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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.

First verse:
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.

Second verse:
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.

Third verse:
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

Seven people standing on stage playing fiddles, and one person playing guitar

Murphy (in the pink plaid shirt) playing fiddle with the Advanced Fiddle Class

Well, it’s been years since I blogged [Editor's note: it has actually been one year, four months, and ten days.] but since I just spend 5 days being a fiddle student at the Augusta Heritage October Old-Time Retreat in Elkins, W.Va., I thought I’d relive the experience by telling you about it. It was such a reversal, me being a student instead of a teacher. And on an instrument with which I have had such a tempestuous on-off relationship for decades.

Three of my banjo students were also going to go, but two of them couldn’t make it, so it was just me and Dano, who was going to take the vocal class.

I signed up for the Advanced Fiddle Class, not because I feel like I’m an advanced fiddler (I still call myself a hacker) but because I figured that, as a professional musician, at least I’d be able to keep up. However, I found myself hanging on by my fingernails! It was an odd feeling to be the slowest student in the group. (Although I’ll confess, I had already had that humbling experience when I started doing yoga 5 years ago.)

It was a small class, just 6 students, most of us over 60. On the first day, our teacher, the twenty-something Tessa Dillion (who is a fabulous fiddler), played 4 tunes for us (all very fast!) and said this is what we’d be learning during the 4-day camp. Yikes! Three of them I’d never heard, and the fourth, “Salt River” (known in bluegrass as “Salt Creek,”) didn’t sound anything like the version I teach. In fact, having the banjo version in my head actually made it harder to learn.

Luckily, Tessa was teaching by ear (yay!) and she broke down the tunes into small phrases and she played them slow and she even told us where to put our fingers. But, dang, even the names for the fingers were confusing! I use the words index, middle, and ring and she used the words first, second, third. So, when she said “third finger,” I had trouble making my ring finger move. By the time I figured out what my third finger was and got it in place, she had already moved on to another note!

Of course, if I really got lost, I had no trouble asking her to go over the phrase again, because that’s what I want my students to do. Tessa always did it willingly and graciously and slowly. I was, however, the only student who ever asked her to explain something again. After class she told me she was glad I spoke up. She said there were probably other students who needed to go over it again, too. That made me feel good.

So, in two hours of instruction I learned the whole of “Wilson’s Hornpipe.” I use the term “learned” loosely. Fortunately, at the end of class, Tessa played the whole tune slowly for us to record on our phones. And it was a good thing she did because, when I got up the next morning to review the tune before class, I had completely forgotten it! So there I am, standing in my room in my pajamas, ear buds in, listening to the tune and trying to pluck out the notes on the fiddle without using the bow because it’s 6:30 am and I don’t want to disturb anyone. It was slow going. I did have some muscle memory from all the reps in class, but there were many notes that I was still having to guess at. And that drove me crazy!

By 9:30, we were back in class, playing the tune together slowly. That helped. I was beginning to get a tiny feel for it. But now, it was time to learn another one! “Salt River”! The next day, we learned yet another whose name escapes me right now. And each day my brain was tireder and foggier because Dano and I had found a little spot where we could play some bluegrass (him on banjo and me on guitar) and we stayed up till about 11 every night jamming. A few students and even a couple of instructors slithered over to the dark side and joined us, and several folks stopped by to listen. The camp coordinator actually gave us a plug one morning and referred to that spot as the “Bluegrass Alcove”!

I kept practicing the fiddle tunes in my room, even using the bow after I figured everyone was awake. And it would be a great end to this story to have me say that I finally learned the tunes and could play them well. But the truth is, by Sunday morning, when each class went on stage to showcase a tune that they’d learned, I was still struggling to remember all the notes in the first tune, which is the one we were going to play. Sometimes I had them, and sometimes I didn’t. And I absolutely could not play it fast.

Still, I got on stage with my classmates, and with Tessa on guitar, I gave it my best shot. The thing that saved me was my joy of being on stage and my ability to keep going when I made a mistake. The strongest fiddlers pulled us through and we sounded fine.

It’s going to take a lot more woodshedding for me to be able to play those tunes! We’ll see if I make the time to practice them. If I don’t, well, I did play a lot of fiddle in the class and think I’m a better fiddler for that. And for now, that’s enough.

(Casey's students, Ben and Kasey, who are also regular Tip Jar Jammers, recently attended the Augusta Heritage Bluegrass Week in Elkins, W.Va. I asked Ben to write a little about their experience. So, heeeeeeeere's Ben!)

