At long last, and after MANY requests from people, I finally figured out how to get the blog to send people email when we make a new post. Just enter your email address in the box beneath the "Get Our Blogs By Email" headline to the right and you will receive each new post in your email box. Easy!!
This guest post is brought to us by Betty Fisher, who takes lessons from Casey and regularly attends the Tip Jar Jams.
So it’s New Year’s Eve and I am picking up my banjo for the first time in more days than I care to admit. (Sorry Casey and Murphy. You can kick me later.)
I had gone through my repertoire and have now capoed up to A. I don’t know what happened but somehow things got badly out of tune and I seriously over cranked the first string and it snapped. Scared the bejeebers out of me! (Couple of bad words flew.) So now I knew I had to re-string it. I had bought new strings on the advice of Murphy after the last jam that I attended. She told me if I was the least bit mechanically inclined, I could do it on my own. I am mechanically inclined. Having been a previous surgical nurse, there were many occasions when I had to get a malfunctioning piece of equipment working again in the middle of surgery while a surgeon stomped his feet and yelled, “Just fix it!” Also there is a very embarrassing story (for my husband) about a broken washing machine that he couldn’t fix, but I did in about 5 minutes….but I digress.
The blog theme we were using started to not display our blog title, so we had to change. It's still a work in progress, so bear with us. All the content is still here, though!!
...and it looks the same again! Still going back and forth!!
Thanks for your patience!
Peter Rowan Tour - a PG report from the road - Part One
November 9, 2013 at 7:36pm
I've really been looking forward to this trip for a long time. Peter's album, The Old School, came out in spring of this year, and this is really our first tour for it. Yungchen Lhamo, is a wonderful friend that we met at the Leaf Festival in North Carolina. Peter and Yungchen hit it off with their connection to spiritual music and Buddhism and Yungchen has brought a great balancing energy to our performances with her zen improvisational style of singing. She's also really funny, thoughtful, and is really easy to be around.
Our first gig was up near Maggie Valley, North Carolina at the Cataloochee Ranch. Keith and I flew into Raleigh on Sunday night, and drove up there. We stayed in a wonderfully comfortable and cozy ranch style wood and stone lodge that had been built back in the 30's by a family that still runs the place. Waking up there the next morning felt a little like Christmas with the fire burning, lots of food, and good vibes. We met Peter downstairs for lunch and played some tunes, and caught up.
There were two supper seatings for about 30-40 people each and the food that was served was excellent. At supper we talked about what we should do, to kind of make a plan. That is an interesting somewhat ossilating subject because Peter is a fellow who doesn't like to hem things in and rather enjoys the zen and spontaneity of the exploration in the moment. But we did need to go over a couple things and had a few minutes before the show to mull it over.
Yungchen showed us one of her new songs of which the subject was the secret moment of revelation that comes when you never expected something to happen and it happens. We clearly didn't have the vibe right at first, much too common bluegrassy. She has a very effective and calm way of directing us to access more of the spiritual energy that is required to help express the sentiment. She said things like "You must feel the Earth, and when you like it, we go on to the next part." The phrasing was not square, and although the melody was fairly simple, almost like an American old-time mountain melody, the ornaments were subtle and beautiful and the vibe was intense, perhaps nocturnal, looming, and expansive like a blanket that was rolling out through the night. We did the best we could and had our work cut out for us there. It's really different, challenging, and enjoyable to pay so much precise and careful attention to the zen vibe of this Tibetan spiritual music and to see how that carries across into the rest of Peter's music, and hopefully some of my own music too.
Our concert that night was an all acoustic one with just Peter, Keith, Yungchen and myself. The audience was mostly folks who live up that way and they were quite receptive to our show and many even got up and danced on the finale. I think that was the first time Yungchen had danced to american-hillbilly music, it was great. I put together a short compilation of some of the best moments and uploaded it to Facebook. Peter and I scarfed up on six or seven different delicious desserts after the concert before joining a small group of folks in front of the fire for a really enjoyable conversation about Monroe, bluegrass and mountain music.
