old Joe Clark—fast as all get out and he hung right in there. He also took break after break to tunes he’d never heard before. But was he satisfied? No, he was not. He said, “All my breaks sound alike.” I said, “What did I tell you, Logan? You need to start learning to pick out more melody, then your breaks will all sound different.” “But I can’t do that,” he whined. “Yes you can,” I replied. “No, I can’t,” he insisted. “Get the duct tape,” said Bobby.

The only thing that irritated me was that I could NOT get my banjo to stay in tune. In fact, after we played through Shucking the Corn, Scott told me, in the nicest way possible, that I was about half a fret off! HALF A FRET! Luckily, Scott and I have a long-time playing and tuning relationship and I know he hates it when our third strings don’t match perfectly, so I didn’t mind one bit his saying that. And since my ear was apparently not as keen as his was today, he helped me tune it by saying “sharp” or “flat” or “close enough” while I eased the strings up and down. Those wires are deader than a doornail, deader than Scrooge’s partner Marley (to use a timely metaphor) and they will be coming off soon.

David McLaughlin came in later on and he and Scott teamed up to do some duets such as Don’t Cheat In Our Home Town, Talk Of The Town, and several others whose names escape me at present. David is one of my favorite lead guitar players and I could have sat there a long time just listening to him and Scott. Then for some reason David wanted to pick Lamp Lighting Time In The Valley as an instrumental—in D—so we did that. It sounded pretty good!

Then Scott had to leave so we closed out with an excellent rendition of “When The Saints Go Marching In.” I think our version is patterned after Reno and Smiley’s so in one line of the chorus we have echoes after almost every word: Saints (saints), go (go), march (march), ing (ing) in......That is so much fun! I nodded at Logan to take a break and he nodded back with a terrified look “No!” and I said, “Yes, yes, yes!” and he took a fine break.

We still had birthday cake to eat and more food to nibble on, but the picking part was over. Years ago we might have picked till after midnight, but as the poem says:

Mary swallowed a little watch

Now the watch is gone

Mary walks along the street

Time marches on!

Indeed it does!

Happy Birthday, Red!

Red HenryMurphy and I just played a gig---a music job---with our Cousin David. Now, gigs with David always involve some degree of unpredictability, or, if you like, Adventure. The folks involved were Murphy and myself, our friend Scott, and good old Cousin David.

In this case, the Adventure didn't take long to start. It was raining, and it was time to go. We were all loaded up to drive to the gig in Cousin David's minivan when I asked him (loudly, because his hearing's pretty spacey), "All ready to go?" and he said, "That just reminded me. I left my hearing aid in the house!" So he went back through the rain and got his hearing aid and put it in. Then, sitting next to him in the front of the car, I asked him "Got your hearing aid?" --- but I said it very softly, so he couldn't hear me. Cousin David looked at me. I said, "Got that hearing aid in your ear?" even softer. David smiled at me. (He's really good at covering up.)

Cousin David is not spacey. So we drove two hours away (in the rain) and had gotten in the general vicinity of the gig, and David said, "I meant to find out directions or print out a map of where to go, but I just never got around to it." So after driving in circles (and triangles, and rectangles) for a while, he called the place for directions. Then we got there. But he is not spacey. It was an Adventure.

It turned out that in order to set up David's sound system for the gig, we had to carry all the equipment into a big building, move it down an elevator, and set it up in a big lobby nearby. It was a long way. So we all got to work, and just did it. We hustled setting up all the microphones and cords and speakers and cables and all that stuff, and had the sound system ready a whole 11 minutes before it was time to start. Not bad; I almost had time to get my mandolin in tune! More adventure.

So far, the gig had consisted of rain, being lost, moving sound equipment, and stringing together various wires. But now came the good part. Murphy kicked things off with "Lonesome Road Blues" and Scott followed that with "Moonlight on My Cabin," and we were off. Murphy, Scott, and I alternated in playing and singing various bluegrass favorites for the folks. It was an older audience, so we played plenty of songs and tunes they'd recognize. They liked us. I saw people singing along with Murphy's "I Saw the Light" and my "Mountain Dew" and Scott's "When the Saints Go Marching In." Cousin David played bass and contributed a harmony vocal here and there. We played three sets of good music, and it was fun.

Then, it was back to messing with the sound system: coiling up the cords, packing the equipment up, and moving it back upstairs and out of the building and into David's car. We drove back to his house just in time for Scott to get in his truck and leave to play another show that night with his own band.

