Banjo Newsletter

September 2006: Just Call Me Buck
By Murphy Henry

I know I promised I wouldn't talk about fiddle playing but this month I can't resist.

Okay, here's the deal. I've been playing fiddle in public, for money with some local musicians here in Winchester for the last couple of years. The group includes some pretty high-profile pickers--David McLaughlin on mandolin, Marshall Wilborn on bass, and Scott Brannon on guitar. Fiddle in hand, I am the weakest link. I try to make up for it by being a good emcee and providing lots of energy. Lest you think I am being overly modest, please know that we NEVER take requests for Orange Blossom Special for the simple reason that I can't play it!

This is a fun bunch to work with because, old pros that we are, we don't stress about the music. We just want to have a good time, pick up some extra cash, and toss back a few genial beverages. We never practice, we never book gigs far away from home so we never have to travel together for more than an hour, and we never work from a set list. We're happy to see each other when we meet, and happy to say goodbye when we part.

Our repertoire revolves around what Scott likes to sing, which includes a lot of Reno and Smiley standards with some Charlie Moore thrown in on the side. David sings harmony while I provide fiddle backup. My favorite song is When The Saints Go Marching In. David and I both sing harmony and we do the echoing thing: Oh when the saints (oh when the saints) Go marching in (go marching in) Oh when the saints (saints) go (go) march (march) ing (ing) in (go marching in). Doing these echoes characterizes what I like best about this band. Right before we performed the song for the first time I said "Let's do the echoes" and David and Scott knew exactly what I was talking about. David came in with the echoes perfectly, Scott never faltered, and it turned out great. I think Scott even grinned a little. Although, perhaps I imagined it. He's pretty serious on stage.

Then there is our (sometimes) clever stage repartee. At our last gig, I had the idea for the program pretty much laid out in my mind: Pick one, sing two all night long. So we picked one, Scott sang one, and I was getting ready to ask Marshall to sing one when David lipped in and said, on mike, "Murphy, why don't you play a fiddle tune?" Well. Not only was he disrupting my plan but David NEVER asks me to play a fiddle tune. So I said, on mike, "David, I believe this is the first time you've EVER asked me to play a fiddle tune." But since, like a good Girl Scout, I am ALWAYS prepared to play a fiddle tune I immediately said, "What about Arkansas Traveler?" David said, "What key?" I said, "I'll do it in D and the banjo will do it in G." (We'd actually used this arrangement before as David very well knew.) Keeping the ball in the air David asked, "What key do you want me to play it in?" I said, "I don't know. What about A? Or C?" David said, "Okay, which one?" (David could actually play in the song in any key, including F-sharp or B-flat, but I wanted a key the rest of us could actually follow.)

I turned to the audience and asked, "What key do you want to hear David play it in?" No response. "Okay," I said, "let's see a show of hands. How many people want to hear David play it in the Key of A?" No response. "Come on, folks. Help me out. We're just having fun. How many people want to hear David play it in A?" Sprinkling of hands. "How many people want to hear David play it in C?" A substantially larger sprinkling of hands. "Okay, David, play it in A." Titters of laughter.

Turning now to David, I said, conversationally, "That went well, didn't it? Just like we rehearsed it." Then, to the audience, "Didn't you think that went well? I think we'll keep it in the show." (The shtick was, of course, totally unrehearsed.) And we launched into Arkansas Traveler. Of course, by the time we got to David's break, Marshall had totally forgotten what key David was going to play it in, so Marshall was playing in C while David was playing in A which made for some interesting listening until Marshall caught on and switched keys. But with our laissez faire attitude, nobody cared. I turned and grinned at Marshall to let him know I knew. "I was looking back to see if he was looking back to see if I was looking back to see if he was looking back at me." He was. He shrugged.

So that's the set-up for the little episode I started to tell you about. I got a little carried away. One more piece of background and we can get to the actual point of the story. I mentioned Reno and Smiley. For years the fiddle player with them was the magnificent Buck Ryan who was from nearby Mt. Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley. He was, as you can well imagine, a crackerjack fiddler and a great show person. Many people in the local area knew him well and loved his playing.

So at this recent gig I've been telling you about, a woman came up to me after our second set. She said that she had known Buck and had really liked his fiddle playing. Then she made a stunning declaration: "You're every bit as good a fiddle player as Buck Ryan." The mind boggles. Thanking her for the compliment (not believing it for one second) and grinning like a possum up a gum stump I said, "Can you stand here for just a minute?" I called the guys over. I asked the woman, "Could you repeat what you just said?" Graciously she uttered the mellifluous (and heretical) words again. I smirked. The guys were thunderstruck but being professionals they kept straight faces. Of course, I didn't hear them agreeing with her, either!

I would have been perfectly happy if the woman had then departed. But no. "What goes up, must come down." Pride goeth before a fall and the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. With the boys still in earshot she made a request. Could I play Orange Blossom Special? Alas, the fiddle player she thought was as good as Buck Ryan could not play Orange Blossom Special. Something Buck did with ease and grace almost every time he got on stage. No, I said regretfully, maybe next year. The guys shot me knowing looks, leers, and "Ha, Ha" faces. After she left, we all had a good laugh, marveled at the ways of audiences, and took the stage for our final set. But I did tell them they could call me Buck from now on. I love this music!