Banjo Newsletter

December 2005: IBMA Goes to Nashville
By Murphy Henry

For the first time ever, October 24-30, the IBMA's World of Bluegrass was held in Nashville, Tennessee. Music City USA. Home of the Grand Ole Opry, the Ryman Auditorium, the World Famous Station Inn, and the Broadman Press. Terra firma for IBMA headquarters, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, Layla's Bluegrass Inn, and the Opry Mills mall. Abode of my excellent children, Casey and Chris.

For an entire week I was ensconced in room at the downtown Renaissance Hotel, which is attached to the Nashville Convention Center where the Trade Show and Fan Fest were held. Unfortunately I caught a cold early on, which made me grouchy and not inclined to socialize. Not a good thing when you have a Murphy Method booth to run and lots of people dropping by for Kodak moments. Luckily I had a good book, Diana Gabaldon's new Jamie and Claire novel. (Bluegrass connection: Diana listened to Chris Stuart and Backcountry CDs while writing and thanks them in print!)

I arrived in town Saturday night in time to hear Chris play a gig with Billy Smith and Marilyn Barclay at a dingy sports bar near Vanderbilt. Chris didn't know I was coming, so he was somewhat startled to see me standing at the bar when he came in from killing time outside. It seems there was an important football game on TV and the pickers didn't dare interrupt the drinkers who were watching loudly. And spending lots of money. Unfortunately it was only the third quarter. And then the game went into overtime!

Finally, about 10 p.m., the band started. People think playing in Nashville is all glamour and glitz, but here the band was tucked into a tiny corner against the far wall, playing while people shot pool at numerous tables right in front of them. Still and yet, there was no place I would have rather been. Somehow this seemed like an appropriate welcome to the city where bluegrass was born, as we would be reminded numerous times at the Awards Show. ("That's how myths are created," I said to Casey. "If they say it often enough, it becomes a fact and everybody forgets that birthing bluegrass was a process.")

Monday we set up our Murphy Method booth in the Exhibit Hall in the cavernous Convention Center. I had good neighbors--I was right across from the University of Illinois Press where newly published author and former Blue Grass Boy Bob Black was hanging out. I got the inside scoop on all the stuff he didn't put in his book, Come Hither To Go Yonder. (Just kidding!) Neil Rosenberg (whose complete discography about Bill Monroe, written with Charles Wolfe, is coming out soon) was also entertaining friends and receiving homage there. His classic Bluegrass: A History has recently been reprinted in a 30th anniversary edition. I am inordinately proud to be mentioned in the new preface.

Geoff and Sherry Stelling were also across the way, which came in handy when I needed to borrow a banjo. (Don't ask.) This year there was a small stage in the Exhibit Hall where exhibitors were allotted fifteen minutes time slots to demonstrate their wares. I was going to play the slowed down versions of tunes from some of our DVDs. Geoff, whose new Stelling Anthology is now out on CD, also had a slot and had asked Casey and me to join him and Alan Munde in a show of Stellings. That worked out fine because my slot was right after his. I could use his Stelling for both. Casey also needed to borrow a Stelling because she plays one of Those Other Banjos. No problem. Geoff had two Stellings fitted with straps we could borrow. However in the inevitable confusion surrounding a spur-of-the-moment, let's-get-together-and-pick-on-stage event (coordinated by two banjo players) Geoff and I ended up on stage playing both of those banjos. Casey, arriving late from a seminar, was Stelling-less. That didn't stop her. Determined to join the ruckus on stage, she covered her peghead with a white plastic bag and made a grand entrance in the middle of Lonesome Road Blues. It was hysterical.

As I returned to my booth, I ran into Terry Baucom and his wife Cindy, who is a DJ. She had been named Broadcast Personality of the Year at the Awards Luncheon and I stopped to congratulate her. Terry, noticing my right hand said, "I like to see a gal wearing picks!" Oh, yeah.

Thursday night was The Big Night, the Awards Show, which was held at the Ryman Auditorium, just across the street from the Convention Center. As always, there was good news and bad news. First the good. The show opened with a stunning a capella version of the Star Spangled Banner by the Isaacs. What a way to start the night! Then there were some new award winners. Also good. Sort of spreading the wealth, so to speak. First-time winners included Phil Ledbetter for Dobro Player, the Grascals for Emerging Artist and Song of the Year, and perhaps the biggest surprise of the night, Cherryholmes for Entertainer of the Year.