The next day I had a really nice horseback ride up to the high ridge called Hemphill Bald which looked out for a hundred miles through the Smokey Mountains in the area that was named by the Cherokee indians, Cataloochee, or "wave upon wave", of mountains. It was gorgeous. I was a little bit embarrassed and sorry when I got back and Peter and Keith were waiting with their bags at the door to leave, the ride had taken about 2 and a half hours, somewhat longer that I had thought it might be. It was about 12:30 and we rode up to Asheville for lunch and loaded in at ISIS that afternoon.
Asheville is a hippy town in a way that has a a bunch of enthusiastic folks who were ready to drink and have a good time. They have a regular bluegrass night on Tuesdays and some good local musicians opened the show up. I got to see my aunt Claire and her friends, and a couple of other folks that live around the Asheville area. It was the first time that I tried to set up Yungchen's nice camera to tape the show. It was awkward trying to find a spot right before the show that would have a clear view amongst the crowd that was already hanging out. Once I did find a spot, it was hard to tell if the angle would be sufficient to capture the whole band because there was no one on stage. Yungchen would gently encourage me to do better the next day. The crowd was loud and we played two sets and had a good time.
We went on down to Athens the next day - about a 3 and a half hour drive. The promoter fellow, Adriane, has a club called the New Earth there. The stage had some nice reclaimed wood, and there was some psychedelic original art on the walls. We had a good little jam before the show working up Little Rabbit and one of Peter's friends brought a nice Weber mandocello around and we had fun with a little jam outside. I had been singing one of my songs on most of the shows since a couple months back. This night I couldn't get it going, I was trying to play it too fast, and it ended up just being a little wonky and that threw me off a little bit funky for the rest of the night. Peter suggested that I slow it down to give it a more grand treatment.
The hotels we're staying in are nice, usually the Country Inn and Suites. Good rooms that don't smell funky, with wifi - what more could a 21st century bluegrass musician want. The drives are manageable and it seems like we always get at least an hour or two of downtime every day to catch a quick nap. Paul, Michael, and myself have been riding in the van, and Keith, Peter, and Yungchen in the Charger.
The next day we hauled up to Charleston to the Pour House, about four and a half hours. I played the guys what Sarah and I have been working on and they were gracious listeners. It's always good to hear the music in a new sound system, I can tell some things sonically about the music, where to relieve some compression, etc. Mike played some good tunes off his laptop including one new tune he was working on and also some good live Stanley brothers including "They Say Love is Blind, But I See Through You." Hard to beat that.
The Charleston show was interesting. It was another rock club. We had a good meal beforehand, and started the show about 45 minutes after we were scheduled, a late hour of 10:45. Leftover Salmon had played two nights in a row before us and I think a lot of the young hippy crowd was fairly spent from chasing the elusion. Usually Peter has been starting out solo, then introducing Yungchen, then blowing a conch shell while we come out to start playing the Methodist Preacher. He'll bring Yungchen out early and introduce her, and she frequently does an offering, then they'll do a couple together. We slowed my song down quite a bit, and I just reproached it mentally from a go with it don't try to make it something it's not trying to do mentality. I have never sung a song that slowly on stage, but I really enjoyed it. It made me really concentrate on getting good tone and staying in the moment. I loved it and it went over much better and I got a slap on the back from Peter which made me feel good.
We've been doing a healthy smattering of songs of Peter's new CD, The Old School. Usually the title cut, often Drop the Bone, Letter From Beyond, Ragged Old Dream, and occasionally Oh, Freedom. Keith usually sings a good old Stanley brothers tune like Little Maggie or On a Lonesome Night and we've been doing Panama Red on almost every show. Mike has been doing Gold Rush a good bit and did Cherokee Shuffle one time. Padma Sambade is one that Yungchen sings with us on and the closer is usually Land of the Navaho, and then sometimes we'll follow that with Midnight Moonlight. A couple of other tunes that we have done are Lonesome L.A. Cowboy and one time we did Mississippi Moon. After the break, Peter said "Let's go back out there and have some fun." Which was a great mantra for me the second set, because it's easy to try to hard and miss the real muse, and to go out having that fresh on the ears helped me remember what the goal was.
