Banjo Newsletter

December 2006: On The Road 2.0
By Casey Henry

You may have noticed, if you are paying attention, a different byline for this month's "On The Road" column. If you didn't notice, I'm drawing your attention to it now. I'm Casey, not Murphy. People frequently call me Murphy, and I do answer to Murphy, since I know they are probably referring to me if the actual Murphy is not in the same room, or the same state, at the time. But we are, in fact, two different people, and it is slightly harder to tell us apart in print, so consider yourself notified.

The reason I'm writing in this space and not Murphy is that she's busy writing her book on Women In Bluegrass. She's been writing it for a couple years now, and her first deadline has long since come and gone, so she's really buckling down and getting to it and trying to clear her schedule of all non-book writing. So you get me, the next generation of Henry family columnists, and I assure you I won't be writing about my fiddle playing. (I can hear the sighs of relief now.) I will try to confine my exposition to banjo playing, teaching, and Earl worship and I'll start right off by talking about my new banjo.

Well, old banjo. New old banjo. I've never seriously considered trying to buy a pre-war flathead. I decided early on I'd rather buy a house. Besides, it's much harder to get a mortgage on a banjo. I've played, for many years now, my dad's 1938 (could be '39) TB-11, which he bought in the 1970s. He made the neck and I had a Huber tonering installed seven years ago. It sounds great; I love it. I'm perfectly satisfied with it. I don't have banjo envy. But I was talking to Jimmy Mills (how many very expensive stories start out that way?!) at IBMA and he mentioned he had a 1920s style 4 that happens to be just like my mom's (mahogany, two-piece flange). I don't know a lot about banjos, but now I know that two-piece flange instruments are less desirable, and therefore, less expensive, than one-piece flange instruments. However, since I grew up listening to Murphy's old 4, that makes it far more desirable to me personally.

This lovely instrument will come with a Huber conversion ring (Murphy's has a Steve Ryan conversion ring) and a replica style-4 neck. I'd love to tell you how it sounds, but the neck's not done yet and it's really hard to play the pot by itself. Rest assured I'll give you a full report once I have it in my hot little hands.

And speaking of hot little hands…no, wait. I don't have anything to follow that with. It would have made a great transition, though. As you may or may not know, I teach banjo here in Madison, Tenn. I currently have thirteen students. Last month I had my first ever banjo student concert at the Mt. Juliet Homecoming Festival. My band, Casey and Chris and the Two-Stringers, was booked to play there and the promoter was looking for other acts to perform (for free) on stage. I seized the opportunity to give my students the chance to appear in public, a first for most of them.

Four banjo students and one bass student showed up, including one guy who had only had three lessons but was game to give it a try. I told them they all earned many brownie points for coming, but I couldn't for the life of me think of any punitive measures for the ones who didn't show up. (Take them off my Christmas card list? That would require me to have a Christmas card list.) We planned to play "Banjo in the Hollow," "Cripple Creek," "John Hardy," and "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," with my most advanced student, Matt, playing "Shuckin' the Corn." My other most advanced student, Kyle, had chosen to go to see the Indianapolis Colts play instead of coming to the concert. Football over banjo? Come on! Where are you priorities?!

We played our tunes slow and in unison, so that the beginners wouldn't be overwhelmed or have to play by themselves. The more advanced students took breaks and everyone played well. They were nervous, but it didn't show. I was proud.

As it happened, there was a boy, about thirteen years old, who took the stage right before us. He played banjo by himself and did several of the tunes we were going to play. Not a bad little picker and gutsy to play entirely solo. His granddad approached me afterwards and asked if I was taking new students. I'm always taking new students, so we agreed on a day and time.

At Landon's first lesson I asked him all the usual questions. He had been playing five years and had taken lessons on and off from a couple of different teachers. He had learned exclusively from tab. Boo! I got him to play through some of the tunes he knew and found that he had good tone and technique, decent timing, but he hadn't played much with other people-a common problem among students. Then I asked him if he could vamp. He couldn't. Not at all. He'd been playing five years and his teachers had never taught him to vamp!

As a teacher I find this inexcusable. Vamping is the most basic form of backup. If a teacher fails to show her students how to play with other people she's only doing half her job. Bluegrass banjo is not a solo instrument, and you aren't going to win any friends by playing lead through someone else's break. So I taught Landon how to vamp. He picked it up quickly and by the end of our first lesson we were vamping to "Blue Ridge Cabin Home" and "Cripple Creek."

At his second lesson we tried trading breaks to "Cripple Creek." Here we ran into a snag-he could only play at one tempo: really fast. Until he could vamp equally fast we were going to have a hard time playing together. His assignment for the week: figure out how to play his tunes slow. Once students get a tune speeded up, they rarely try slowing it down again, but you don't really know a tune until 1) you can play it with other people and 2) you can slow it back down. He comes for another lesson this afternoon and I can't wait to see how he did. The transition from tab learning to ear learning can be slow and painful, but it is always worth it in the end.

One final note: The Murphy Method (a.k.a. my parents) have finally gotten around to releasing my "Melodic Banjo Video" on DVD, now re-titled "Blackberry Blossom and other Banjo Favorites." This is the video for which the initial magazine ads featured a picture of me so hideous that other people commented on how bad it was. It was the last time I let my parents choose a picture of me for anything. They're so biased they can't fairly judge. The DVD also has me wearing my favorite sweater of all time that I accidentally left in California while teaching a banjo camp out there. I mourn the sweater but I'm glad it has such a fitting memorial as this new DVD.