Banjo Newsletter

November 2004: IBMA 2004: Goodbye Louisville
By Murphy Henry

One of the perks of being a writer (besides being able to work in your pajamas!) is getting to relive the events you write about. So, with great joy I will once again experience the IBMA World of Bluegrass which took place October 3-10 in Louisville, Ky., at the Galt House. This is the last year for the IBMA (which is what most people call the event) in Louisville. Next year, it's on to Nashville!

I arrived in Louisville early Sunday night, and decided to spend a quiet night in my room resting up for the busy week ahead. This year the hotel was undergoing extensive renovations right outside my window! As I discovered Monday morning when the hammering started shortly after seven. And me up till 2 a.m. Picking? No. Watching Austin Powers on TV. How was I going to get any morning zzzz's the rest of the week? The hillbilly in me knew what to do: Casey and I pulled the mattresses off our beds and dragged them into the kitchen area of our suite where we couldn't hear the noise. I don't know what the maid thought, but she made up our mattresses on the floor every day!

Monday I set up my Murphy Method booth and from then on Casey, Christopher, and I spent much time there meeting and greeting. Early on, Alan Munde stopped by and I mentioned that we were wearing the same kind of watch, a good old Timex. Alan said he really liked the "Indiglo" feature-when you push the watch stem the face lights up. I told Alan that I often used the "glow in the dark feature" to light my way to the bathroom at night, especially in unfamiliar places. "Me, too!" he exclaimed. And I thought I was the only one. I was thrilled to find that Alan and I share this uncommon quirk. In addition, of course, to the other quirk. Being banjo players.

Monday evening brought the first round of official IBMA showcases (as opposed to the "late night," unofficial showcases which take place in numerous private suites). My favorite band was the Grascals, with Terry Eldredge singing lead and Dave Talbot on banjo. They are currently Dolly Parton's backup band, but do a great job without Dolly, too! You gotta love a band that can make the song Viva Las Vegas into a hard-driving bluegrass number! There were also a couple of bands that featured lead singers who were not playing instruments, something that plain irks me. It apparently bothered someone else at our table for he (or she) was heard to remark, "There are only three women who can get away with not playing an instrument. Miggie, Polly, and Janis." Amen!

On Wednesday I watched the screening of Discover Bluegrass: Exploring American Roots Music. This DVD was developed by the IBMA Education Committee to be used specifically in schools to introduce bluegrass to children in grades three through eight. It even comes with lesson plans! (Teachers: the DVD is available through IBMA for only $5.00!) The narrators are two well-spoken, unbelievably good pre-pubescent pickers, Ryan Holliday on banjo and Sierra Hull on mandolin. Hats off to Greg Cahill for shepherding this project to completion.

Thursday starts off with the Special Awards Luncheon and ends with the evening Awards Show. Distinguished Achievement Awards, which honor folks whose contributions to bluegrass are not always in the public eye, are presented at lunch. This year fiddler Art Stamper was a recipient and though he is battling throat cancer and couldn't speak, he stood on the stage and doffed his trademark hat while receiving two thunderous standing ovations. Mike Seeger was on hand to make the presentation honoring Mo Asch, founder of Folkways records. In talking about the 1957 Folkways album American Banjo Scruggs Style, which Mo funded and Mike produced, Mike said, "Some have called this the first bluegrass album. I don't think Mr. Monroe would have agreed with that. It was mostly banjo."

Although the crowd only tittered, I laughed out loud. I have the utmost respect for Bill Monroe, but I'm a little uncomfortable with him being singled out as the one and only Father of Bluegrass. To me, it seems as if the essential contributions of Earl Scruggs and his fancy banjo are being relegated to second place. Yet it is often the sound of the banjo that attracts people to bluegrass to begin with. It is fascinating to see how history is constructed.

Then there is the Thursday night Awards Show, which was being broadcast live by Sirius Satellite Radio. Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski were again the hosts and this year Alison took off her kid gloves. Her first words when she and Dan stepped on stage were, "Can you hear my excitement?" What the radio audience couldn't see was Alison holding her armpit up to the microphone. Then she said, "Dan helped me stuff my bra with capos and guitar strings." Ah, Alison! Her introduction of Dale Ann Bradley's performance ended with, "She's so good it's stupid." And she called Larry Sparks "the biggest stud in bluegrass music!" I spent much time whispering to Casey, "Did she really say THAT?" I love Alison's spontaneity and zany sense of humor, but perhaps it was a bit over the top for a live broadcast. At one point, after some off-the-wall remark (maybe it was the one about Ricky Skaggs), Dan had her in a headlock and was pretending to punch her in the face with his fist! When the Awards Show goes to TV, Alison may need a curb bit-or Dan may need a cattle prod! [ARRRGH! I JUST REMEMBERED I PUT A CHICKEN IN THE OVEN THREE HOURS AGO! Excuse me while I rush up the stairs to check on it. (Sound of bare feet pounding up stairs.) OK. I'm back. Chicken is rescued. It looks EXTRA CRISPY but still edible. Smoke was not pouring from the oven and the kitchen was not on fire. Thank you, Kitchen Gods!]

