Banjo Newsletter

February 2005: This Magic Moment
By Murphy Henry

Recently, Red and I, along with Casey and Chris, our excellent progeny (formerly Excellent Children) played a gig together. This used to be something we did frequently and was No Big Deal, but now that they're both in Nashville-TEN HOURS AWAY-we don't get to play together much. (Sad face.) So to be reunited on stage (metaphorically speaking, since there was no "stage") was a real treat. I was playing banjo; Red, mandolin; Chris, guitar; and Casey, bass. Naturally, I figured I'd write about it. I've been writing about Casey and Chris for twenty years, so why stop now?

Then, while taking my pre-gig shower, I had an idea (I get a lot of good ideas in the shower): why not ask them to write about it, too? It would be a column a trios. Three different viewpoints, less work for me, a little pocket change for them. Voila!

Frankly, if I had written it alone, I would have disguised the fact that it had been a Christmas gig (figuring no one wants to read about Christmas in February), but Casey, being her mother's daughter, laid it all on the line in her first sentence. I defer to her since she is taller and has longer hair.

Casey: For most bands the thought of playing a gig the day after Christmas is probably repugnant, but for our band, playing is all part of the whole family togetherness thing that usually accompanies the holidays, so we figured, why not? You got the money, honey….So on Boxing Day we got all dressed up in our good clothes, loaded the instruments, and drove all of fifteen minutes into town. When we got to the reception hall, our setup consisted solely of tuning our instruments. No sound system! Yea!!

Our show consisted mostly of standards, songs that people will recognize out of the corner of their ears as they visit and make small talk. I played a bass borrowed from Bob Van Metre, one of Murphy's students. (Murphy interjecting: As a sop to Bob, of course, I had to let him play a few songs with us. That would also allow Casey to take a turn on banjo, and, ahem, me to play fiddle!)

Back to Casey: We had a couple of other guests for the show. Patty, one of Murphy's fiddle students, got up and played Amazing Grace and Down Yonder with us. (Murphy: She'd booked the gig! And, of course, that meant I got to play more fiddle!) And Warren, Murphy's occasional student, occasional plumber, and fulltime friend, played guitar and sang, thus spreading the work around. We only had to play two sets, for a total of two hours, including the break, and so the gig was dispatched in a completely enjoyable fashion.

After we played, Red's mom Renee, who was visiting for the holidays, lined us up for a family photo in front of the Christmas tree by the stage. I think the party guests were highly amused to see the band getting its family portrait made. (Murphy: Stars one minute; commoners the next.) Afterwards Red and Renee headed to the house with the instruments while Murphy, Bob, Patty, Warren, and I went to get a beer and some nachos at the corner restaurant, an ideal way to top off the day. (Murphy: The nachos went a long way but it was really hard to share that one beer.)

Chris's take: The last time we played a gig as a family was so long ago no one can quite remember. I was looking forward it, and one of my hometown friends came to see us. As soon as we got there, I got my guitar out and got a cup of coffee, losing my pick-a Johnson Mountain Boy pick from David McLaughlin-in the process. I spent a half hour looking for it without success. Besides a missed note here and there, this would be the only glitch in the proceedings.

We started out with a rousing instrumental, trading breaks in the general direction of the guests, who seemed delighted to hear brilliant bluegrass music live and in person. Everyone got a chance to sing lead and we played some good tunes in between. We did everything from a mighty lonesome I Live in the Past (Chris) to Mountain Dew (Red) and Gotta Travel On (Murphy) to This Weary Heart You Stole Away (Casey), and the Old Homeplace (Warren). Timing was hit and miss but consistently surgeful and upbeat. It was, after all, a really long time since we had played a gig together.

I enjoyed the excellent rhythm section to freely explore a Rubicon of polyrhythms and displacement. It was engaging to hear Murphy pick the five after so long. She still bears down with great right hand execution producing exciting bluegrass banjo. Casey and I were able to lock in with Murphy to harness the fury of Red's raging mandolin on the immortal Paddy on the Turnpike to create the dominant and profound musical intensity that I have oriented my life around experiencing. When we all get going, I enjoy our family sound better than everything else. A highlight was the family quartet on Murphy's original When My Mama Sang to Me. It was the perfect opportunity for an excellent reunion in a relaxed environment with absolutely no pressure. That's what you want.

Back to me: I was distressed to find that there was no "Christmas cheer" at the party. Luckily, being an old road warrior, I had brought my own. When I stepped outside to cool off after our first set, Patty's husband, Jon, and Bob went with me. They were impressed with my miniature Jack bottles; less impressed that I wouldn't share. Bob threatened to take his bass and go home, but I knew he was just funning with me.

I was happy to be on stage, laying the thumb to the five. It had been a while. I put on new strings for the occasion. Thank goodness I still remembered how! We, of course, had not rehearsed together at all. Too much Christmas going on. Warren had asked me earlier (when he came over to look at the water heater) what songs we would be doing. I told him I had no idea (because you never know what people will want to hear at parties), but I knew he could follow them. And he did.

My favorite moment was when we got a request for Shady Grove. We'd never played Shady Grove together before, although I was satisfied we all knew the same version. I knew Red could sing it. (He just told me he learned it from the Scottsdale Squirrelbarkers. He also gave two different possible definitions of "squirrelbarking" and told me who played mandolin on the original recording but that comes under the heading of "too much information.") Anyhow, Red sang it, I tenored it, Casey and Chris found some other parts (a la Flatt and Scruggs), and we all leaned in together toward some imaginary microphone and flat burned it, buddy. We found that magic groove, and it sounded (at least in that moment) like we'd been singing it all our lives. That was my Magic Moment. The rest was just icing on the cake.