So, it was all an Adventure. There was lots of rain. There was some getting lost. There was plenty of hauling sound equipment around. But you know what? We all had a good time, and the people liked us. And Cousin David's not a bit spacey.

Red HenryWe just got through playing a pleasant, informal performance with our friends David and Scott. It was quite a contrast to the usual stand-up gig, where we'd have a listening audience and play through a sound system (which we'd have to provide). Instead, the four of us were sitting together under an awning on a large deck, in the midst of a private party at a big lake-house. We were scheduled to play three sets like that. Simple to play? Yes, in a way, but the whole gig provided an illustration of how experienced musicians play together.

Murphy played banjo and Scott was playng guitar, and he and Murphy shared most of the lead singing. They sang songs covering quite a bit of ground, from Reno & Smiley to the Stanley Brothers to Bill Monroe, and a few old gospel songs as well.

David and I switched off on mandolin and fiddle. But I hadn't played much fiddle in a few months. This meant, for one thing, that I needed to get back in practice on fiddle right there while playing it---I was a bit rusty at first, but I just played, and waited for my proficiency to come back. And by about the second set, it did. Did my rustiness matter? No, it didn't, since few people in the crowd were really listening, and even those were not musical experts.

This brings up a good point: When you're playing music in public, even if you don't think you're playing well on a particular day, JUST PLAY. Just KEEP GOING. Very few of the people listening will be able to tell that you're out of practice or having a hard time playing, unless YOU signal it to them. And they don't want to listen to someone who is obviously uncomfortable playing, either. So just enjoy what you're doing, or act like it, and the listeners will never know your music isn't as perfect as you'd like. JUST PLAY.

And also, when people aren't paying much attention, don't let it bother you. Don't let the lack of applause get to you, especially if you're in an easy performing situation, like ours. The people will like what you're doing, and you're not hired, in a case like this, to put on a show. You're there to provide bluegrass music in the background. JUST PLAY.

Part way through the show, David and I decided to trade instruments. I handed him the fiddle, and before I could get out my mandolin, he handed me his own that he'd been playing---a 1923 F-5, with somebody's signature on the label. This is fun.

So I just played the mandolin for a while, and then more fiddle, and all four of us had a good time (I certainly didn't have to act that part!). We ended up the last set with Scott singing "When the Saints Go Marching In" (the old hymnbook version) and Murphy singing "Travellin' That Highway Home". And then we did indeed travel the highway home. I wish every gig I'd played was this easy!

Red HenryYou've seen bands on stage, right? You've seen them playing music and having fun entertaining the audience. This is good. But have you ever thought about what they had to do to get there and get ready to play? Sometimes a band's gig experience is dominated by everything besides the music. A job we just played is a good case in point:

Murphy and I recently got a call to perform one Saturday afternoon, outdoors in the City Park in Hagerstown, Maryland. That's a little over an hour away from here. The trouble was that Murphy was already committed for that date, so I booked it myself as "Red Henry and Friends". Now I needed the friends. I'd be playing mandolin, so I called up David McLaughlin, who can play either guitar, banjo, or bass, and guitarist Scott Brannon, and they both kindly agreed to play the job with me. But I still needed one more band member, someone who could play either banjo, fiddle, or bass. I had called a few people until... good surprise! Murphy turned out to be free on that day. So the job turned into a regular (and fun) 'Red and Murphy & Co.' gig. Enough confusion so far?

Scott lives not far from Hagerstown, so he'd drive there by himself, but we needed to carry David with us. Since I normally keep all the extra seats out of the minivan we'd be driving, that meant I'd need to install a seat so the car would carry three---no problem a year or two ago, but my back won't carry those seats any more. How could I get the seat in the car?

A larger problem, and one that we usually have to deal with, was the sound system. When we bought our sound equipment, years ago, it seemed fairly small and light to carry around. And I guess it was. When I was in my 30s and 40s I could toss this equipment around pretty easily, but it's not like that now. Stored in the house we had two big speakers, two monitor speakers, two amplifiers, a heavy suitcase full of microphones and cords, and several microphone and speaker stands. The light stuff (stands and such) would be okay, but my back wouldn't do the heavy stuff any more. And David couldn't make it out to our house ahead of time to help load the stuff in the car. What to do?

