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Murphy Henry

Now that I’ve told you about content of the Harmony Singing DVD, let me tell you about the fun stuff! I picked Janet Beazley and Chris Stuart up at the airport on Saturday night about 7:45. I’d originally told them I’d meet them curbside, but of course by the time I’d made the almost two-hour trip (primed by a Starbucks Tall Americano and oatmeal cookie!) I needed the visit the “loo” as they say in Jolly Olde England. So I met them inside at baggage. I’d told them they could use our instruments, so all they had was two suitcases. (“And no merch!” as they both exclaimed.)

When we stepped outside the terminal, they were both stunned by the cold (22 degrees) which was made even colder by the brisk wind which was making the flags stand straight out. Yikes! We didn’t waste any time getting in the car and cranking up the heat.

I figured they would want to eat something so I told them they had three choices: eat junk food at the airport, eat fast food when we got to Winchester (about an hour’s drive), or wait till we got home and eat some of the food I had fixed. Bless their hearts, they opted to eat at home.

With Janet in the front seat, she and I talked all the way home, with Chris occasionally chiming in from somewhere in the back. She and I had met (and bonded) a few years ago at Mid-West Banjo Camp over a beer at a local tavern and the book Eat, Pray, Love. Deeply engrossed in conversation, we didn’t realize a huge summer thunderstorm had arisen and that we were due back on campus to perform real soon. The only thing to do was to make a dash for it through the pouring rain with lightning flashing all around and “thunder roaring, bursting in the clouds.” We arrived at our dorm drenched to the skin and looking liked drowned rats. We had just time to towel our hair day and change clothes before jumping on stage to sing Love Come Home as a duet. It sounded great. We’ve been buddies ever since.

Arriving back at the house, I warmed up bowls of a slow-cooker roast/stew I had concocted based on my friend Robyn’s recipe which included dumping in a bottle of beer and ¼ cup of brown sugar to the roast and adding onion, carrots, apple, apricots, prunes, and cranberries. By the time I’d added all that there was no room for the sweet potatoes! So it goes. They said it was yummy and I had to agree! (Could have used a tad more salt...)

Meanwhile Bill Evans was making his way to the house in his rental car. (He’d flown in earlier in the week to visit his sister in Richmond and to do a banjo workshop.) I called him and he said he’d be there at precisely 10:26. So of course, at 10:27 I called and told him he was late! He had a good excuse: he was almost in sight of the house when he found the road blocked and a “blue light special” (police cars) surrounding a truck which had run off the road and had “fetched up” with its front tires in the lake. The cops had rerouted him up the mountain which was taking longer than he had expected. I was aghast at the police cars because Chris and Janet and I had passed that same truck on our way in. (No police cars at the time.) I had laughed about it because there was a can of beer sitting by the truck and had said, laughingly, “Welcome to our hillbilly subdivision!” The truck looked abandoned and I certainly didn’t think anyone was in it. (And I hope to goodness I was right). But still, I realized as Bill was telling the story that we should have stopped to make sure.

Anyhow, Bill arrived safe and sound, and joined us in our evening meal and conversation. We batted around a few ideas for the DVD, talked about what time we’d like to start filming (11ish) and then....what do you think we four banjo pickers did? Did we rehearse? Did we break out four old fives and get down with some Earl? Some Ralph? Some Sonny Osborne (one of Bill’s favorites)? No, we did not. Sad to say, being the Baby Boomers that we are, we all went straight to bed. (Okay, Bill probably stayed up a while and did Facebook and email from his bedroom.) But, maybe, being Baby Boomers, we just realized that we had work to do tomorrow and that the RESPONSIBLE thing to do, was get a good night’s rest. I prefer to think of it that way!

And now, as my grandmother would say, “Mouse is run, my story’s done.” At least as much as I can tell now. Now it’s time to go record a few extra introductory clips for the DVD. When you get the DVD, you can check closely to see if you can tell which ones I added today! The clothes will be the same, the earrings and necklace with be the same, but the hair never turns out the same way twice!

Murphy Henry

Wow! What a weekend! On Monday evening, we finished recording our brand-new Harmony Singing DVD! (Not yet titled and not yet for sale!) Bill Evans, Janet Beazley, and Chris Stuart (all from California) joined Red and me in the studio to record a DVD that’s all about teaching folks to sing harmony. It was way too much fun, and we put down some amazing lessons.

And of course we did it totally by ear, the Murphy Method way, with no talk about theory or use of big phrases like “five chord,” “parallel thirds,” or “sing a B note.” In fact, I made Bill go back and re-do a clip in which he referred to an E chord as a “five chord.” That’s a no-no, Bill!