Our timing has been getting a lot better, and we reached a new level of precision on this particular gig. We had been experiencing some nice pockets here and there and by the time we got halfway through the set I was dialed right in on Peter's right hand and started to intuit in a natural way where his groove was. As we were playing The Walls of Time, I was able to really understand what Peter meant when he said he became the Walls of Time, because there it was - the groove locked and in this nothing happening everywhere moment I felt like, at least for a bit that I had stopped scaring off the wildlife and was able to be a welcome walker in the forest.
Augusta, Georgia was our next stop. I watched the new documentary about Peter called "The Tao of Bluegrass" in the van on the way to the venue. I was really inspired to see Peter talk about the music, and hear other great musicians talk about Peter. What he has done with regard to his own spiritual work and how he has been able to put so much of that feeling into his songs that he shares is absolutely astounding. He has searched and explored, had revelations, and opened his heart tempered with his formative bluegrass experience to channel universal truth in an accessible, fascinating, and compelling way. I was stoked when we got to the place.
The Imperial Theatre is a really nice old building with an excellent sound system. It's got a big old ceiling and a large balcony and it was a big change to go from lots of loud people in a loud rock club to a classy soft-seater theatre like that. Unfortunately the word did not get out too well in town and the audience was little and not so loud. But, we had some good moments and I especially enjoyed the quintet on Let Me Walk Lord By Your Side. After the show, Yungchen said, "Let's make song." She's always wanting to make some new music, and I love going on the improvisational explorations with her. I was happy on this one because it was just the two of us and I felt like I had more freedom do move around in different chords a little bit because usually we just rock on the one the whole time, which works and gives her plenty of space to do her thing. This time I was happy to be able to sing lots of melodies with her and the funniest thing was that it ended up being a song about chicken which we had eaten all day. That's a testament to Yungchen's sense of humor. We start out with a hybrid Tibetan/Appalachian mountain spiritual offering and it turns into a silly freestyle song about eating chicken. I love it.
There are so many different musical situations in Nashville. Often times I find myself surrounded by the best of the world-class professionals, and many other times I like to jam with folks who just do it for fun. There is an event right outside of town called the Full Moon Pickin' Party, and it was a continuation of a party that got started in the 80's by our lawyer friend and bluegrass enthusiast, Ted Walker.
The party is located in a beautiful section of Percy Warner park and is attended by several hundred folks every full moon. They have a stage set up and bands play from about 7-11, but the main attraction for most of the folks that come is the jamming. It costs $20 for a regular adult admission, but only $5 if one shows up with a qualified musical instrument.
I rode with some friends and got to the park about 9:30 and walked in to see a whole lot of people had showed up as it was a very pleasant Friday evening with perfect weather and a huge Supermoon beaming beautifully overhead. I made the usual rounds and took in the lay of the land as it were.
Johnny Campbell, an ardent Bill Monroe style bluegrass fiddler was there with his dad, Bob, and we started off with "The Old Mountaineer". I rarely get to play those tunes and so that was fun. We then played "The Lonesome Old Farmer", a tune that I had learned off Johnny's brother, Jimmy's album that featured Monroe on the mandolin. Another fine moment.
My buddy Adam Olmstead, my favorite songwriter under 50, is visiting for a couple of months from New Brunswick, and we sang "Sweetheart of Mine". That was the first song we ever sang together one night at the Station Inn about seven or eight years ago. He usually sings lead, but this night I rendered the verses and sang lead on the chorus. Next, we did the Delmore Brothers tune, "Here Today, Gone Tomorrow", a good jam number that is easy to follow. Then I saw Ted Walker.
Ted and I visited and reminisced for a while until he said something to the effect of, "you better get back in there". One of the party's only drawbacks is that it ends promptly at 11pm and that's right when a lot of people are just getting warmed up. So I took his advice and came back to assume my position in the jam.
