Tag Archives: Ralph Stanley

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

I just ran across this old picture of Ralph Stanley with all five of the Hicks Sisters, so I thought it would be appropriate to post it on Ralph's birthday, which also happens to be the birthday of my sister, Argen. She's the first sister on the left, followed by Claire, Laurie,  Nancy, and Murphy. In birth order, left to right, it's 3, 2, 5, 4, and 1.  Yes, I am the oldest of five girls. No boys in our family! 

five sisters and Ralph

Argen, Claire, Laurie, Ralph, Nancy, Murphy

This photo was taken at the Apple Blossom Bluegrass Festival right here in Winchester, Va., probably in the late 1990s. The Hicks Sisters were making a rare stage appearance, possibly in support of our all-gospel cassette, With Sweet Accord. We hope to one day get that recording transferred to CD because there is some really good gospel harmony singing on it. And some really tasty mandolin playing by Red. ...continue reading

Casey Henry

Casey Henry

I thought I’d give you an update on some of the custom lessons I’ve been doing lately. The songs that people request never cease to amaze me. Some of them I never would have thought of. Then sometimes I think, “Oh, yeah, that’s a great song!”

As you may know, I wrote about doing these lessons in April’s Banjo Newsletter. I made the comment that no one had yet asked for Kermit the Frog’s version of “Rainbow Connection.” Sure enough, before the article was even published, someone emailed asking for that very song. Unfortunately I had to tell him it was too hard (it has many, many chords in it and he hadn't started Beginning Banjo Vol. 1 yet). The same day I got that request another one came in for “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I thought two rainbow songs on the same day was odd. I’m still working on an arrangement for that one.

One song that I really enjoyed learning, and teaching, was “Eastbound And Down,” which is the theme song from the movie Smokey and the Bandit. I taught a fairly simple break to it, but it also has a lot of chords! I bought the recording of it from iTunes and loved hearing Jerry Reed sing it. Murphy told me who played banjo on that recording, but I have now forgotten.

My next three lessons, coincidentally, were fiddle tunes: “Little Liza Jane,” “Lost Indian,” and “Chicken Reel.” Someone requested Ralph Stanley’s version of “Chicken Reel,” like he played it on the old Rainbow Quest television show. (There’s rainbow again. Hmmmm.). We had the show on video when I was young, but now there’s a clip of it up on YouTube. Chick Stripling does a flatfoot dance to it that is absolutely brilliant. Vaudeville meets bluegrass. You can’t see much of Ralph’s hands in this clip, but I figured out what he was doing the best I could.

Today’s project also has to do with a YouTube clip. On the same show (I think) Ralph plays his most famous tune, “Clinch Mountain Backstep.” Luckily for the banjo players of the world, the camera focuses on his hands the entire time. Although this tune is on our Ralph Stanley Style DVD, Ralph’s version is significantly different than the way we teach it. (The tune’s not different, just the rolls.) So today I’m studying Ralph!

Also on my list to tape in the coming days are: “Get In Line Brother,” “Dusty Miller,” “One Teardrop and One Step Away,” and “Whitewater,” which is a Bela Fleck tune. Wow, those songs really run the gamut of bluegrass history—Flatt and Scruggs, Bill Monroe, Reno and Smiley, and Bela Fleck. And because I know you want to know, “Whitewater” is for Murphy’s student Logan. What? You think SHE plays any Bela Fleck tunes? Ha!

As always, if you're interested in any of these lessons, just email me (themurphymethod@gmail.com). They're $30 each.

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

(I thought this wasn’t going to have any bluegrass content, but it turned out to be a critique of how Ralph Stanley looks on TV! Be forewarned!)

Just arrived back at the house after my nine-hour trip back from my weekend in Georgia. Glad to report the ‘rents are about the same. No Scrabble, but we did watch one of the Bill Gaither Gospel DVDs that featured a lot of bluegrass groups. Mama and Daddy stayed awake (mostly) for the whole thing, and did not retreat into “reading” the paper which is what they did when I tried them on an episode of “Dukes of Hazzard.” (Small bluegrass content: my guitar student Cody wants to learn the theme song so he lent me a season’s worth of DVDs so I could learn it.) I will have to say that the Dukes had a few too many car chases and sliding cars to suit me. But you gotta love Boss Hogg!

Anyhow, on the Bill Gaither DVD we got to see Doyle Lawson, Marty Stuart, Rhonda No Last Name Needed, Dailey and Vincent, the Isaacs, Cherryholmes, Marty Stuart, Ralph Stanley, Larry Sparks, the Grascals (before Kristin joined them) and Vince Gill. It was so great to see Ralph because Jack Cooke was still with him. God rest his soul, Cookie was a wonderful musician. Ralph looked absolutely cute -- no other word to describe it -- wearing a purple shirt while Bill Gaither was interviewing him. And he sounds so sincere when he talks. Just the right amount of modesty coupled with obvious pride at the turn his career has taken. He’s still got a good head of hair and it was beautifully coiffed. (Note: In his new memoir, Ralph says that Keith Whitley used to do his hair!) He is aging simply wonderfully and, frankly, I thought he looked a little bit like my Grandmother Hicks! She was quite regal at age ninety. Like her, he has great-looking skin, or else they had a fabulous makeup artist. Maybe both! I told Mama I thought he looked a little bit like a possum, which totally made her laugh.