We chose six songs that are fairly easy to sing and are well-known, standard bluegrass numbers: Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Bury Me Beneath the Willow, All the Good Times Are Past and Gone, Don’t This Road Look Rough and Rocky, Amazing Grace, and Just Over in the Gloryland.

It is our firm belief that you learn to sing harmony by singing harmony! (Just as you learn to sing lead—which is the melody—by singing lead.) So, for every song, we sang the lead part and each harmony part separately (with guitar accompaniment) so you can hear that part clearly and practice singing along with us.

And here is beauty of our approach: We demonstrated the first song, Will the Circle, in three different keys so that no matter what your vocal range is, you can sing with us! So, Murphy sang lead in the key of A, Janet sang lead in the key of C, and Bill sang lead in the key of E. We also demonstrated and sang the harmony parts (tenor and baritone) for each key. We also did the second and third songs (Willow and All the Good Times) that way.

For the fourth song, Rough and Rocky, which is longer (verse and chorus in harmony all the way through), we used just one arrangement with Chris singing lead in G. And the last two numbers we performed as quartets so all you bass singers can get involved!

Since this DVD concentrates on singing, we kept the instrumentation minimal (usually Chris on guitar) so you could always hear the singing. Then, at the very end, we closed out with a rousing quartet of Over in the Gloryland with Bill and me both playing our banjos. We were cooking!

[Then there was that extra footage we shot with the strange rabbit, but I don’t want to say too much about that yet....]

I am so excited about this DVD! We’ve never done a singing DVD so this is a totally new venture for us. I started thinking about this (with some prodding from Bill!) after he and I did a harmony singing workshop with Janet at Mid-West Banjo Camp this past June. She was the workshop leader and she did an amazing job of teaching a class of 30 adults to sing three-part harmony to Don’t This Road Look Rough and Rocky. (All Bill and I had to do was sing what she told us to!) It was her ability to talk about bluegrass harmony singing in simple terms—and sing all three parts herself with ease (although not at the same time!)—that made me want to record this DVD and open up the sometimes mysterious world of harmony singing to everyone.

So, stay tuned for more info on the release date. (And the title!) We’re hoping to have the DVD out in a couple of months. And, believe me, you’ll be the first to know!

PS: And what did we do after our long days of recording? Sunday night we watched the PBS Masterpiece Classic Downton Abby (two blissful hours!) and Monday night we watched the screamingly funny (and extremely risqué) movie Hall Pass. (Not recommended for kids! Or grandkids! I might consider letting Dalton see it when he gets to be 21...or 30! Oh! I guess that would be Casey’s decision! Or, by that time, his! Hey, this grandmothering is harder than you think!)

PPS: And speaking of mothering, happy birthday to son Chris whose birthday is tomorrow, Feb. 15th!!! As Mr. Spock would say, Live long and prosper!

Murphy Henry

So, Cody, who is now taking banjo, comes in for his lesson last night. I ask Bob Van to stay and play some guitar, so I can play banjo and Cody and I can trade breaks. Well, Bob and I haven’t been in tune for the whole hour of his lesson. My fault, not his. His tuner is off from mine, and I was just too lazy to ask him to retune. And it wasn’t off that much.

But by the time Cody came in, I was ready to be in tune. And since Cody’s banjo wasn’t quite in tune, I asked him to tune it. He didn’t have his tuner with him so I handed him mine. Then, I asked Bob to go ahead and use that tuner to tune, so we’d all be in tune together. No big deal, right? All I wanted (for Christmas) was for them to get in tune...

So Cody looks at Bob and says, “ I think I’m gonna buy her a T-shirt that says, ‘Please be in tune WITH ME.’ ”

And Bob says, “Yeah. And the operative words are WITH ME.”

Hmmm....somehow I never thought of it like that!


Murphy Henry

As many of you know, breaking away from tab and starting to learn by ear is not easy. It’s scary (Can I really do this?) and it feels like you no longer have a safety net (What will I do if I mess up?). But, the payoff is BIG! You will actually learn to play the banjo. Your tunes will sound like tunes, and eventually, with lots of hard work on your part, you can learn to play with other people.

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!

November 10:

Dear Murphy:

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.

Hi Tom,

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.

November 11:

Hi Tom,

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.

December 15:


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!


Mark and Susan had lessons back-to-back today, so they jammed a little where their times overlapped. In the lull between songs we started talking about how no one ever seems to be satisfied with their performance. I told them about being at the Augusta Heritage Bluegrass Camp and how those amazing instructors would walk off stage after the faculty concert bemoaning the “fact” that they had played so poorly and had missed so many notes. These were performances that I—an instructor myself—had thought were flawless and wonderful. Mandolin whiz Butch Baldassari (God rest his soul) said, “Well, I hit more notes than I missed, so I count that a good performance!” (On the other hand, fiddling Fletcher Bright was always happy with his performance and was never happier than when he was stealing the show from someone else! I was always happy with him stealing the show too—as long as he wasn’t stealing it from me!)

