Banjo Newsletter

April 2005: Stelling Recording and Banjo Noise
By Murphy Henry

Although it's not usually relevant to this column, I am in the process of writing a book about women in bluegrass for the University of Illinois Press. In doing some research on Vallie Cain, I came across an old newsletter from the sixties, the Washington (D.C.) Folk Strums. (Stay with me here.) Inside, an article boldly asks, "Finished With Folk Singing? Convert Your Five-String Banjo Into A Boat Anchor." I'm not kidding.

According to the authors, the first step is to gather together these materials--cement mix, shovel, bucket, rope, banjo-which are pictured. "Once the resonator is removed [Ha! How can it be a folk banjo with a resonator?] and the cement mixed, simply shovel as illustrated by the second picture and replace the resonator. (The picture shows a shovel full of cement poised over the back of the helpless and now resonator-less banjo.) Next, "With all the nautical skill at your command, tie the rope to the banjo strap and drop anchor!" (The photo shows a male person dangling a supposedly cement-laden banjo on a rope over the side of a boat and above the water.) Just thought I'd share. Apologies and thanks to Mike Rivers and Doc Cogan (wherever you may be) who wrote the original article.

Okay, so last month I mentioned that I was going into the studio to record a few tunes for the upcoming Stelling Sessions CD. Wanting to surround myself with the best musicians available, I chose my family: Red (husband) on mandolin, Casey (daughter) on banjo and bass, and Chris (son) on guitar. (The family that picks together, sticks together!) The problem was that Casey and Chris now live ten hours away in Nashville. The solution? Book some gigs in the area for their new band the Two-Stringers so that it would be financially feasible for them to come over and record. A couple of phone calls and it was done.

For my two tunes I chose John Hardy and Bury Me Beneath the Willow. Old chestnuts to be sure, but I figured in the midst of the more esoteric tunes that the other players were likely to bring to the project, these might be a welcome change of pace. Besides, Willow would make a good tune for Casey and me to twin, and John Hardy I can play in my sleep. No pressure. Casey wrote a perky original tune she titled Red Mary Janes (which is a reference to her new shoes in case you thought it meant something else). Casey and I wrestled long and hard about who to get to play bass on the tunes where she would be playing banjo. We'd about decided to let her dub the bass in when we both smacked our foreheads and said, "Amanda!" Who plays bass for the Two-Stringers and would be right there.

Amanda was so cute. The band had arrived at our house about 2 a.m. Saturday morning after a house concert near Baltimore. The recording session was set for noon at David McLaughlin's nearby studio. So one by one, people were getting up, getting coffee, getting breakfast, and getting showers. Casey and I were getting our harmony smoothed out for Willow. So Amanda comes up to me and shyly says, "Did you want to rehearse the tunes?" "Rehearse?" I said. "Rehearse? Who do you think I am? Casey? (Who runs a pretty tight band ship.) They're both in G. I'm sure you'll do fine." And that was that.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, David was heating up the studio. Literally. When we walked in, it must have been 80 degrees in there. First the sweater came off, then the shoes, then the socks, and then I was out of stuff to take off. David himself was walking around barefoot. We finally opened a door for a little while to let in some cool air.

I wanted to do the recording as "live" as possible with few overdubs. So David positioned all of us, except Amanda, in the same room, several feet apart, where we could easily see each other. Willow was going to be the first song, so we sat down and as David began checking microphones and setting levels, we began the "rehearsal" that Amanda had been wanting. Since Willow is not technically a hard song, all I wanted to do was to find the groove that would generate the collective energy that would allow us to relax and play our best. That spot where everything is so right that the song practically plays itself.

For this twin version of Willow, I actually had a pre-planned break. For Casey to play the harmony, she had to know what I was doing for the lead! Most of the time I tend to play off the cuff, spontaneously playing whatever comes to my hands at that moment. Of course, by the time I bring a song into the studio I've usually played it hundreds if not thousands of times, so for me off the cuff means off the cuff within certain parameters.

When Casey and I first worked the song up, we had a low, first-position break, and two high breaks. All twin. But I thought the song needed a little something else to spice it up. So one night when I was practicing by myself, it popped into my head to use the signature licks from the bridge of Themetime, to create a third high break for Willow. So I did. Then I added one of those fancy Scruggs up-the-neck backup licks to end with. (If I did tab, I could show you what I'm talking about, but since I don't, I can't, so you'll just have to buy the CD when it comes out.) I figured Casey could come up with a twin part, and she did. David got a real kick out of this break. "It doesn't have a thing to do with the song," he said with a laugh, "but it works."

As Hub Nitchie might have said, it was just banjo noise against the chords. But I like to think it was good banjo noise. When you get the CD, you can tell me. I'll keep you posted. (I'm off now to play a gig with former student Joe Page's band. On fiddle! Just thought you'd like to know!)