On stage, he looked like the Great Patriarch that he is, wearing his glasses now (the modern kind, with square frames) so he can read the words off the paper that sits in a music stand in front of him. He says, in the book, that he’s getting a little forgetful of words now, hence the stand. Hey, he’ll be 83 on February 25, so he can do whatever he likes! Of course, I can’t remember what he sang, since I was busy critiquing how he looked!

I did listen to plenty of other music on my Amazing iPod on the way down and back. (It finally ran out of juice. I need to get one of those car charger things.) What was I loving this time around? [This list is mostly for Marty’s benefit...] Everything by the Beach Boys, “Painted Lady” and “Crocodile Rock” by Elton John, everything (2 songs) by Conway Twitty, “Great Speckled Bird” by Roy Acuff, a bunch of Eric Clapton stuff, “25 or 6 Till 4” by Chicago (I could finally understand the words!), the Randy Travis songs, “Reno Ride” and “Limehouse Blues” are amazing (Don Reno, of course!), and oh so many others that I can’t think of now because I haven’t had my supper yet! [Marty: next time, “Islands in the Stream” fer sure! And can I get “Hello Darling” back? And “Mockingbird”? Thanks!]

It was good to be in Georgia and see the folks, but, like Dorothy said, “There’s no place like home!”

Red Henry

Red Henry

We often have beginning banjo students ask, "What's the difference between a flathead banjo and an archtop? Do I need an archtop if I want to sound like Ralph Stanley, and a flathead if I want to sound like Earl?" When they ask this, they're referring to the kind of tone-ring the banjo has. That's the big metal part that sits right under the plastic banjo head, on top of the banjo's wooden shell.

Well, the truth is that in one way, it isn't a simple question to answer. The best of the old Gibson flathead banjos had a characteristic powerful, low-end resonance that Earl took advantage of when he played, and which helped make his much-admired sound. But we have to remember that it was Earl playing, and he'd have sounded like himself whether the banjo had a flathead tone ring, an archtop one, or no tone ring at all (as when he was playing with Bill Monroe in 1945-7 and used a banjo with just a little tone hoop). In all those situations, he still sounded and sounds like Earl.

Some folks like to have an archtop banjo so they can "sound more like Ralph Stanley." Frankly, it is fun to play 'Little Maggie' and 'Clinch Mountain Backstep' and hear that higher timbre come out of the banjo. But you don't need an archtop tone ring to make it that way, because (1) banjos like Murphy's Stelling have plenty of high end to go with the low end flathead sound, and (2) you can adjust your hand position on any banjo to get more of that high end out of it.

That sounds complicated. What's the answer? Well, it's simple. If you want to play a particular kind of banjo music, LISTEN to it and PLAY THAT SOUND. It doesn't matter what design of banjo you have, as long as it's a decent-quality instrument. The better the banjo the better you'll sound, generally speaking, but you can certainly play Earl's music on an archtop banjo, as Little Roy Lewis did for years, and you can certainly play Ralph's music on a flathead as some pickers (like myself) have done for a long time. So what makes the difference? What makes the difference is YOU. You need to LISTEN over and over to the music you want to play, and play not just the notes, but the SOUND.


Murphy HenryI just have to brag on one of my mail order students that I met for the first time last week. Matthew is twelve years old, will be thirteen in May, and has been playing since he was seven and a half. His parents told me that he has worked a lot off the Murphy Method DVDs and videos. He was coming for a lesson so I could show him how to play the high part to “Randy Lynn Rag.” When I told his mom that we actually have that on video (More Advanced Earl) she said they’d buy the video but would come on up anyway so Matthew could meet me.

And what a pleasure that was! I am old enough to appreciate a well-mannered young person and Matthew certainly was that. He was polite, friendly, a little shy perhaps, but still easy to talk to, and he didn’t have a bit of that preteen attitude! He was dressed nicely in his dark unfaded bluejeans, black cowboy boots, and a belt with a great big silver buckle. He was playing a Stelling Red Fox with many signatures on the head.

But best of all was hearing him play. The first song he played was not one I had taught. It was “Midnight Rambler” from Steve Sparkman’s Stanley Style Banjo DVD. Even with all the work Matthew had put in on the Murphy Method tapes, his sound was pure Stanley! And he has a killer right hand. He anchors two fingers behind the bridge and pulls that great, treble-sounding Stanley tone. He also played “Kicking Mule” and “Daybreak in Dixie.”

We worked on the high part of “Randy Lynn Rag” which he picked up quickly, and also on the tuner part. That was a little harder and even I kept flubbing it up since I don’t play that song much. At the end of the lesson, our son Christopher came in to play some mandolin with us and Matthew showed him a couple of tunes he’d learned off of Chris’s Bill Monroe Mandolin DVD. Matthew closed out by playing yet another tune from Steve Sparkman’s DVD, this one with the strange title of “Booger Mule.” He played the heck out of it.

Next to Earl Scruggs, Ralph Stanley is my favorite of the pioneer banjo players and I felt happy knowing that Matthew was carrying on the tradition! You go, Matthew!

[Note from Casey: I LOVE "Booger Mule"! I learned off of Steve's CD (can't remember which one at the moment) and play it often. I've often thought about recording it when I make my next banjo album. And I'm definitely getting that DVD.]