Banjo Newsletter

November 2006: IBMA 2006
By Murphy Henry

It was Monday morning and my daughter Casey and I were sitting in my van in the long queue to get into the Nashville Convention Center to set up our Murphy Method Booth for the IBMA World of Bluegrass Trade Show. It was my 17th year of boothing at IBMA. (How's that for inventing a word?) Stuck in traffic with nothing to do, I put in the CD Old Friends, by Alan Munde and Wayne Shrubsall. "Finally, a banjo album that is easy to listen to," say the liner notes. How right they are! Just the two banjos-Wayne playing clawhammer, and Alan playing his classic Scruggs-melodic style-with no singing or other instruments to clutter up the sound. Recorded "live" with no overdubs, the disc reveals how creative and capable these players are when the tape is rolling. My favorite number is Traditional Family Breakdown whose title comes from the fertile and twisted mind of Mr. Munde. What a grand way to start the week!

This was IBMA's second year in Nashville and many of the first-year kinks had been ironed out. Late-night showcase rooms, at reasonable rates, were offered and the Murphy Method took advantage of this in order to present two of our teachers…ahem…who just happened to be our kids Casey and Chris and their new band the Two-Stringers. Well, what are parents for? Filling out the lineup were three other groups including the hot, hot, hot Missy Raines Band (aka Missy Raines and the New Hip), Tyler Grant and Friends (with Chris Pandolfi on banjo) and, from Wyoming, Anne and Pete Sibley, a wife and husband duo. Anne had "cold-called" me for the slot, and I admired her for that! Pete plays tasteful clawhammer banjo and Anne's strong, sure voice complements her original songs. Being enveloped in all this musical energy from 11 pm until 2 am was a pure joy.

I was staying at Casey's house in Madison, which is within walking distance of where Earl Scruggs used to live on Donna Drive. Naturally we walked by, but, unlike the Flint Hill Flash, I did not stop and pick up a rock out of Earl's former yard. I spent my down time with Casey's guest cat, Peaches, watching Gilmore Girls on DVD. Bluegrass content: in one episode mention was made of relatives who listened to Flatt and Scruggs CDs!

One of the Big Events this year was the opportunity to see The Man Himself, Earl Scruggs, who was tapped to unveil a new plaque at the Ryman Auditorium. Friday afternoon found Casey and me standing in the blocked-off street between the Convention Center and the Ryman. A small platform with a podium had been set up at one corner of the Mother Church and a band of teenagers were playing in front of the stage. I absolutely did not recognize Ryan Holliday, who was playing a mandolin instead of his usual banjo, and looking positively Dylanesqe (the 1960s Bob) with his longish shock of black hair, his lanky teenage body, and his somber air. Filling out this pick-up group were Houston Caldwell on banjo and two of my students, Malia and Christina Furtado, on fiddle and bass. (Okay, Malia was a mandolin student and I soon had to pass her on to my son Chris!) The guitar player, from Houston's band, I did not know. The young folks acquitted themselves well on a number of Earl's tunes including Groundspeed, but didn't do any singing. Earl and his entourage had not appeared yet, so they didn't have the pressure of Playing In Front Of Earl but I wondered if they knew that Bill Keith was there, practically in the front row.

Soon the dignitaries-Earl, Ricky Skaggs, Eddie Stubbs, and the mayor of Nashville--took their places on stage. Quite a few other persons of important were seated nearby: Gary and Randy Scruggs, Curley Seckler, Everett Lilly, Jesse McReynolds, Lance LeRoy, Ray Price. I sure did miss seeing Louise Scruggs. I'm certain she was there in spirit.

Eddie spoke, the mayor spoke, and Ricky spoke, but what I was interested in was What Earl Said. As always the great man showed himself to be modest, unassuming, humble, and quite willing to cheerfully expound on the questions Eddie asked. (Earl seems shy but, really, he's a good talker. I think, Southern boy that he is, he just doesn't like to put himself forward.)

Eddie brought Earl on with a powerful introduction: "There are no boundaries for this man. This is the right hand that changed the world!" Large applause from the crowd. (We would have stood up but we were already standing.)

Earl (graciously): Thank you. That's mighty nice.
Eddie: How did it feel to come to Nashville to work for Bill Monroe and play on the Grand Ole Opry?
Earl (humbly): It was such a thrill to me to come here and do for a living what I would have done just for fun.
Eddie: I've heard Lester say that you would sometimes go for a week without taking your shoes off.
Earl (agreeably): Sure did. We were having a good time. I really loved it.
Eddie: Did you realize that you were creating something special?
Earl (modestly): It just sounded good to me.

Earl talked about meeting his wife Louise at the Opry, getting a kick out of telling us he met her in the alley. Then Eddie chimed in with a great Louise and Earl story. Eddie said that Louise wanted to impress Earl so she got one of Bill Monroe's Columbia recordings and listened to it. When they met the next time she said, "I enjoyed your banjo playing on the record." Earl's response: "That was Stringbean." The audience just howled.

In spite of his genre-building time with Monroe and his long stint with Lester Flatt, Earl said the highlight of his career was working with his sons. "There is nothing like looking around and seeing your kids on stage with you." Yeah, buddy.