Cherryholmes (the funky new name for the Cherryholmes Family) certainly deserved the award because they are definitely entertaining. The surprise came because they were also up for Emerging Artist, having been playing professionally for only a few years. All four of the young people, however, are turning into crackerjack musicians. Cia has become a force to be reckoned with on the banjo (I'm thinking Banjo Player of the Year nomination), picking in the neo-traditional, metronomic, Terry Baucom-Sammy Shelor style, but I must confess I miss the quirky approach she took when she was starting out. It was unique. Father Jere started tongues wagging (possibly his intention since it's great publicity) by wearing an animal skin--a wolf?--wrapped around his shoulders. Later my friend Cap Spence, commenting on this attire to BNL writer Ira Gitlin said, "I bet PETA would love that outfit." Ira immediately responded with his dry Yankee wit, "There is no PETA in bluegrass." Which echoed Tom Hanks' "There is no crying in baseball" from League of Their Own. (PETA being People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals, as I'm sure you knew…)

Reclaiming awards they had won in the past were Mike Bub (bass), Stewart Duncan (fiddle), and Jim Mills (banjo). Bub, working hard to control his emotions, made what was possibly the classiest acceptance speech ever. After thanking his family, he thanked a number of bass players from the past including Bessie Lee Mauldin, long-time bass player for Bill Monroe, who is usually overlooked. I loved him for that. Then with tears in his voice, he thanked Del McCoury and all the guys in the band for the great years of playing with them on the road. (After 13 years Bub is no longer in the band.) Mike immediately zoomed to the top of my list for being a classy guy who was big enough to do the Right Thing. As the cast of Hee Haw used to say, SALUTE!

Unfortunately, hosts Ricky Skaggs and Alison Krauss turned the reading of the teleprompter into a huge joke. Which undoubtedly did not play well on the live XM Satellite Radio broadcast. And there were people in the audience viewing the proceedings with an eye to putting the Awards Show on television. Whoops. On the other hand, Alison earned high marks for recognizing, off the cuff, one of the "greatest singers in bluegrass"-Lynn Morris, whom Alison had spotted in the audience. She said, "My whole face caved in the first time I heard Lynn." She made Lynn stand up and of course everyone applauded. Now that's good ad-libbing!

NOTICE: Skip this paragraph if you don't want to read anything about women in bluegrass. In spite of a few awkward moments, I was still enjoying the Awards Show up until the Grand Finale. And then I got mad. Why? Because there were fifteen men on stage picking and only one woman, Alison Krauss. What's up with that? Will things ever change? This is the 21st century. Gender matters. Balance matters. And it's not like women can't pick. If you put the Del McCoury Band, Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, and Alison Krauss and Union Station with Jerry Douglas on stage at the same time, you are going to end up with only one woman in the mix. Include some other bands, include some women.

You may now safely resume reading this column. (If I didn't already lose you to Tom Adams or Ian Perry!)

Friday I made it over to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum to hear two of my former students, Gina and Malia Furtado (banjo and fiddle) and their new group Blue Light Special who were playing with Heather Berry in the Museum gift shop. Formerly the shyest of little girls who would hardly talk at all during their lessons ("We're home schooled," explained Gina with a hint of sarcasm) they have turned into gracious and friendly young women. Gina can flat lay the thumb to the five (to borrow from Alison Brown). It's fun for me to hear her play some of the licks I taught her, but it's even more fun to hear how she's moved on beyond Murphy. "Fly away my pretty little miss…"

If the Awards Show was somewhat disheartening, Saturday night's old-time radio barn dance was a hoot. The show featured numerous musicians dressed in period costume all sitting on stage, Opry style, ready to rise to the mike when summoned by emcee Bill Knowlton playing the role of the Solemn Old Judge. Among them were consummate entertainer Leroy Troy, Matt Kinman, Rebeckah Weiler, playing clawhammer, the Case Brothers, Lester and Mike Armistead, Doc Willhite (as Uncle Dave Macon), and Casey, performing as a Cousin Emmy-style banjo player and comedian. Matt Kinman's band told the best joke: One guy says it's his wife's birthday. "What'd you get for her?" says Matt. "I didn't get nothing for her" is the reply. "Why not?" says Matt. "Nobody offered me anything for her!"

The second-best joke came from Lester "Road Hog" Moran and the Cadillac Cowboys. (Imitators, of course, and darn good.) Old Road Hog, telling about his childhood, said, "There were six kids in one bed. Until one of us got married. And then there were seven!" Love that cornball humor!

Leroy Troy, who is always funny, got up during the rendition of Bluegrass Stomp and danced. In his bib overalls, with his back to the audience, he put his right hand on his left shoulder and his left hand on his right shoulder and pretending like he was dancing with someone, he moved his hips in a suggestive fashion, drawing catcalls and applause from the audience. It looked real!

Then, just like a flash it was gone. It was Sunday morning. I was waiting for the elevator to take me down for one last day at my booth. Impatient as always, I tried to trick the elevator into coming by calling Casey on my cell phone. Sure enough the elevator arrived when I was in mid-conversation. I stepped onto it to find only one other person there, bass player and friend Gene Libbea of the Nashville Bluegrass Band. He, too, was talking on his cell phone. We nodded to each other and kept talking. When we got out, we nodded goodbye, and went on our merry ways, never having said one word to each other. Somehow that seemed to speak volumes.

On the other hand, later that afternoon at my booth, I watched my new friend Linda Schuh pack up the University of Illinois booth. Then she left. I ran after her. "Linda! Wait! We didn't hug goodbye! That's what we do here." And we hugged. Somehow it seems like there's a moral here. If you think there is, then, as Ralph said to Carter when they were talking about that gopher hole, "That's your question, now you answer that!"