Banjo Newsletter

March 2007: SPBGMA, Slow Jams, Velveeta
By Casey Henry

Last month in Nashville the annual SPBGMA convention took place, as it does every first weekend in February. Throngs of fans and pickers descended on the Sheraton Music City hotel to hear the band contest, watch the show in the evening, vote on the awards, and turn the lobby into a vast sea of wall-to-wall jam sessions. I have a soft spot in my heart for SPBGMA because it was there, fourteen years ago, that I was inspired (by Little Roy Lewis, no less) to take up the banjo seriously.

This year I had the distinct pleasure of playing on the SPBGMA stage for the first time with the Lynn Morris Band. Since Lynn's stroke nearly four years ago the band has had few gigs-a couple last year, a couple this year. Lynn has recovered to the point where she can play both guitar and clawhammer banjo on stage and sing many of the songs she used to, though she reads the words off a music stand in front of her. Seeing her on stage is inspiring; she is brave to perform again when she can't depend on her mouth to say the words her brain tells it to. Audiences love to see her and it is obvious that she thrives on performing and seeing her fans.

I have coveted the banjo spot in the Lynn Morris Band for close to ten years. Recently, having too few gigs to keep a regular band together, they have used numerous people in that position, as well as in the mandolin spot. When Marshall first asked me if I'd like to play a gig with them last August I was beside myself. Lynn has a reputation for being a perfectionist both on stage and in the studio; she won't use someone who is less than a top-notch musician. Her willingness to use me as a banjo player means more than effusive praise from anyone else. < feminist consciousness raising > I'm also proud to be the only woman to ever play with the band.< /feminist consciousness raising >

From the second Lynn walked through the door at SPBGMA a non-stop stream of well-wishers came her way to say hello, demonstrating just how loyal bluegrass people are-they will stick by you in good times and bad. In addition to being famous for her music, Lynn is famous for her kindness to animals. (Her "Spay Your Pet" public service announcement is a highlight of her shows.) One deejay presented her with a stuffed opossum, which accompanied her onto the stage.

Our set was a short thirty minutes. Chris Jones played guitar and Chris Henry played mandolin. We did songs off her newest CD ("Gonna Have Love," "Don't Neglect the Rose") as well as some old favorites ("Freight Train Blues," "It Rains Everywhere I Go"). The crowd gave Lynn a warm reception and, although the show wasn't perfect, it was a success all the same. One of the difficulties of playing infrequently is that every show is like the first show. There is no comfortable familiarity of repetition to fall back on. Everyone makes mistakes and if you are only playing one show you don't have the chance to do it better the next time.

The other major event in the last month was the filming of the Murphy Method's new slow jam DVD. I drove from Nashville (where I live) to Winchester (where my parents live) in my fifteen-passenger van. I felt kinda silly by myself in that huge vehicle but my truck was having some issues and I didn't want it to strand me on the side of the interstate.

We film our DVDs in our home studio, which gets temporarily transformed from a manufacturing and duplication facility to a video production suite. My dad Red, the technically oriented one in the family, runs the camera, the computer, the lights, the sound. Murphy played banjo, I played guitar, and we had a guest mandolin/fiddle player. While preparing for the shoot we made our all important wardrobe choices days, weeks, or even minutes in advance. We broke out the eyeliner and mascara, blush and lipstick and went to work to render ourselves presentable. Murphy pointed out that she would be glad to trade banjo lessons for the services of a makeup artist. Where would one advertise for that? Banjo Hangout? The Valley Trader? BNL classifieds?

We decided to make this slow jam, as much as possible, like the slow jams we lead in person. Accordingly, we play the songs at tempos suitable for beginners. If you think they're too slow then you don't need this DVD. Wait for the "medium jam" DVD. (You may be waiting a long time as there is not actually a medium jam DVD in the works…although there might be if we could get that gal from the TV show to host it…) We play the tunes through several times and then leave a hole for the student (at home in front of their TV) to play a break while we keep the rhythm. I cue the break by counting the student in, "One, two, ready, go," to give them the best chance of catching it.

As we made our way down the list of songs to film, we sometimes practiced them all the way through; sometimes we just went over the kick-off and the order of the breaks. When we got to "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" we assumed we all knew that one well enough to forgo practicing it from top to bottom. It turned out to be a long tune, playing it as slowly as we were-upwards of five minutes. When we neared the end I began to wonder how exactly Murphy was going to end the tune. We hadn't rehearsed that part. She played an extra banjo break on the end and I knew, I just knew, she didn't know how she was going to end it either; she was playing longer so she could decide. She put a shave-and-a-haircut ending on it instead of the one she usually plays-where you slide all the way up and end with four really high notes. We all cracked up and she pointed out that since she wasn't wearing her glasses she couldn't see the strings and was afraid she was going to screw up the ending of an otherwise good take. From then on we always practiced the endings!

This slow jam DVD should be out just in time for Kaufman Kamp, where both Murphy and I are teaching. For the last two years I've lead the morning and afternoon slow jams there, as well as teaching the very beginning, non-rotating banjo class. Murphy and the other banjo instructors teach all the levels as the classes rotate among them. I can always use more students and the camp is a terrifically fun and well run event. So if you are thinking of venturing out to a camp this year, I can't recommend Kaufman Kamp highly enough.

One final note before I leave you. Did anyone else catch the Velveeta commercial during the Superbowl that used a parody of the Beverly Hillbillies theme song including a banjo (heard not seen)? Is it even possible to have an effective parody of the Beverly Hillbillies without using a banjo? I think not.