Banjo Newsletter

April 2004: The Essential Earl Scruggs
By Murphy Henry

First the banjo stuff. Yesterday, while I was working at our sister publication, Bluegrass Unlimited, I heard the most amazing CD: The Essential Earl Scruggs, put out by Columbia. (Actually it's a two-CD set.) I've got only two words to say: GET IT! But you know I can't really stop with two words. What fun is that? This is one of those CDs you would take with you to the proverbial desert isle. (Along with the Sex in the City DVDs.) Whoever selected the songs did a jam-up job. It's not just instrumentals. There's Will You Be Loving Another Man, Down The Road, Get In Line Brother (the sound of Earl's banjo on that cut is my all-time, hands-down favorite), and Jimmy Brown the Newsboy with Earl's killer guitar playing. How in the world did he think of doing all those slides before Lester comes back in singing? I laughed out loud from pure joy at hearing those again. Of course it's got the instrumentals, too: the original cut of Foggy Mountain Breakdown, Earl's Breakdown (even the slightly out-of-tune banjo in that one place contributes to the magic), Foggy Mountain Special, Foggy Mountain Chimes (a vastly underplayed, underappreciated tune), Pike County Breakdown, Shucking the Corn. (Since I haven't gotten my own copy yet, I'm doing this from memory. Naturally, if I'd known I was going to be writing about the CD for BNL, I would have paid more attention, listened closer, taken notes. And yes, I know I could go online and find out all this info, but what fun is that? These are the tunes that crept into the corners of my mind and stuck there while I was doing something else.) There's just something about having all these great tunes in one place. I don't even know if we listened all the way through one CD, but what I heard is enough to send me scurrying to the store. Go thou and do likewise.

Now that I've fulfilled my obligation to say something about banjos, I can tell you about going out to eat with my son Christopher the other night. (He was home visiting from Nashville.) I had ordered a baked potato and was commenting on how good it was-it had a nut-like flavor and the skin was real leathery (which is a good thing in my book). I was saying that my baked potatoes never turned out this way, and I was wondering what they used to get their potatoes to taste like this. Without missing a beat Chris said, "Tater-ade." I almost choked on my tater I started laughing so hard. Tater-ade indeed.

But I've got more banjo stuff! I started a new student a few weeks ago, a woman about my age whom I will call Glenda. Glenda has never played anything before, so music lessons are a new experience for her. So she called up the other day to say that she was worried about her playing. She was concerned that even though she could play her song fine at home, when she got to the lesson she could hardly get through it. And she didn't understand why that was happening. Was there something wrong with her? And you know, back in my glib old days, when I was younger, I probably would have said something like, "It doesn't count if you can only play it good at home." Or, "If I had a nickel for every time I've heard that, I wouldn't have to teach banjo lessons."

But instead, for a moment I was able to hear her real concerns: Maybe I shouldn't be taking lessons, maybe I'm not good enough to play, maybe I have absolutely no talent, maybe trying to play is a waste of my time and yours, maybe everybody else who comes in plays their songs perfectly and I'm the only one who is a complete klutz. And underlying it all: Should I quit?

Now it just so happens that the folks who take lessons before Glenda are my intermediate jammers. And since Glenda usually gets there early, she's been able to hear them play. So when she sat down for her lesson last week, she said something about how good they were. During our phone conversation, I reminded her of this. "You know those people who were picking when you came in? They'd all been saying the same thing-that they could play better at home than they could in front of me." (Of course, I've been teaching that bunch for years so I was able to ride them unmercifully and say, "Yeah, right." And "I am SO intimidating. I'm just a monster." And "Get over it, Jean." And "I don't want to hear it, Bob.") But back to Glenda. I said, "It's not just you. I promise. Most of the other students have the same problem. It kinda goes with the territory. It's hard to play in front of the teacher. I know you're under a lot of pressure and that makes it hard to play your best. But I do take that into account when I'm listening to you play. I really can hear through your mistakes. I know you can play better at home." And this seemed to come as a surprise to Glenda. And even more, I think it came as a relief. "Oh!" she said. "It's not just me?" No, it's not just her. And it's not just you. It's all of us. The good news is, practice does help. And when you feel more comfortable, you'll relax, and then you'll play better. But it usually takes some time. So lighten up on yourself. This is supposed to be fun!

And lastly, as some of you may know, I'm writing a book about Women in Bluegrass. And I do believe that this is harder than learning to play the banjo-even harder than learning to play the fiddle! And knowing that I have a deadline, I've cleared out my schedule to make time for writing. But I keep finding every excuse in the world not to write. So, for the first time ever I've had to put myself on a schedule. I get up at 6:30 (Ouch!) and am in front of my computer by 8:00. Still and yet, it's amazing how many things pull me away from my writing, most under the guise of being productive. So these are the things I have learned:

Talking on the phone is not writing.
Looking at email-even if it pertains to the book-is not writing.
Rearranging my bookshelves is not writing.
Alphabetizing my CDs is not writing.
Buying a new CD player is not writing.
Moving my stereo system to my office is not writing.
Cleaning off my desk is not writing.
Sharpening pencils is not writing.
Googling-even for book stuff-is not writing.
Chasing down obscure facts is not writing.
Listening to women in bluegrass CDs is not writing.
Ordering more CDs to listen to is not writing.
Reading liner notes is not writing.
And writing about not writing is not writing.

Send good thoughts. Don't call. Buy the Earl CD.