Well, I had an idea. Last year we had acquired a hand-truck to use moving furniture, and Thursday I decided to to try it out on moving seats and sound equipment. Sure enough, it carried that heavy car seat just fine, from where I had it stored out to the car. On Friday I got busy and moved all the heavy speakers, "tipping" each of them onto the car floor and sliding them into place. Then I put in everything else I could think of---microphone stands, speaker stands, amplifiers, and a tote-bag full of CDs and Murphy Method DVDs to sell. So far, so good.

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Red HenryWe played music for a local restaurant last Saturday, and I thought that the job was a good illustration of things that can happen when you're performing. The gig was outdoors, in a shady location next to the restaurant, which was billing the event as "Bluegrass and Barbeque." Our friends Charlie and Charlotte and their Sweetwater String Band were playing three sets in front of us, and then we were to play from 7:00 till 10.

A big complication for us was that Murphy and I had an out-of-town show the next day. We needed to get on the road early Sunday, drive for seven hours to North Carolina, and perform with Murphy's sisters at a church service that evening. So even starting on Saturday, we had to allow for the time and fatigue factors so we could get through the two days and have plenty of energy (and voice) left to perform well on Sunday evening.

Since this Saturday event was outdoors, a sound system would definitely be needed. To save some time and energy, we arranged for Charlie and Charlotte to let us use their sound system---that was a big help. We wouldn't need to lug our own equipment out of the house, set it up and take it down at the gig, and then move it back into our house late at night. (That kind of sound-system hassle is normally a BIG part of playing music.) Instead, it was easy. We just arrived at the restaurant at about 6:00, got tuned up and warmed up, and got up on the stage to play. Charlie and Charlotte drove away after they finished playing, saying they'd be back for their sound system at 10.

Now, it really helped, since we were playing music in a place where we hadn't been before, that we had a band we could depend on. Murphy was on banjo, of course, and I was playing mandolin. In this case we had really strong pickers with us: David McLaughlin played bass, and Scott Brannon was on guitar. Those guys have been playing music about as long as we have, and have also seen a multitude of performing situations. So we knew that we could handle whatever came up.

The stage? It was a flatbed trailer---a standard bluegrass performing venue. The first set went fine, as Murphy, Scott, and I alternated vocal numbers interspersed with some instrumentals. The listening crowd was on a pleasant, shady patio right in front of the stage, feeling good and digging the music. (This is important---the closer the crowd is to you, the better they will usually like you.) It was a really enjoyable job so far.

But something will always happen. As we took our break after the set, it began to sprinkle lightly. That was ominous, because there were thunderstorms all around. Of course we got our instruments in the cases right away, but then, what were we going to do about the sound system? It belonged to Charlie and Charlotte, and we were responsible for it. And the weather couldn't decide what to do, either. It sprinkled, and then quit. Sprinkled, and then quit again. There were still thunderstorms nearby, though, and we couldn't take a chance. So when it started sprinkling the third time, we decided to move inside and play without the sound system. It might start raining very heavily at any minute. So we quickly packed up all the sound equipment, with the help of some bluegrass fans to move the large, heavy speakers and amps. We put the stuff under a well-secured tarp, and put an awning over that. It ought to be safe, we figured, unless a really big storm came in and blew the tarp off of it.

Now, of course, we were behind schedule, but primarily, we'd had to put a lot of attention and energy we didn't anticipate into dealing with the weather and the sound system because of the weather. We had been warmed up singing and playing our instruments, but now we'd been packing up mikes and cables and speakers and amps until it was much like starting all over again. We were a bit out-of-breath from moving stuff, and (to put it mildly) our hands were de-sensitized from the instrument necks. But we got inside the restaurant---still with a good crowd even after that break, the place was nearly full---and started our next set, playing without a sound system.

Since our environment changed from playing outside with sound to playing inside without it, our band's sound (both as the audience heard it and as we heard it ourselves) changed a lot. One advantage to playing without a sound system is that sometimes the band members can hear each other better. Another plus is that there's no sound system to put a barrier between you and the audience. Disadvantages include having to project more with the vocals, and having to play quietly to avoid having the instruments drown out the voices. But we'd all done this many times before, so we jumped into it. Murphy sang some of her original songs, and several great old bluegrass numbers. Scott sang some fine old Reno & Smiley songs, and more. David and Scott sang a few very nice duets. Murphy and I traded licks on some good old banjo and mandolin tunes, and the crowd loved it all. We played those last two sets indoors, and wrapped it up. Everybody had a great time, and Murphy and I were all ready to drive to North Carolina the next morning.

And the rain, which had caused all that commotion in the middle of our show? After those first sprinkles, it never came back.