As you know by now, J.D. Crowe won Banjo Player of the Year. This is only his second time to win, the last being 1994. Of course he got a standing ovation. His first words were, "Not bad for an old man." Then, bless his heart, he asked the audience in the future to vote for the younger players. Wasn't that sweet? What a guy! (What was he thinking?) Of course in my opinion, when J.D. and his band played with Hall of Honor inductee Curly Seckler, J.D. blew everyone else out of the water with his first three notes. (Not that banjo playing is a competition or anything….) The next day, when he and his son David were making the rounds in the Exhibit Hall, I congratulated J.D. and gave them both great big hugs. Of all the ways that learning to play the banjo has paid off, getting to hug J.D. Crowe is near the top of the list.

Friday morning I blew off the Exhibit Hall to go on the John Hartford Memorial Riverboat Cruise with Casey and Red's mother Renee (rhymes with genie). In the Hartford spirit, the music was impromptu and freewheeling. (Due partly to the late-night, post-Award jamming!) It was a pleasure to get to hear Geoff Stelling pick the banjo. He was picking her solid with Tony Ellis's group, while Tony played the fiddle. (A man after my own heart!) Mike Seeger got up and did a John Hartford song while thumping on a big gourd banjo. As soon as he sat down to perform, Tim O'Brien left the stage, causing Mike to say, "It repels people." (Meaning the banjo.) Tim had only gone off stage so he could hear Mike play better. The song, all about tobacco, had a catchy first line: "Tobacco is an Indian weed and from the ground it do proceed." Then the last line of the chorus is: "T-O-B-A-C-C-O, that's the weed for me!" I may have to hunt that one down and learn it!

We pulled back into the dock to the strains of the John Hartford national anthem, Gentle on My Mind, sung by Tim O'Brien. It was a wonderful way to begin Fan Fest weekend, even if I had to leave my booth unattended for three hours. But, lo and behold, when I got back, Mark Panfil, who did our Beginning Dobro Video, and his wife Cheryl were working the booth. I was blown away by their thoughtfulness. Are bluegrass people the greatest, or what?

Since I went to bed early every night (except Sunday), and didn't get out to do any late-night picking, I asked my son Christopher, 23, to say a few words about playing with one of the masters, Butch Robins. Chris has recently been playing mandolin with Dave Peterson and 1946. Here's what Chris had to say:

IBMA at its best can be wonderful, but often it is a frustrating experience for me. This is because a person such as myself, who has little to no desire to play and hear modern contemporary bluegrass, can walk around all day and night and not find a really fun jam session to participate in.

This year I had primed myself for the event by getting some new CDs to listen to. One was Butch Robins' Grounded, Centered, Focused. On it are some of my favorites like the Old Dangerfield/Ebenezer Scrooge medley, The Golden West, My Father's Footsteps, and Tanyards. I was especially glad I had been listening to them when I found out Butch was having open jams in his hospitality suite for the week.

The first night I as greeted by our gracious host saying, "Welcome to Butch's Bar and Boutique." He had Bill Monroe pencil prints in frames around the room, accented by stacks of his new book, What I Know 'Bout What I Know. It was myself, Shin Akimoto, and Dick Smith on mandolins, Nick Barr on fiddle, Ira Gitlin on guitar, Butch on banjo, a spirited bass player, and others who came later including Pete Wernick. Every so often Butch would say, "I'm being cursed by the mandolin gods." We played through many of the classic Monroe cult instrumentals and Butch made it plenty clear why many think of him as a top authority, curator, and innovator of the Monroe bluegrass style. Throughout the week it was my favorite place to look for superior Monroe melodies.

One night Butch took a paper plate and wrote the fraction 3/4. He showed it to everyone saying emphatically, "See this? I play the banjo. That means no three-quarter time." Then he circled the fraction and drew a messy slash through middle. Butch is a very energetic player and rhythmically adds a great deal to the support and stability in his tasty marinated backup, and it's a lot of fun to hear that behind me when I pick a lead. But most impressive is Butch's command and interpretation of those tough Monroe instrumentals. He has the ability to help the music rise up to a high level and to keep it there by providing listeners such as myself with satisfaction and transcendence. One fellow said he had to leave the room because it got too good. That's exactly my reason for staying one night until Butch said, "Anything past seven [a.m.], and there will be red on the walls." It was a remarkable experience to visit with Butch and his family. This year IBMA provided me with an opportunity to learn from, pick with, and celebrate bluegrass with one of the best.

Thank you, Chris! And thank you, Butch! In closing let me quote from a John Hartford song that Laurie Lewis and Tom Rozum sang on the riverboat cruise: May your wheels be free from driftwood / May you never run aground / May all your winds be tailwinds / And may all your trips be down. See you next year in Nashville!