On The Road: Why Winchester

Murphy Henry[This is my Banjo Newsletter column from May 1986. It did not, in fact, make it into my book. Guess there wasn’t enough about banjo playing in it! I reprint it here to share with you my first glimpse of Dalton Brill’s Barber Shop where I’ve taught for the last 22 years.]

Well, folks, greetings from the thriving metropolis of Winchester, Virginia! WE HAVE MOVED! It’s over! It’s done! No more following a 24-foot U-Haul truck through the mountains at 25 miles per hour! No more wandering around in Columbia, South Carolina, looking for Interstate 77! And no more wondering whether we are going to like this house that we have just committed a lifetime of payments to. We love it!

But, why Winchester? Well, now, I’m not really a big believer in signs but....on our first visit to Winchester, back in December, naturally one of our first concerns was to find a place where I could teach banjo. I mean, first things first. Not four blocks from the house where we were staying [with David McLaughlin], there it was: Brill’s Barber Shop and Musicians’ Shop---Specializing in Bluegrass and Country Music. Now I have taught at several different music stores in my time, but none of them has ever mentioned the word “bluegrass” in its logo, marquee, or advertising. That was Sign #1. Red and I went in and were introduced to the proprietor, Dalton Brill, who, being between haircuts, was sitting down playing his banjo. (Sign #2.) It was a Gibson. (Sign #3.)

Now in order to understand Sign #4, which is a biggie, I will have to digress for just a moment. On Christmas Eve, John and Lynn Hedgecoth [Red’s uncle and his wife, both musicians] came over to our old house in Hawthorne, Florida, to exchange gifts, see how much our kids had grown, pick a little, and gossip about Prominent Bluegrass Musicians. John just happens to be one of the best banjo players in the world. In between Bill Monroe stories, he was wandering around looking at all our books. He came back and said, “Is that a Don Reno Instruction Book you have? I’ve never seen one.”

“No,” I said, “that’s a Don Reno Song Book. I traded Don Wayne for it up in New Jersey. I didn’t know Don Reno had published an instruction book.”

“Oh, yes,” said John. “I’ve always wanted one.”

“Well, if I ever see any,” I said, “I’ll get two. One for me and one for you.”

So what do you think happened? Up in Winchester the very next week, I walked over to the rack of music books in Brill’s and found a whole slew of Don Reno Banjo Instruction Books. And that was Sign #4. I bought two.

I then walked over to the counter [which Dalton called the “showcase”] to peruse the thumbpicks. Every time I go into a music store, I always look through the thumbpicks, hoping beyond hope to find some of the ones I love so well, those being a medium-sized National thumbpick made out of tortoiseshell-colored plastic that is very hard. I don’t even think they make them anymore. I got two from Jerry Douglas nine years ago and used them for about a year until they broke. I was in despair for a while until Alan O’Bryant, of the Nashville Bluegrass Band, gave me an old one of his that was so worn down that it was too short for him and therefore just right for me. I used it for about a year, then it broke and I was without. For five years, I was without.

Then, while looking through the picks at Brill’s, I found one of them. I couldn’t believe it! I was so excited!

“You got any more of these?” I asked.

“Why, yes,” said the owner [that was Dalton] as he brought out a box full of about twenty.

“I’ll take them all,” I said. And that was Sign #5.

Now that we had acertained that all the important things were available in Winchester, we were satisfied to start checking out the schools and looking for a house.

And that was only four months ago, and here we are! Of course, we still have a lot of settling in to do, a lot of boxes to unpack, and a lot of---Good Grief! I haven’t even hung up “Big Earl” yet! What would the Flint Hill Flash say?

I know what he’d say: “Gettin’ yore priorities a little scrambled, aren’t you, Murphy?”

Right you are, Flash. I’ll attend to it right away. Y’all write to me at my new address: Murphy Henry, PO Box, 2498, Winchester, VA 22601.

[And that was the end of the column. Except for the change of one number in our ZIP code, now 22604, our address has stayed the same for over 22 years.]

Note to newbies: The Flint Hill Flash wrote an excellent and wildly humorous column in Banjo Newsletter for several years in the 1980s. He reprises his old column in the most recent issue of BNL, the 35th anniversary issue which came out in November. Get it. Read it. He’s still got the touch. You might also read my article in the same issue. I mention the Flash. [Editors note: as you can see Murphy doesn't actually READ what they rest of us write on here.  😉  ]

Further note to newbies: “Big Earl” was a black and white poster-size picture of Earl Scruggs that the Flash had made up in a small quantity to sell to Scruggs fanatics, which the Flash referred to as “scruggs” (with a lowercase “s” to distinguish them from Scruggs, the man himself). Being a devoted scrugg myself, I, of course, bought one. The picture eventually made its way to Casey’s house where it hangs today in her living room. And the beat goes on....

And in case you are interested, it was when I was without my most favorite old National thumbpicks that I started using the clear Dobro thumbpicks. I am back to using those again because although I used many of the thumbpicks I bought from Dalton, eventually they became brittle and broke when I put them on even though I had stored them in a special little box. Sigh...The newest incarnation of the tortiseshell-colored Nationals are the closest yet to the old ones but they are just a tiny bit too loose on my thumb. They fit fine when I’m just starting to pick, but as I get warmed up, I think the plastic gives just a little and they start rotating slightly on my thumb. So, mostly I’m sticking to the Dobro thumbpicks. I’m having to break in a brand new one now, since the old one gave way (it cracked across the bend) at a recent gig. It’s like breaking in a brand new pair of shoes. Not quite comfortable yet, but it’s getting there!

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