I took a mandolin break on whatever was playing when I got back - I can't remember. I dug in and played hard and loud and the crowd responded, and that was satisfying. We got through with that number and someone asked me to sing, so I thought quickly, then launched into the most recent tune I have learned, the Stanley Brothers' "Paint the Town".
I started the tune out by playing the verse and then I sang a verse and chorus to realize that it wasn't a number the folks were very familiar with, and so when the break after the chorus came around, I went into "Say Won't You Be Mine", which I thought would be more familiar. I've had good luck switching tunes at the blink of a hat recently with my band, and I was feeling confident that the switch could be made easily. Wrong!!
At these parties, not only is it a little raucous with jams going on every ten feet or so, but the adults of 21 years have the opportunity to consume four complimentary beers with the price of admission. So, folks weren't entirely sober to say the least. When I realized that half of the people were still playing the chords to the original song I had kicked off, I thought it would be a good idea to use my hands to show everybody what chords were in the new selection. Wrong!!
The first chord in "Say Won't You Be Mine" is a G chord. It's also what we call the "one" chord in the Nashville numbers system which is used on stage in tight spots but mostly in the studio to write chord charts for folks who have never heard or played the song being recorded before. When I raised my hand to communicate the "one" chord, two things happened: I had to quit playing the mandolin for a moment. and also, with my monodigital articulation, I inadvertently communicated to several that what I wanted was for people to stop playing, as in the one finger meant - "Hold on a second!".
So with half of the people in the jam stopping, the momentum of the song had ceased, the song was awkwardly and uncomfortably ended, and I had earned another lesson in what not to do in that situation. Next time I will most likely, A) Play songs that I am quite certain will be more accessible(Rollin' My Sweet Baby's Arms, How Mountain Girls Can Love, etc.), and B) Don't assume people are going to know what I am doing if I hold up a finger in hopes of communicating the right chords.
These are a couple of lessons that I am surprised I had not fully comprehended and put into practice, but it just goes to show, that in the thick of things, it's easy to forget simple things that help avoid getting into a jam within a jam!
It thrills me when someone who is new to the Murphy Method takes that “leap of faith” and starts learning by ear. The series of emails below that I exchanged with Tom after our Beginning Banjo Camp in October seems to capture the start of that experience in a nutshell. With his kind permission, I am sharing them with you. As he said, “Hopefully the message will help others who have struggled with tab. As I say, if I can learn with your method and make some nice music with my banjo, anyone can!” Thank you, Tom!
Thanks again for the excellent camp. It was a great experience. I wanted to email you a question about the sequence of learning songs. I have always wanted to play Will The Circle Be Unbroken. I have tried to learn to play it for a number of years by using tab without any success. I do have your Gospel Songs DVD. I know you recommend doing the first two DVDs and Misfits DVD first. Over the past couple of days, I have begun using the Gospel DVD and starting to work on Will The Circle Be Unbroken. I know this song is out of the sequence you recommend for learning and it seems to have some more challenging licks and it will take more time to learn. I wanted to see if you had any recommendations about trying to learn this song. It appears to be a more challenging song but it is perhaps my favorite song on the banjo and a song I really like to sing. Since I have tried to learn it by tab for some time, it is also a personal challenge for me to learn the song by your method. For these reasons, I would like to learn this song and I wanted to see what your thoughts were about working on it. I would appreciate any suggestions or ideas you have. Thank you for your time and response.
Glad you enjoyed the camp. So did I! I appreciate your asking for my advice about learning Circle. I can understand why it's a favorite of yours--it's also a favorite of mine! And it's a great song. Now, although this may seem counter-intuitive, I believe you can learn the song faster--in the long run--if you learn a few other basic tunes first. In spite of its seemingly simple roll pattern, it's really pretty complicated. You don't have to go thru Vol 1 Vol 2 and Misfits, but would you be willing to learn at least a couple of songs before tackling Circle? They will help you internalize some of the basics you will need to know so you can more easily tackle the specifics of Circle. If so, let me know what you already play from these DVDs and I'll pick two others that will help you specifically with Circle. Hoping this will appeal to you!
