Banjo Newsletter

June 2004: Roll On Buddy
By Murphy Henry

First the non-bluegrass stuff: In response to my April column in which I mentioned "tater-ade," and wondered aloud how restaurants got that great nutty flavor in their baked potatoes, Zachary Murphy wrote in from Seattle, Washington, to say "As an old Idaho Spud myself, here's the nut-flavor, good-skin potato method. Coat your potato with cooking oil before baking. Even olive oil will do. Wrap it in tinfoil or otherwise cover the spuds while baking. Results: one tasty potato skin. Folks usually eat the inside of the spud, then pick up the skin with their fingers and finish it off."

Thank you, Zach. Although I'm not too sure I could treat a potato skin as finger food. Old habits die hard. Growing up in Georgia, the only real food (as in food you might find on your plate at dinner, which we ate at noon, or supper, which we ate at night), I say, the only real food we were allowed to eat with our fingers was fried chicken. In fact it was an urban myth that in Gainesville, right down the road, it was against the law to eat fried chicken with a knife and fork-you had to use your fingers. Which suited me just fine. Now that we're done with the cooking lesson, on to the bluegrass!

The other day, while riding in the car, I got to feeling a little down in the dumps. Just one of those "life sucks" moments that we all have. (Which usually descend upon me immediately after I haven't gotten my way about something.) I didn't exactly know what to do about it, but it so happened that someone had recently given Red a CD copy of a J.D. Crowe and the Kentucky Mountain Boys show from the Lavonia, Ga., Bluegrass Festival in 1971. That was when Larry Rice, Doyle Lawson, and Bobby Sloan were in the band. I put it in. Good idea. Hearing J.D.'s impeccable kickoff on You Can Have Her immediately perked me up. Plus that, I had a good time thinking about how mad J.D. would be knowing that all you could hear during that first trio was the tenor and the baritone. Then there was Little Bessie-killer banjo breaks, deceptively simple. Pull-offs and hammer-ons perfectly timed. And timing doesn't get any better than the rake J.D. does across all the strings when he starts his second break in Train 45. Not to mention all those crazy, funky, insane licks he puts in later on. I was well on my way to thinking life didn't suck when right in the middle of Larry Rice singing Ramblin' Boy, the fourth song, the CD started making that awful bouncing noise: "Here's to y-y-y-y-y-y-ou m-m-m-my r-r-r-r-ramb-b-b-b-blin' b-b-b-b-oy…." And then it stopped completely. ARRRRGH! I wasn't cured! I needed to hear Big Spike Hammer! I needed to hear Willy Roy, the Crippled Boy! I needed to hear Blackjack! I ejected the CD and wiped it off, hoping it was simply a speck of dust. No such luck. Back down into the dumps I slid. Life is like that. It giveth, then it taketh away. All you can do is roll on buddy.

A few weeks ago Red and I, along with Marshall Wilborn, ventured all the way down to Vienna, Va., (two hours away) on a Monday night to hear Laurie Lewis and Tom Rozum play at a place called Jammin' Java. The venue was unusual, being a combination up-scale sandwich shop with beer and wine, performance area with stage, recording studio, and teaching facility. (All separate, thank goodness.) Laurie and Tom were on a whirlwind East Coast tour promoting their new CD Guesthouse which features Craig Smith and Tom Sauber on banjo. In bluegrass-speak the disc is "mighty fine." Tom Sauber, who currently plays old-time music with the group Brad, Tom, and Alice (that's Leftwich and Gerrard), came along for the week to play banjo and occasionally mandolin, fiddle, or guitar.

Laurie is one of the best songwriters around and my favorite off her new CD is O My Malissa, which was written about Bill Monroe's mother. Bill himself wrote the song Uncle Pen about his fiddling uncle, but many of you may not know that Malissa, Pen's sister, also wielded the bow. As Laurie says in the liner notes, "Maybe Malissa was the outstanding fiddler in her musical family, but the pressures of raising eight children seriously cut into her fiddling time. Maybe her famous brother Uncle Pen just had more free time to devote to his craft. We'll never know."

But because I knew you'd be less interested in Malissa Monroe and more interested in Tom's banjo, after the show I asked him what he was playing. It was a 1912 Fairbanks Tubaphone by Vega with a resonator but no flange, and a Gold Tone skin head. Tom played a variety of styles including clawhammer, two-finger, and three-finger. His playing meshed seamlessly with what Tom and Laurie were doing, always supportive and never intrusive. Since Laurie is primarily a fiddle player, and Tom a mandolin player, they both take turns playing guitar, although some songs are guitarless, which seemed to work fine, especially with Tom's banjo playing providing background and filling in the holes.

During the intermission, Dudley Connell (of the Johnson Mountain Boys and Seldom Scene) meandered over to our table to visit, followed shortly by Laurie. The talk turned to politics (I'll spare you the gnashing of teeth) and Laurie mentioned that she would be flying back from California on Sunday to attend the Women's Rights March in Washington, D.C. That excited me, because I, too, was going to march, my first march since 1969. (Banjo content: I took along my IBMA World of Bluegrass T-shirt with a picture of a woman playing banjo on the front.) We exchanged cell phone numbers but never hooked up with each other, because with 800,000 other women (and men) trying to use cell phones, many of the networks were down, mine included. Roll on buddy.

The second set was a continuation of good music and humor. Tom Sauber got to sing one this time. When Laurie called on him, he asked, "Which song do you want me to do?" Without missing a beat she replied, "The other one." Mole in the Ground it was. Tom Rozum, who has a subtle but twisted sense of humor, told us the name of one of the fiddle tunes he was going to do was "I kissed her on the left cheek, and I kissed on the right cheek, but I left her behind for you."

Red, Marshall, and I enjoyed the ride home, listening to some cuts from the new boxed set, Goodbye Babylon. This collection of "Living, Stirring, Sacred Songs," on six CDs, comes in a real wooden box complete with boll of cotton. Most of the songs, from both black and white groups, are from the '20s, '30s, and '40s, and one CD is nothing but sermons. I haven't sampled it yet, but I'm looking forward to hearing "Death Might Be Your Santa Claus," "That White Mule of Sin" ("white mule" meaning moonshine), and "Black Diamond Express To Hell." Roll on buddy. (With apologies to the Flint Hill Flash who often signs his once-in-a-blue-moon emails this way.)