Banjo Newsletter

March 2005: The Two-Stringers
By Murphy Henry

So many bits and pieces to tell you about, it's hard to know where to start. However, since my kids Casey, 27, and Christopher, 24, have practically grown up in this column, I'll start with them. I realize I'm taking a great risk in telling you this, but they have formed their own band, Casey and Chris and the Two-Stringers. (The risk, of course, is that by mentioning this in print, the band will attract the notice of the malevolent spirits of the universe, who will then rain thunderbolts of discord, disruption, disenchantment, and dismay upon the fledgling enterprise. Kinda like making a record-the band always breaks up right afterwards leaving some unfortunate soul with a thousand unsaleable CDs. Perhaps, in this instance, the benevolent spirits will prevail.)

But back to the Two-Stringers. Casey is playing banjo, Chris is playing mandolin, Amanda Kowalski is on bass, and Tyler Grant is on guitar. Amanda, whose mentor is Missy Raines, is a product of the Wheeling, W.Va., bluegrass in the schools program. (Those programs are absolutely fabulous and you should support them whenever possible with money and instruments.) And Tyler is from California, but he can't help that. Somebody's gotta live there. (At ease! Just an attempt to add levity to the column and keep you on your toes!)

The name Two-Stringers, which I think is clever and easy to spell and pronounce, comes from our friend Bob Forrester, the son of fiddle great Howdy Forrester and Sally Ann (Billy) Forrester who played accordion with Bill Monroe's band from 1942 until 1946. Bob himself is a hoedown fiddler player and he plays these wonderful old tunes like Pretty Little Girl With The Red Dress On, which his dad called "two-stringers." Which I've always assumed means that they are played on two strings only. (My kind of tunes!) They have great rhythm and drive and make you want to get up and shake a leg whether you have any aptitude in that department or not! Since Casey and Chris were raised in the bosom of bluegrass and both heard the mellifluous tones of the banjo before they saw the light of day, they are all about rhythm and drive. So what better name for the band than Two-Stringers.

Before this column comes out, they will have made their first on-stage appearance here in Winchester, Virginia, in the basement of the barber shop where I teach. It doesn't get much better than that. Dare I say that they are really on the "cutting edge"? (Sorry!) My next column could very well be about that premier performance. I'm sure you will be waiting with bated breath, whatever that means. ("Suspenseful anticipation" according to Webster's.)

On the other hand, I might write about the upcoming Stelling recording session which will take place (for Casey and me) on the very day of their performance and is the reason they are coming to town in the first place. Geoff Stelling has come up with the idea of producing a CD that will feature Stelling banjo players! And I'm proud to say I'm one of them. And Casey will be, too--a Stelling player for a day. The other stellar musicians are Alan Munde, Bill Emerson, Chris Warner, Ned Luberecki, Alvin Breeden, Keith Arneson, and, of course, Geoff, Mr. Stelling himself. Each player will record two or three tunes at the studio of their choice, and then Geoff will compile the whole thing, and voila! We'll have a CD.

My choice of studio is that of David McLaughlin, which is just down the road. Not only is David a great player and engineer, he has the same reverence toward the music that I do. But what I really like about David is his irreverence toward the music. (And his ability to flatpick the banjo using a Scruggs roll!) For instance he loves the snare drum that Bill Monroe used in some of his recordings, and has been known to play bluegrass snare drum himself on occasion. (And is now teaching his daughter Molly that art.)

For the upcoming recording, I've been getting out the five nightly to whip myself into studio shape. It's been really fun. In my middle years (I guess with Casey being 27 and Chris being 24, the youngest age I could possibly claim to be, if I had used Loretta Lynn for a role model, would be 41). Anyhow, in my middle years, I am astonished to find that I am finally over (okay, mostly over) my obsession with playing it just like Earl. Don't get me wrong, I still love Earl's playing and still recommend him as a role model for any beginning banjo player. But I have let go of my long-time obsession with getting every note just like his. (I just said that didn't I?) Of course, it was an impossible goal and while it was the foundation for my becoming the banjo player that I am, it also hindered me from exploring other aspects of the banjo player I might have become. (Not that the Scruggs style is in any way limiting! I limited myself by trying to be Earl!)

For instance, do I have a Tony Trischka side, just waiting to be revealed? Is there an Alison Brown lurking beneath the surface? If I looked hard, could I find some of Janet Davis's funky chords emerging from my hands? I now find myself willing to be a little more creative when I practice. For instance last night when I was practicing Cripple Creek (I always start with the basics), I found myself trying to play a break up the neck. (And not the Banjo in the Hollow variation.) It's a small thing, I know, but it's a start!

And you know, I think my fiddle playing has helped here. (And I thought I was going to steer clear of mentioning fiddle! And you probably hoped I was!) Because I'm not trying to emulate anyone on the fiddle, I am free to play like myself. And that's a new thought for me. I don't have to worry that I didn't play something "right" because I'm just making it up as I go along according to what I hear in my head. And a lot of my fiddle breaks, especially to banjo tunes, are based on what I play on the banjo! (Oh, dear, I'm still playing like Earl, only now it's on the fiddle! Does it never end??) But the feeling of not having to be Benny Martin or Paul Warren or Alison Krauss or Laurie Lewis is frankly a relief. It means I can play like Murphy, and for better or worse, that's what I do best. Maybe playing like you is what you do best. Think about it.