Thanks for your response. I feel I play Banjo in the Hollow, Cripple Creek and Boil Them Cabbage Down fairly well as far as the banjo solos go, but not necessarily the vamping at this point since that was very new to me. Your method really helped me with Cripple Creek and Boil Them Cabbage Down since I had struggled with those songs for a few years with tab and now I am doing fairly well with the melody and timing. So here's a banjo salute to you and your method. It does work, even with an older musical misfit like myself. I would appreciate any suggestions you have about two additional songs to learn from the Volume 1 or Misfits. As I said, I really enjoy Circle and have been very frustrated with trying to learn it from tab. Truthfully, I was about ready to smash my banjo over my head (just joking). Let me know what you think about some additional songs.
Thanks for your thoughtful, detailed reply. I believe if you learn I Saw The Light and Worried Man (from the Misfits DVD), those will GREATLY help your learning Circle. There is an important lick (slightly hard) taught in those--the Tag Lick--which will need some practice to get it down smooth before you go on to Circle. As I said, learning these will make learning Circle MUCH EASIER. No need to learn the vamping to these right now, altho in the future you would need to learn that. Each of these songs should take a least two weeks to get down smoothly, it not more. Good luck, Tom, and let me know how you are doing!
Thanks for your time and response. I really appreciate your help. I will plan on learning I Saw the Light and Worried Man before I take up Will the Circle Be Unbroken. After all of that, I will plan on resuming your recommended learning sequence from the Volume 1 and 2. Thanks again for your advice and time.
I just hope you don't mind updates on my experience/progress with the Murphy method. I just wanted to let you know that the lights started to come on. I had been progressing slowly with I Saw The Light as you had recommended but was having some difficulty bringing out the melody when all at once last night it seemed to click and the lights came on and the melody was there. It is still not quite where I would like it, but I am clearly getting there with this song. I plan to polish the song very well and then move on to Worried Man. I just want to thank you for your method. I don't know if you realize how much frustration a person can have with tab and not being able to play a song and have it sound like the song if you know what I mean. It is a real pleasure to hear real music coming out of my banjo and not just a slew of notes. Thanks again for all of your advice, suggestions and the camp. I will keep you updated from time to time as I continue to make progress. I hope that you and Red, and Chris, Casey and Dalton have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Again, I thank YOU, Tom! Hearing your story will definitely help make my Christmas a Merry one!
Now, over to Casey’s house to see Dalton! Whoopee!
And so, what did Red, the aged, tottering, grizzled patriarch of the family, do for the weekend? As previously noted, he took care of Casey's baby, namely Dalton Henry, who is two months old and mighty cute. Even if he couldn't stay awake for Halloween.
I mentioned before that Dalton is a beginning banjo player, because he can't help it. But there's more he can't help doing too, over the next few years, which includes learning to talk. And how children learn that is HIGHLY relevant to learning to play music.
How does a child learn to talk? By listening and imitating people whom he hears. When you see the slogan "Talk to your baby!" it's important, because babies have to hear words before they can say them. A baby listens and listens before it learns to talk.
And would anyone say that a baby should learn to READ before it starts to talk? Of course not. That'd be ridiculous.
So what does this have to do with bluegrass? Only everything. If you're learning to make sounds (play music, that is), learn those sounds-- the notes-- BY EAR. Then practice. A lot. As Murphy says, "Listen, listen, listen, and play, play, play."
Don't try to learn to play bluegrass music from a piece of paper. Do you want to know what the notes should sound like? Yes. Can paper show you that? No.
Casey won't make little Dalton read before he can talk. That's not how people learn!
Take a hint.
In the midst of everything else that’s been happening in my life, in the lives of our family, I don’t want to forget to give you the follow-up about son Chris’s song, "Walking West to Memphis." As I told you, it was nominated for IBMA Song of the Year. Well, as it turned it, Chris’s song didn’t win, BUT the album that it appeared on, Help My Brother, by the Gibson Brothers, did win Album of the Year! And Leigh Gibson did thank Chris and all the songwriters from the stage of the Awards Show which I thought was very classy. Chris handled not winning with much aplomb and grace. I think he understood that just being nominated (that old cliché!) was a real honor. And he received several text messages right after the winner was announced, most of which said, “I still think your song was the best!” Which helped!