Anyhow, the gist of our conversation was, as you have gathered, that no one ever seems satisfied with how they play. And does that dissatisfaction ever end? Perhaps when you are in the grave, Susan suggested.

Then Mark said, “I try to be happy with where I am while trying to get better.” Which Susan and I both acknowledged was an excellent way to look at things.

Then Susan said, “I like to hear a man saying things like that!”

To which Mark quickly replied, “I only apply that to banjo!”

And Susan and I just howled and rolled our eyes. Too funny.
And that, friends, is my short blog for today. Hope you have a wonderful last weekend before Christmas! I’m square dancing tonight so I am happy! “Oh, promenade that ring, take your girl home and swing, because, just because!”


Red Henry

Response to yesterday's Murphy Method e-mail Newsletter has been terrific. Lots of people have ordered Casey's custom DVD, "Christmas Tunes on the Banjo", which teaches many popular numbers. We've also had many orders for this month's half-price DVD, "Great Banjo Tunes". Thank you all!

We've also had a lot of interest in our very first Murphy Method Banjo Camp, scheduled for late March. We often get inquiries saying "Where can I attend a banjo camp?", and now Murphy and Casey, two of the best banjo teachers anywhere, will be giving a camp right here in Winchester, Va. There are still some student slots remaining, so if interested, take a look at the details here.
. . . . .

On another subject entirely, last night I did an extensive interview with a researcher who may write a book about Randy Wood, the pioneer (and still currently-active) bluegrass instrument builder who began making superb mandolins, banjos, and guitars way back in the 1960s. Since I have Randy's very first mandolin as well as #3 (a Bill Monroe mandolin, which Murphy bought from Bill's estate sale in 2001 and gave me), I like Randy's instruments a lot and was able to share many stories from 35 and 40 years ago, about Randy's pioneer work in making great instruments for bluegrass pickers to play.

Everybody keep picking!

Red Henry

Red Henry

Murphy, in an old Banjo Newsletter column, talked at length about how people want to become Independent Banjo Players. They want to be able to get in a group and play tunes, play backup, and pass the breaks around to others just like "independent" pickers do, who don't need a teacher's guidance to participate. And they need to be able to do all this while standing up!

I thought about this yesterday while I was on a solo cross-country flight. As you learn to be an independent pilot, you learn to fly the plane and land it, communicate with other pilots in the air, and to navigate from one place to another-- and eventually, you do all this without an instructor's help. So I took off yesterday morning by myself and flew about 75 miles to an airport I'd never seen before (Somerset County, Pa.), landed there, took off again, and found my way right back and landed here at Winchester. When I got back here, I felt like I was learning to be an Independent Pilot. Could I have done this without a lot of training from my instructor? Of course not. But is it good to feel like an Independent Pilot? Oh, yes.

It also feels good when you learn to be an Independent Banjo Player. You know that you can stand up in a group, play the tunes, do backup when someone else is playing, take breaks and pass them off when you're through playing yourself, and start and finish the tune at the same time as everybody else. Can you learn this all at once? No. And like everything else, it takes some folks longer to learn than others. But when you reach your goal, it feels good. You know you're an Independent Banjo Player.


Murphy HenryYes, indeed, folks, today is the day I share my birthday with my dad, Dr. L.G. Hicks, Jr. Or vice versa. He first saw the light of day in1925; I scooted out in 1952. I've always liked that reversal of numbers. Although I was raised (just like corn) in Clarkesville, Georgia, my dad's hometown, I was actually born in Spartanburg, South Carolina, birthplace of the great Don Reno. We were there because Daddy was doing his internship preparatory to moving back home to open his own practice.
He was surely one of the last of the old-fashioned General Practitioners, a real, honest-to-goodness country doctor who, in my lifetime, still made house calls and even treated patients who came to our home.

I've been in Clarkesville this whole weekend, spending time with Mama and Daddy, and we will be having our birthday supper tonight. I've already given Daddy my present, a song I wrote for him that starts off "Born on your birthday, in South Carolina / You were just 27, and a brand new M.D....".

I can't tell you how proud I've always been to share birthdays with my dad. It made me feel special. (And with four younger sisters, every little bit helped!) Mama always baked us two cakes. Daddy's was usually a pound cake and mine, something chocolate, often with M and M's on top!