Hey Murphy,

Told ya I'd write a blog on our Augusta experience and I didn't want to let you down so here goes.

First off I need to touch on what got us to attending Augusta. Last year after Casey's return from Augusta she had mentioned that it might be a good fit for my Kasey. Especially since there are more young people there versus our local jams. That got things started. So over the course of the winter I did some research and read up on it to try to get some understanding about this event. Since Kasey definitely wouldn't do this by herself that meant I needed to be going. So I thought it would be best for me to take the bass course and her to do the banjo stuff. This would allow her to start to separate herself from me a little. What you have to understand is that it's a little nerve racking especially since we both have been under the wings of our banjo and bass bosses. (Murphy and Casey) When things go wrong they're always there to bail us out and mostly in a kind way! Unless you're me and you play Fireball Mail when you're not supposed to! ...continue reading

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Our regular Tuesday Tip Jar Jam was canceled this week so I could go up to Elkins, West Virginia, and give a talk about my book, Pretty Good For A Girl. I also played in a concert that night with another band of "Merry Chicas" that included Casey, Laurie Lewis, Kathy Kallick, Tammy Rogers, Sharon Gilchrist, and Mary Burdette. "My, my, my" as the song goes! I was accompanied on my trip by my friend and "personal assistant," Kathy Holliday, who is the Best Book Seller Ever and a great road-tripping buddy. We talked all the way up, and all the way back. And on the way back we also Ate Chocolate and Drank Cokes! Yippee!

The book talk went great. IMHO, it's finally shaping up now since I've given it a number of times. I've finally figured out that I do better sitting down with "my banjo on my knee" and just talking. When I run out of things to say or feel like I'm "yammering," I punctuate the talk with a song. This time, Casey joined me on stage so we had the full force of two banjos! As one of our songs, I got the audience to sing along with us on "Worried Gal," in the women's key of C and asked them to pay attention to how difficult it was to actually remember to sing the word "gal" instead of "man," which is the more conventional way to sing this (and the way the Carter Family sang it).

After being immersed in a book talk and an all-female band, I'm feeling my feminist oats! I was so proud that Laurie Lewis called me a "firebrand." High praise, indeed! ...continue reading

Murphy and Casey appeared at the after-lunch roundup during Bluegrass Week at the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, WV, July 29, 2014. "Lonesome Road Blues" was the first tune ever recorded by a woman playing Scruggs-style banjo. That woman as Roni Stoneman.

Tuesday evening during Bluegrass Week all the female instructors played a set at the evening concert. What a fun show! Here is "Banjo Pickin' Girl". Murphy and Casey Henry (banjos), Kathy Kallick (guitar), Mary Burdette (bass), Laurie Lewis and Tammy Rogers (fiddles), Sharon Gilchrist (mandolin).

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Well, here I am, once again teaching banjo during Bluegrass Week at Augusta Heritage in Elkins, West Viriginia. As you know, Casey is also here and we are sharing a room in one of the college dorms. Here is a picture of my side of the room. Along with a picture of our food stash.

Murphy and Casey's room at Augusta

Murphy and Casey's room at Augusta

I have a wonderful intermediate banjo class of seven students, all adults. Six men, one woman. The first day we also had 17-year-old Jake in with us, but when we found out he had learned from tab (and could actually play!) we kicked him out! In truth, he was way too advanced for us so I sent him up to Tony Trischka’s class. (Along with a note that he was a tab reader!)

Slight digression: At the staff meeting Sunday night, the instructors were told that the college would Xerox a certain amount of tablature for the teachers, ten pages per student. Tony immediately asked if he could have my tab allowance! Naturally, I said yes, but I made him kiss my ring first!

On Monday night Tony did a History of the Banjo presentation, solo, at the Elkins Art Center where I was startled to see a lifesized poster of my son Chris playing his mandolin! It was positioned facing the

Murphy and Casey's food stash.

Murphy and Casey's food stash.

audience so while I was watching Tony, Chris was watching me! Slightly surreal! Tony was gracious enough to ask me what he should start his show with, so I suggested his original tune “New York Chimes” (a wordplay on New York Times) which I love. The whole show was wonderful, including Tony’s story about calling Pete Seeger on the phone to ask a question about how to play “Coal Creek March” and talking to Pete while he was in the bathtub! The mind boggles....