Red and I were sitting right beside him at the Awards Show, while Casey and Dalton and my niece Natalie Pate along with Red’s mom, Renee, and his uncle banjo player John Hedgecoth were sitting in the balcony. We were all so proud of Chris for writing such a great song! And he’s got many others which are equally as good. I look forward to their finding their way onto other albums. You go, Chris!
So, my banjo student Mark comes in yesterday for his lesson with a story to tell. He says he was driving home from work, listening to my CD, M and M Blues, which I had given him on our shared birthday, May 18. It was not his first listen, of course, so it didn’t hurt my feelings when he said he’d gotten tired of listening to me and, wishing for a change, had turned the CD player off and turned his radio on. Much to his jaw-dropping surprise, there I was again, playing “John Hardy,” my name glowing cheerfully at him from the digital display. “Turn me off, will you?” I seemed to be chuckling. “I don’t think so!” Needless to say, Mark was a little freaked. Apparently the Universe was thinking, naw, you really haven’t heard enough of Murphy!
So many thanks to either Chris Jones or Ned Luberecki, two of the DJs on the Sirius XM show, “Bluegrass Junction,” for playing “John Hardy,” which is one of the cuts on the Stelling Anthology CD. Mark was also mightily impressed by the bass playing on that tune which was done by my fav-o-rite bass player of all time, Casey Henry! I might also mention that Ned has a couple of dynamite tunes on that same CD, with the extremely clever titles “Emergency Pulloff” and “Nedscape Navigator.”
I now return to my previous engagement, writing the General Store column for Bluegrass Unlimited. This short blog was brought to you by a cup of instant Starbucks! Buzz!
I come to you yet again from the campus of Maryville College in Maryville, Tennessee, where I'm teaching at Kaufman Kamp. It's my eighth year here (I think...it's a little hard to keep track...) and this year I got a promotion from banjo/mandolin/fiddle/guitar 101 instructor and slow jam leader to regular banjo instructor. For the first time this year I get to see all levels of banjo students and it is great!
Yesterday I saw the beginners and the advanced class. (I so want to call them the "advanceds." I don't think that's really a word but it should be.) I taught the beginners the high break to "Boil Them Cabbage Down" and then we vamped to it. I taught the advanced class a slightly obscure Earl Scruggs tune called "Silver Eagle" (he recorded it with the Scruggs Revue) and we vamped to that, and then talked about some little backup licks they can throw into their vamping to spice it up a little. Unfortunately "Silver Eagle" is not on any of the Murphy Method DVDs, so no potential sales there, darn it, but they all seemed to like the tune.
Today I see two intermediate classes and, as usual, although I see them in a mere 75 minutes I have not yet decided what we're going to do. I typically make that decision once I see who is in the class and what they already know. I have some possibilities in mind, though, that include a high break to "Blue Ridge Cabin Home", "Salty Dog," maybe some simple backup licks. You'll notice that all those choices ARE on the DVDs. I think people like to be able to take home with them the things that they've learned at camp. And I like them to buy DVDs, so that's a win-win right there.
It was three years ago, from this very dorm building, that I wrote our very first blog posts. In the three years since we've written about everything from banjo lessons and jamming to gigs and touring to mandolin bridge making and flying airplanes. You'll do doubt have noticed that we've lost a little steam in the last few months. We've gone from posting to every single day (how did we DO that??) to three days a week, to once a week if we're lucky. One reason for this is that we've already written a LOT about the topics relevant to teaching and learning bluegrass by ear, so we don't want to repeat ourselves. Another reason is that summertime is just SO busy it's hard to make the time to sit down and write. And as I pointed out to one of our students, no one pays us to blog, so everything we do that someone is giving us money to do (like record lessons and send out orders and play gigs and write magazine columns) gets done before blogging. But we certainly have no plans to discontinue blogging, so we'll keep on posting sporadically with news and tales from our playing and teaching experiences and we hope that you'll keep on reading!