Tag Archives: the fabulous Ruth Steelman

Murphy Henry

(Thanks to students Ruth and Mark for practically writing this one for me!)

Ruth first.

Ruth, if you will remember, is already a really good banjo player, has been playing for years. She is an Original Misfit and our friendship dates back to Barber Shop Days. So we’re sitting at the lesson playing Groundspeed together, her on banjo, me on guitar. (Bluegrass grammar!)

I think the song is going well, sounding good, and am willing to carry on till the finish. But as we start our second pass through Ruth stops. She says, “One of us is off and it’s probably you.

I started laughing so hard I practically fell out of my chair.

So, since I thought she was speeding up just a tiny bit, I said, “Let’s both play banjo and see if we can figure out what’s happening.”

When we played together, the song came out perfectly. So Ruth says, “You see? Just as soon as you got off the guitar we did it right.”

Too funny! Love it, love it, love it!

Mark next.

Last Saturday I was seeing Mark for only the second time. [Note: As I was copying down the stuff he said and requesting his permission to use it, I asked him if he even knew about The Blog. Oh yes, he said. “I read it every day. One of my goals is to be Blogged About.” Glad to oblige, Mark. You can cross it off your Bucket List!]

Anyhow, Mark had taken some lessons back in the ‘80s (he put his banjo together from a Stewart-McDonald kit), but had set the banjo down for years. He’s just now getting back into it and at Casey’s suggestion, he started with Beginning Banjo Vol. 2. So by the time I saw him, he’d already learned Salt Creek, Old Joe Clark, and the high break to Foggy Mt. BD. There were some minor glitches but nothing big.

Frankly, I was amazed at how well he played. (Now don’t go getting a big head, Mark!) His songs sound like songs. I figured he had some deep musical background, but he said no. No band, no choir, no rock and roll guitar. Still, somehow he has the ability to hear the song in his head. And if he can hear it, as he says, he can play it. I guess you’d just have to call it a gift.

Of course, as he’s learning the song he doesn’t necessarily hear it then. That’s why there are still mistakes—missed notes, small timing errors. But once he hears it, he’s off and running.

Which brings us to the song he was learning last week, Lonesome Road Blues. He’d not heard the song before and was working strictly from the DVD. And, again, he was doing a fantastic job. (I fear you will need a larger hat there, Markie...) It sounded to me like he was understanding the song, but the ending lick gave him away. When he tried to put it in, I could tell he was not actually hearing the song. (He was playing the last D lick and the ending lick. The ending lick replaces that D lick.)

When I asked him what was going on he said, “It’s like a big continuous loop and it never stops. It’s like the subway. I don’t know where to get off.”

I understood totally what he meant. The opening G lick and the ending D lick start the same way, with that long slide and two first-string notes. If you’ve never heard the song, how could you possibly figure out the beginning and end of the song, especially as you go into if for the second time?

And then there’s that alternate up-the-neck tag lick Earl uses (the one that starts with the backward roll) which obscures where the last note of the song really is. (Like you’d normally hear a last note, then a normal tag lick, like we do in Foggy Mt. BD. I realize this is gibberish to most of you, but it’s interesting to me. And possibly to Casey. And maybe Bill Evans....Okay, forget I even wrote this paragraph....)

So, once Mark got the song in his head and understood where it started and ended, he could play it fine. He could put the ending lick on properly, vamp to it and come in for his break at the proper time. His goal is to be able to jam and to play on stage. No problem, Mark. You keep doing exactly what you are doing. I just need to hook you up with some Misfits for some jamming. The only thing you need now is that new Stelling Masterflower you were looking at! “Christmas time’s a-coming....”

Possible topic for Next Blog courtesy of Bob Van: Is playing out of time a mental error or a mechanical error? We almost came to blows over this one. Me: “Bobby, just shut up and play it in time....” Bobby: “There’s not enough duct tape in the world....” Stay tuned!

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Hoo-wee! We had a crowd tonight. Eight pickers and two watchers. The regular crowd consisted of Bob Van on bass,  Bob Mc, Susan, Mark, and Logan on banjos, and Ellen on guitar. The Fabulous Ruth Steelman showed up again to wow us all with her improv and her backup. And making an appearance for the first time was Kim, who joined in for the unison playing of “Banjo in the Hollow,” “Cripple Creek,” and “Boil Them Cabbage” and then stayed to watch the rest of the fun. Mary, a new banjo student, was also a watcher, along with Logan’s mom Robyn. It was after we did the five-banjos-playing-all-together version of “Banjo in the Hollow” that I said, “This certainly is a joyful noise!” And Mark said, “It certainly is a noise!”

Perhaps the biggest news of the night is that Logan finally paid me the dollar he owed me from the bet two weeks ago!  But the second big news is that he is now learning to play guitar. He stuck with that most of the evening, putting it down only when we played something “cool” (his word). Apparently “Lonesome Road Blues” qualified and then he kept Dalton’s RB-250 out to play “Shucking the Corn” with Ruth.

It was after his lesson yesterday, realizing that he had finished his summer algebra class and had time on his hands, that I loaned him my old Guild guitar. (This was my college guitar, purchased specifically because Gamble Rogers played a Guild. It replaced my Yamaha twelve-string.) Logan said he spent three hours today practicing guitar and was complaining about his sore fingers. We all made moaning noises and said, “Poor baby.” We like Logan but we do not coddle him.

In addition to the aforementioned songs we also played:

Blue Ridge Cabin Home
I Saw The Light
Foggy Mountain Breakdown (featuring Ruth and Mark doing the E minor rake)
Wagon Wheel (the Old Crow song we did last week; we are growing to like that one!)

Susan had been wanting to see more women banjo players, so she got her wish tonight with two active players (Ruth and Kim) and one in the wings (Mary). We all parted in good spirits and declared we were looking forward to doing it again next week!