Recently I spent six wonderful days teaching beginning banjo at Augusta Heritage Bluegrass Week in Elkins, West Virginia. It had been many a long year since I’d walked those “green rolling hills of West Virginia” (Hazel Dickens song) and they seemed to have gotten a bit steeper!
One of the highlights of the camp every year is the staff concert. Each teacher chooses a song to perform and picks other teachers to be in their band. In the past, I’ve always done a bluegrass standard because those are so easy to work up. But this time I decided to sing a song I’d just written called “I’m Not Ready To Go Home.” I think of it as a gospel “protest” song.
The first line came from a Louise Penny book I was reading. She was talking about an old woman (Ruth, for you Louise Penny fans) and said, “She could see the shore ahead.” I loved the line and, feeling a song coming on, I wrote it down, personalizing it to “I can see the shore ahead.” Then the words “But I’m not ready to go home” popped into my mind. Soon, the rest of the lyrics starting flowing and by the end of the day (which I had spent playing with my grandson while jotting down more ideas) the song was finished.
I was so excited about it that I drove 30 miles down the road to share it with Teresa, who’s the lead singer in my student band, the Bluegrass Posse. She liked it and said all the things a songwriter wants to hear about a new song and soon we were harmonizing on the chorus. We actually performed the song a few days later at a nursing home, and it sounded so good that I decided I’d sing it at the Elkins camp. Joining me on stage would be Vickie Vaughn and Kimber Ludiker (from Della Mae) playing bass and fiddle and Dudley Connell and Mark Panfil playing guitar and Dobro. Vickie and Dudley would also sing harmony.
The five of us went over the song exactly one time before our sound check Wednesday night. There we sang it twice, working on the kick off, the ending, and the order of the breaks. The harmony parts fell right into place, which is what happens with amazing singers like Dudley and Vickie. Dudley had written out the words to the chorus in big letters with a black marker “just in case” he forgot any of them.
Thursday night, my song was second on the show and I was surprised to find myself nervous. I’m no stranger to performing but it had been a long time since I’d been in front of a big audience. What if I forgot the words to my new song? What if I mispronounced Kimber’s last name? What if my picks fell off? I could feel my hands starting to sweat.
Then, I was being introduced. I bounced up to the mikes as the rest of the band got in place around me. I introduced the musicians and the song. I didn’t forget any names or stumble over any words. I was ready. The band was ready. Now, to kick it off. But, OMG! I couldn’t remember the kickoff! I’d never kicked it off on stage before, and that was a whole different ballgame from kicking it off in practice! What were the pickup notes? No clue. The deer was in the headlights. She couldn’t move.
I had to do something and fast because no one else knew the song well enough to start it. I played three strange and pitiful sounding notes and then stopped. That wasn’t working. Then I made a face. It wasn’t an awful face, but I did look heavenward with an eye roll. (See video below.) Then realizing I had to try again quickly, I played three different pickup notes and went into an all-purpose banjo lick that could go with either a G or a D chord. Unfortunately, the correct chord was C, which was what everyone else was playing. Well, too late to turn back now. I just plowed on through. To my ear, it sounded like an unholy mess but I finally landed on some familiar licks that led us into the chorus and we all started singing in the right place, “I can see the shore ahead but I’m not ready to go home.” After that it was smooth sailing because all I had to do was remember the words and play some banjo backup. Everyone did their part magnificently! We ended as we’d planned by segueing into the chorus of “When the Saints go Marching In.” We finished to loud applause, which was extremely gratifying.
During the intermission, I texted one of my banjo students (and friends) and said, “The song went great but I blew the kickoff.” The return text said, “Sorry! But I love that you blew the kickoff. Now I know you are human!”
Somehow, I found that very comforting. No light-hearted reassurance that “I’m sure it wasn’t that bad.” Or “I’m sure no one else noticed.” Just an acknowledgement that, yep, you blew it. And the underlining assurance that everything was still fine. Because it was.
After the concert was over and we were all leaving the stage, I picked up the words that Dudley Connell had written out. I brought them home and I’m going to frame them. What a joy to sing on stage with him. And Vickie. And Kimber. And Mark. My cup runneth over.
PS: Vickie Vaughn has just been nominated as IBMA Bass Player of the Year! Congratulations, Vickie!
PPS: When I looked at video of the song, the kickoff wasn’t that bad. If I had just kept going and hadn’t made a face—which is what I tell my students all the time--I don’t think anyone would have noticed!
I’m Not Ready To Go Home
I can see the shore ahead but I’m not ready to go home
Oh, Lord, don’t take me now, my to-do list is too long
I’ve got people that I dearly love and places yet to roam
Oh, Lord, don’t take me now, I’m not ready (ready, ready) to go home.
I know I’m just a player in this game that we call life
I know my days are filled with lots of toil and lots of strife
I know you’re holding all the cards and you still call the plays
But if I had my druthers, Lord, I’d like a few more days.
My friends might put a word in, ‘cause they like me hanging round
My fiddling’s getting better, I don’t want to let them down
We play the bluegrass music and we always get a hand
Don’t take me I’m not ready to join the angel band.
So many sings I’d like to sing, so many tunes to play
Until the roll call of the fiddlers on that final judgement day
When Jesus makes the set list out and calls us all again
To play the bluegrass music while the saints go marching in.
Words and music by Murphy Hicks Henry, Arrandem Music, SESAC