May 2005: Like a Rock: Chris Warner
By Murphy Henry
Banjo great Chris Warner is back in the saddle again--after a ten-year hiatus. He is currently "laying the thumb to the five" (as Alison Brown so eloquently put it) with Audie Blaylock and Redline. When I asked him about those ten years he had two words to say: "Burnt out." After being on the road with Jimmy Martin from 1967-1969 and again from 1986-1989, I can believe it. You can hear Chris's strong right hand on some of Jimmy's classic recordings including Freeborn Man, Milwaukee Here I Come, and Arab Bounce. Audie also did some time with Jimmy during Chris's second stint, so he and Chris are used to working together.
Red and I had the pleasure of seeing Chris W. perform recently at the Arcadia (Md.) Fire Hall, when our son, also a Chris, debuted with the Redliners, playing mandolin and singing tenor. (He is still playing in the Two-Stringers with Casey, but while they are getting that group off the ground he's also working with Audie.) Experiencing bluegrass from the standpoint of a bystander, instead of a participant, is new to me, and I am still trying to adjust. How can I write a column that's all about me if I'm not playing? Well, let's see…
Red and I dropped Chris at practice about 1 p.m. and headed to a used book store in York, Pa. Hardback books for one dollar! I bought about twenty, including bios of Loretta Lynn and Barbara Mandrell, and a book for Alison Brown titled Everything I Need To Know I Learned From Watching Star Trek. (It's yours, Alison, as soon as I've finished reading it!) Oh, yes, and a whole book about the song Louie, Louie!
Soon night had fallen and it was time to play "find the fire hall." I located Arcadia on the map--a tiny dot on a squiggly hairline. Red was driving; I was navigating, an awkward assignment for a geographically challenged banjo player who always thinks the direction she is facing is north. The myriad roads we had to take were windy, twisty, and narrow. Even with my best navigating, we drove right through the town without realizing it. When we found ourselves in the next town, we knuckled and asked directions. "Go back up the road a mile and turn right on Arcadia Road." Oh. That's what all those signs with fire trucks on them meant. We missed the road again, but this time, in the headlights, I caught a glimpse of a portable sign and the word "bluegrass." In the daytime it would have been a great landmark.
Finally on the right road, we found the fire hall in short order. It was deserted. Locked up tighter than a drum. No cars, no lights, no people. I got that panicky feeling, wondering what critical piece of information I had misunderstood. The time? The place? The day? Had we crossed into a parallel universe? We drove back to the sign. It stated clearly that tonight was the night and that Arcadia Fire Hall was the place. "But there was no one there!" I wailed. We called Chris W.'s cell but he wasn't answering. Finally I said, "The only thing I can think to do is drive back past the fire hall and see if we can find anything."
Sure enough, past the fire hall was a sign that said "Bluegrass Festival." We saw it as we drove by. Bluegrass festival? Could that be it? We came back and ventured up the road. Voila! A field full of cars alongside a prefab building. Another bluegrass venue had been successfully hunted and bagged!
Meanwhile, Chris H. had started feeling nervous when we hadn't shown up on time. But Chris W., bless his heart, reminded him that we had been finding our way to out-of-the-way bluegrass locations for years. He knew we'd find this one.
The Carroll County Ramblers were on stage when we got there. Dottie, Bonnie, and Dale Eyler, the mainstays of the group, are in charge of the music at the fire hall. After their set, Audie and Redline hit the stage. Following a furious fiddle number, the band did three vocals and then Audie introduced the group. When he got to Chris Warner he said, kiddingly, "And now I want to introduce the youngest fellow in the group." Chris W. said, "I used to be the youngest fellow in the group." Audie immediately retorted, "They're all dead." Huge laughter from the crowd.
The show marched right along, with plenty numbers from Audie's Grammy-nominated CD A Tribute to Jimmy Martin. It was a delight to hear Chris W. doing those signature banjo backup licks, especially on songs like Drink Up and Go Home and The Voice Of My Savior. His playing was never overpowering, but solid as a rock.
During the course of the evening Audie broke four strings on the guitar. The good news was that every time he did that, Chris W. and the fiddle player, Patrick, got to play a fiddle and banjo number. Chris was really cranking down on Sally Goodwin, Bill Cheatum, and Soldier's Joy with his Stelling. His model, the Crusader Deluxe, is a standard design except for the "fat neck" and rosewood fingerboard that he requested. The banjo, with its Tony Pass old-wood rim, was cracking.
Both Sally Goodwin and Bill Cheatum were played faster than I cared to hear them. Must be that young blood! A fiddle-playing friend who was sitting in front of me apparently agreed because he turned and said, "People used to dance to this stuff." He thought that Patrick, a charming young man of seventeen who is overflowing with talent and stage presence, needed to sit down and listen to some Curley Ray Cline!
My favorite banjo breaks were the ones Chris took on the Jimmy Martin standards: Sophronie, Sunny Side of the Mountain, Leaving Town, and Walking Shoes. They sounded just like the record. He also tore up Bluegrass Breakdown which Chris Henry had kicked off on the mandolin at a blistering pace. ("Young whippersnappers!" said Chris W.) When Chris H. was playing with us, before he'd kick off our set-ender, Rawhide, I'd always stage whisper to him, "Not so fast!" It was a good piece of stage "business" and usually got a laugh.
I was thrilled to the bone to see (and hear) Chris H. performing with such an illustrious group. I couldn't help thinking back to the time when he was a little boy learning the chord changes to Polly Wolly Doodle on a bass that was twice as big as he was.
Red and Chris H. and I got a hotel room for the night, since Chris had to fly back to Nashville the next day. That morning, Chris and Red were playing their mandolins together, trading breaks on some tunes. At times I sensed a friendly competitive spirit between father and son, but they often played in astoundingly beautiful harmony. As they twinned Red's tune Little Big Mon, I realized that it was Easter Sunday and that I was experiencing a special-almost sacred-moment. This was better than getting a basket full of chocolate Easter eggs. In my heart I said a small thank you to the Universe.
(You can read more about Chris Warner in BNL August 2002.)