The plaque itself is a Tennessee Historical Marker designating the Ryman Auditorium as the "birthplace of bluegrass." Here's what it says:

In December 1945, Grand Ole Opry star Bill Monroe and his mandolin brought to the Ryman Auditorium stage a band that created a new American musical form. With the banjo style of Earl Scruggs and the guitar of Lester Flatt, the new musical genre became known as "bluegrass." This ensemble, augmented by the fiddle of Chubby Wise and the bass of Howard Watts (also known as Cedric Rainwater), became known as "The Original Bluegrass Band," which became the prototype for groups that followed.

At first glance, this seems like a fitting tribute to bluegrass, to the Ryman, and to Bill and Earl and the boys. And the Ryman, home of WSM's Grand Ole Opry in Monroe's heyday, has a strong claim as the "birthplace of bluegrass." But there is something unsettling to me about this plaque. What about those other places Monroe played, those other bands Monroe had?

Who decides these things? Why do "they" (whoever "they" are) get to decide that the Ryman is the "birthplace of bluegrass." What about Rosine, Ky., Monroe's birthplace? It also has staked a claim to being the "birthplace of bluegrass." And who decided that this configuration of Blue Grass Boys is "The Original Bluegrass Band"? How do you define bluegrass-and who decides? What about the band that Monroe first brought to the Opry in 1939? Was that bluegrass? What about the bands he recorded with prior to Les and Earl? What about the band that included Stringbean on banjo? If Monroe is the Father of Bluegrass, are these not bluegrass bands? Or did bluegrass not begin until Earl Scruggs joined on banjo? If so, doesn't that make HIM the Father of Bluegrass?

And, to get picky, the band that Monroe brought to the stage in December of 1945 included, not Chubby and Cedric, but Howdy Forrester on fiddle, Joe Forrester on bass, and Sally Ann Forrester on accordion! They were hardly a pickup band-they worked with Monroe until the spring of 1946. If Earl is the key to a band's being bluegrass, why is this band not "The Original Bluegrass Band"? I know what the party line is: that everything magically came together when the final pieces of the bluegrass puzzle--Chubby and Cedric-joined the band. This was the configuration that waxed all those classic recordings including Bluegrass Breakdown, Will You Be Loving Another Man, and Molly and Tenbrooks. But what about all those other classic Monroe recordings that came before: Footprints in the Snow, Rocky Road Blues, Muleskinner Blues, Orange Blossom Special? Aren't those bluegrass? The question is much more complex that it appears.

So what we have here is a close-to-home example of how history is "created," how a myth is created. It starts with an idea. Someone, some committee, some people had the idea to designate the Ryman as the "birthplace of bluegrass." Then they lobbied hard for that idea, got in ahead of anybody else, and BOOM! there you have it! From now on, the Ryman will be known as the birthplace of bluegrass. And with the clout the Ryman carries, that almost makes it "official." Still, a myth won't "stick" unless the general population believes in it. All in all, the plaque seems a bit arrogant. There are still all those questions out there floating around….What is bluegrass?… What is bluegrass?…What is bluegrass?...What is bluegrass?

Well, we may not agree on what bluegrass is, but we do manage to have an International Bluegrass Music Awards Show, now in its seventeenth year. For the first time, the show was held at the Grand Ole Opry house in Opryland, a much larger venue than last year's Ryman. (I heard that over 3000 tickets had been sold!) Marty Stuart was our genial host and he conducted himself like a true professional without losing that down-home touch that seems to be so terribly important to bluegrassers. In his opening remarks he was imagining Jimmy Martin (now up in heaven) talking to God. Jimmy, of course, is doing all the talking! He says to God, "I ain't sayin' I don't like it up here, but even you'd do anything to keep me off of the stage of the Grand Ole Opry." (The audience was well aware of the fact that Jimmy was never asked to join the Opry.)

Earl was not exempt from Marty's ribbing. Marty was talking about the new Nashville Symphony Hall. He said, "It cost $132 million dollars. They modeled it after Earl Scruggs' living room." He followed this by saying, "Most people have their checks returned marked 'insufficient funds.' Earl has his returned marked 'insufficient banks.'" Only Marty could get away with something like that!

Ricky Skaggs took his licks, too. Marty said Ricky wanted him to say that, after the Awards Show, Skaggs Family Records was taking everybody to Waffle House.

Music? Yes, there was music! High points for me were Larry Sparks and Curley Seckler singing He Took Your Place ("His hand is gently knocking on your door…"), Marty and Bobby Osborne singing What Would You Give in Exchange For Your Soul, with Marty playing Lester Flatt's guitar, Vince Gill and Del McCoury singing Vince's song Cold Gray Light of Gone (which at first I thought was Cold Gray Light of Dawn until he rhymed "dawn" with "dawn" which I realized Vince would never do), and Rhonda singing Till They Come Home, which spoke about the agony of everyone across the years who has had to sit and wait for their soldier sons and daughters to come home.

And finally, there was the Lewis Family. They were inducted into the IBMA Hall of Honor. Miggie, Polly, and Janis are the first women who play bluegrass to be included in the Hall of Honor. Sara and Maybelle Carter are in there but, as we all know, they didn't play bluegrass! The show ended with the Lewis Family sharing the stage with the Isaacs and Bill Gaither to play some of their best-known songs. After introducing them Marty said, "Stand up. Let's have church." And we did. No matter what your religion (or lack thereof) there is something soul-satisfying about hearing Little Roy crank down on Hallelujah Turnpike. "We're rolling up that Hallelujah Turnpike, headed home." Yes, we are.