Those of you who read liner notes closely may know that for most of my young life I had planned on being a doctor, just like Daddy. (When I was feeling especially pious--usually after a summer revival--I wanted to be a medical missionary!) But my plans were derailed by a higher power when, deep into my third year as a pre-med student at the University of Georgia in Athens (go Dogs!) I went to a show at a small club called The Last Resort and heard folk singer Gamble Rogers perform. Pretty much from that point on my medical aspirations went spiraling down the tubes as I spent most of my time playing my 12-string guitar, learning Gamble's songs, performing as a folk singer myself, hanging out at the Last Resort, driving long distances to hear Gamble play, and finally, attending my first bluegrass festival (at Gamble's suggestion) where he introduced me to a friend of his, Red Henry.

If my dad was disappointed that I chose music over medicine and picking the banjo over delivering babies, he never said a word.

So, if you'd like to wish us a happy birthday, you know that Casey, our super web manager, has made it really easy to post comments at the end of each blog. I would like nothing better than to hear from some of you and I'll be sure to share your comments with my dad!

Murphy HenryWe had four folks who braved this nasty, rainy weather to come out and jam: Susan and Mark on banjos, Ellen on guitar, and Bob Van on bass. Bob Mc couldn’t make it because he was at a hospital meeting trying to figure out what to do if the swine flu epidemic hits Frederick County, Virginia.

We warmed up this week by having the banjos play the lead together on The Big Three: “Banjo in the Hollow,” “Cripple Creek,” and “Boil Them Cabbage.”

Then, having limbered the fingers up, we continued on with:

Foggy Mountain Breakdown
I Saw the Light
Lonesome Road Blues (with Bob and me singing)
John Hardy
Blue Ridge Cabin Home
Old Joe Clark

Coming in from the vamp to the lead in OJC is still giving the students fits. The entrance is particularly hard to catch because those first two notes are, in fact, pickup notes. I suggested that they try playing along with the last few licks in the break beforehand to get oriented. Then Mark figured out it made more sense to him to come in just on the four fill-in notes, so he showed Susan how to do that which proved to be a big help!

Mark is going great guns with his improvising! He had a major breakthrough at an Apple Blossom Festival picking party that Bob Mc hosted on Saturday. Somehow, something just clicked—that basic idea of licks against chords—and he was off and running. He improvised a break to “Lonesome Road Blues” right on the spot! And maybe one to “Two Dollar Bill,” if memory serves. Tonight he added some improv licks to “I Saw The Light.” You go, Mark!

Susan, also, is taking her first steps toward improv with “Blue Ridge Cabin Home.” She came through with flying colors tonight—not perfect, but good enough! And, as she said, “At least I didn’t faint!”

So once again a fine time was had by all. I do hope you notice that we continue to play the SAME SONGS over and over and over. This is the value of a jam session. Pretty soon you learn to play the darn songs just by dint of having played them so much!

Murphy HenryOne of my “lapsed” banjo students returned this week for a lesson. I’d taught him for several months last year while I was still holding forth at Brill’s Barber Shop. Various family crises and commitments had gotten in the way of his continuing, so I loaded him up with DVDs as he walked out the door, and he promised to keep playing. He was already doing quite well. Solid right hand, good tone, good timing.

How to describe Roy? (Not his real name.) Tall, lean, fit, good looking, gray-haired, and gregarious, he projects an air of confidence and ease when he walks into a room. As we were catching up, he was telling me about the house he had renovated--from stem to stern--doing all the work himself, which included adding plumbing and completely rewiring it. I was amazed at the enormous range of talent it takes to do something like this and a bit envious to boot. I do so wish I had some construction skills! It just seems so handy, being able to fix and build things yourself without having to rely on someone else to do it.

After the convivialities wound down, Roy got out his banjo so we could get reacquainted musically. He’d told me that he felt like he was at a “crossroads” and didn’t know where to go. Before I could advise him, I needed to see where he was with his banjo playing. Truth told, most folks who quit coming to see me also quit picking up their banjos. So, I asked to see “Banjo in the Hollow” and “Cripple Creek,” the usual drill.

So Roy starts out. Did I mention that he’s somewhat of a perfectionist? I think he’s playing well, but he’s not satisfied because he’s missing a few notes, his hand is shaking a little bit making him the tiniest bit sloppy, and once he forgot to repeat the “B” part of “Cripple Creek.” So he says to me, “I don’t know why I can’t play. I do fine at home, when I’m in my shop by myself.” Pause. “You are so intimidating!” Pause. “Why don’t you wear something frilly?”

And I just cracked up! End of story.

PS: Roy had, in fact, kept up with all his tunes, successfully navigating through “Old Joe Clark,” “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,”  “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” and “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder” among others. He was eager to press on to “Improvising” and I agreed. I also told him what he really needed was to come to our Wednesday night jam, and he said he would. So, perhaps next week I’ll be reporting back on that!