August 2003: A Baby Shower--Nashville Style
By Murphy (and Casey) Henry
Greetings! As I write this, I am "way down in Columbus, Ga.," where my niece Helena Herring, Miss Wayne County, was competing in the Miss Georgia pageant. (Unfortunately, she didn't win.) But she introduced herself to the crowd with a great one-liner: "I'm from Jesup where everybody is always one letter away from Jesus!" Miss Valdosta also had a good opener: "I'm from Valdosta where we're not afraid to call our nuts PE-cans!"
At this point I see panic setting in even among my most faithful and devoted readers. "Oh, no! Another column that has nothing to do with banjo playing. This is worse than the fiddling columns. She's writing about a frigging beauty pageant." Never fear, faithful and devoted readers! Although I have plenty of banjo stuff to write about (Kaufman Kamp, California Bluegrass Association Camp), this month I am turning my column over to my banjo picking girl Casey who has something much more entertaining-and banjonic-to write about. Take it away, Caser!
Thanks, mom. What I am about to write about is the epitome of entertainment, the pinnacle of picking, the apex of awesomeness (and it's only the second time in my life it's ever happened): I got to pick with Earl Scruggs!
A baby shower is perhaps not the event that springs to mind when one thinks of likely places Earl might end up picking. But a shower given by Dixie and Tom T. Hall is in no way your average pre-maternity event. When Dixie throws a party, she goes all out. The guests of honor were Sally (of Sally Jones and the Sidewinders) and Chris Jones (of Chris Jones and the Night Drivers), soon to be the proud parents of twins, a girl and a boy. A simple baby shower would not suffice for such a momentous event-there had to be picking, too. So we opened gifts and made disgusting cooey noises from 4-6, and then ate and picked from six o'clock on.
Men were scarce for the first two hours, but after six they started filtering in, looking warily around to make sure they weren't going to have to watch any present opening. Copious quantities of food and beverage adorned the buffet. Watching two hours of present opening makes one ravenous, so we helped ourselves to seconds, and thirds. In fact everyone enjoyed eating so much that it took a couple hours for any picking to get cranked up. When we finally rolled ourselves over to our cases and got out our instruments it was dark outside.
The roughly formed picking circle initially included Markie Sanders (bass), Chris Jones (guitar), James Price (fiddle), Ron Block (guitar), Dave Peterson (guitar), and me on banjo. This being Tom T. Hall's house, we were also surrounded by many wonderful singers who would sing on request (how could you refuse in that company?): Sharon White, Kathy Chiavola, Charlie Sizemore and his wife, and Ralph Stanley II. Tom T. even honored us with a couple of numbers including "I Love You, Too", which you may have heard recently in a Coors Beer commercial. He introduced it by saying "I got up one morning, wrote this in five minutes, and sold a million copies. I've been up every morning since."
As the picking continued we were joined by Ronnie Bowman on guitar, a mandolin player, and another banjo player. About nine o'clock Dixie announced that Earl and Louise were on their way, so we'd better keep picking. Yes, ma'am. Presently they made their entrance, Earl dressed in a coat and tie, Louise in a black knee-length skirt and long-sleeved top. They obviously had had a prior engagement but just couldn't stand to miss one of the Halls' wonderful parties. Earl and Louise are always low key, but everyone else in the room started fluttering around making sure they had seats and drinks and were comfortably situated.
They had not been seated fifteen minutes when Keith Bilbrey (who hosted the pre-Grand Ole Opry backstage program on TNN) shouted, "Someone give Earl a banjo!" Earl explained that he didn't have his picks with him, and I supposed that meant he didn't want to play, but the other banjo player there offered up his instrument and his picks-the very ones he was wearing-and Earl graciously donned them and took a seat in the circle. He wanted to warm up on a song before picking anything so Ronnie sang a Flatt and Scruggs standard that James Price kicked off. Ronnie nodded me the first break and it felt quite strange to be playing essentially the same break Earl had recorded all those years ago with him sitting right across from me, banjo in hand. I have no idea what I played, don't even remember what the song was, but I must have gotten through it alright. When he took his break I thought, oh, yeah, that's how I should have played it.
Next Ronnie sang, "No Mother or Dad," which the mandolin kicked off. Earl played a break that wasn't at all like the one on the record, yet still embodied the melody perfectly. In between songs a strange and vaguely awkward hush fell over the whole room. None of the pickers knew Earl well enough to take over the task of leading the jam or suggesting songs. And Dixie and Tom, who do know him well enough, did not feel moved to do so. It seemed that everyone was awed by his presence. They were watching and waiting just to see what he would do. It was during one of these impasses that Earl kicked off "Foggy Mountain Special," always a reliable standby. As it went around the circle I debated what I should play. Should I play what I usually play, which is basically what Earl just played, or do something totally different? In the end I decided on a Reno-style double-roll low break and a little variation I made up on the high break and that felt right.
After another awkward silence someone suggested "Why Don't You Tell Me So." I know you all remember the incredible break that Earl played on that song-in open F, no less. Here, too, he spiked his fifth string up to A and played open. Though not the same licks as on the recording, he captured the essence of the song. Dave Peterson then sang "Over The Hills To the Poorhouse," on which Earl played a nifty little first position break.
At that point Earl decided that was enough playing for him, and he handed the banjo back to its owner. He was not to be left in peace, though. All the guests wanted their picture made with him, so there was a mini photo session while nearly everyone in the room took their turns posing with Earl. The pickers, meanwhile, kept on picking, and there were no more awkward silences, since the pressure was off.
Around eleven o'clock Earl and Louise took their leave and headed home. Since I had been playing the whole time they were there I hadn't made it over to say hello, but I waved goodbye and both of them waved back.
I smiled to myself all the way home that night. Such an experience doesn't come along very often and I felt honored and privileged to have gotten to play with Earl, even for a short time. I've practiced my whole life for moments like that, and when one comes along it reminds me why I love playing the banjo.