But you might be wanting to know what we are doing in class. Monday we began working on improvising! We started with “Blue Ridge Cabin Home” (of course), playing the entire tune with forward and backward rolls. This then became our “lousy level” (Casey’s term from John Hartford) to which we could then return when the other stuff we added (pulloff, slide, tag, etc) became too difficult. Or if we just forgot what we were doing! Tuesday we put on the capo at the second fret, to play in A, and did the same thing with “Bury Me Beneath The Willow,” adding a rather difficult C lick (the double square roll). Today it was back to BRCH, only this time we were doing it in the key of C—without a capo. When we finished with that, I sensed brain fatigue so we filled out the rest of the class time by picking. Each student suggested a song so we did:

Washed in the Blood
Little Maggie
I Saw the Light
Old Joe Clark
Lonesome Road Blues

There were a few trains wrecks along the way, but all in all I think we done good! Everyone in the class is very brave and jumps right in and does the best they can. And we are getting plenty of practice vamping!

After class every afternoon me and my fiddle (or, if you prefer, my fiddle and I) have been joining the throng of students on the giant wrap-around porch of Halliehurst Mansion for Casey’s Slow Jam. Casey came up with the brilliant idea of jamming each day in a specific key, so no time is lost fooling around with capos. Monday it was G, Tuesday it was A, and today, Wednesday, will be C. Which my class is now well-acquainted with (to use more bluegrass grammar!). Casey and I are both looking forward to the Key of C which is where we are more comfortable singing, G and A being too low. Although we were getting some nice duet harmony yesterday on “Amazing Grace” and “Mountain Dew.”

As I wind down this blog, it is pouring rain outside, so I am skipping the after lunch concert in favor of a small nap. I’m pretty sure I will drift off with the sounds of today’s lesson in my mind. “There’s a well-beaten path on that old mountain side....” In the Key of C, of course!

Casey Henry

Casey Henry

Here it is---day three of Bluegrass Week at Augusta. Murphy is here teaching the intermediate banjo class and I'm here as staff musician. So far I've sat in with Chris Stuart and Janet Beazley's vocal class to sing the third part in a trio, played rhythm guitar for Murphy's class, helped out with some beginning fiddle instruction, and lead two slow jams on the porch of Halliehurst Mansion, a beautiful old house that at the heart of campus. (Others might say that the Icehouse pub is the heart of campus. I suppose it depends on your point of view.) I also went to the Monday night contra dance:

Augusta's Dance Pavillion

Augusta's Dance Pavillion

Years ago at this camp I fell in love with clogging and contra dancing. Walking down to the pavilion last night I was filled with a particular sense of excitement that I hadn't experienced since last time I was here, walking down to the first dance of the week. (In the above photo you can see our intrepid vocal instructors Chris and Janet waltzing---they're the couple closest to the band.)

Monday night Murphy and I went to the Randolph County Community Arts Center to see Tony Trischka present a show/talk/demonstration on the history of the banjo. He was amazing, as he always is. He ended with a John Hartford tune called "Foggy Mountain Landscape," which he described as having a difficulty level of "10". Now, when Tony Trischka rates a song's difficulty level as "10" you know that it's serious business.

Tony Trischka at the Randolph County Center for the Arts

Tony Trischka at the Randolph County Community Arts Center

In this case the tune featured the use of the Keith tuner on the second string. He also de-tuned the first string FREEHAND! And not only did he tune it down and then back up, but he tuned it down to three different notes, and then back up, stopping at all the same notes on the way up!! We were all pretty well flabbergasted.

Also at the Arts Center is a traveling exhibit from the Smithsonian Institution called New Harmonies: Celebrating American Roots Music. Strangely, and completely coincidentally, this exhibit contains a larger-than-life cutout of my brother Chris Henry. So of course Murphy had to get her picture taken with it:

Murphy Henry posing with Chris Henry cutout.

Murphy Henry posing with Chris Henry cutout.

It is impossible to recount all the highlights here at Davis and Elkins College but I will add that today's afternoon concerts by Laurie Lewis and Tom Rozum, and by Janet Beazley and Chris Stuart were a pure pleasure to listen to. And as I write this I'm listening to a jam outside my building that includes Herschel Sizemore, the Gibson Brothers, and my former bandmate Tyler Grant, where they are playing "Rebecca," a popular tune written by Herschel himself. It doesn't get any better than this.

This just in--Murphy will be teaching the intermediate banjo class at the Augusta Heritage workshops next week (August 26-31) in Elkins, WV. The original instructor, Charlie Cushman, had to cancel at the last minute, so Murphy is stepping up to the plate. It has been YEARS since Murphy has taught here, and there are STILL SPOTS AVAILABLE if you are a spur-of-the-moment type person. Call 304.637.1209 for more info.