Banjo Newsletter

March 2004: Musings and Minutiae
By Murphy Henry

Left-handed banjo player Don Lineberger worked for Bill Monroe in 1964 and 1965. He recorded several songs with Monroe including Long Black Veil, I Live in the Past, and There's An Old, Old House. He also plays on some of the live shows that have been released in the past few years. So why am I telling you this? Because out of the blue, I got a letter from Don the other day. Not a letter like the ones we learned to write in fourth grade with heading, greeting, body, closing, and signature. Nothing conventional like that. This letter was the work of a creative master--part in black marker, part in ink, with words in boxes, words in circles, a gold star stuck on the page, a few musical notes here and there, and Don's signature-a green line with the word "Berger" written in the middle-running up the side. (He's a commercial artist.) Don starts out in black marker with his own unique spelling: "Dear Darlin' Banjr picker!" I'm guessing that he doesn't remember that in the book Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music the chapter on women in bluegrass is entitled "Little Darlin's Not My Name." Nevertheless, this was Don Lineberger who played banjo for Bill Monroe, so like Earl Scruggs said about that E major chord in Foggy Mountain Breakdown, I just let it go.

"How's the 'Ladies in Bluegrass' book do'nn?" he asked. I was pleased that he knew about it, although I can't bring myself to think of the women I'm writing about as ladies. To me-Southern born and Southern bred-the word "ladies" conjures up a picture of women who wear high heels and white gloves, get their hair done at the beauty shop on Saturday, and go to church in hats. They are demure and all sing soprano. These are not the women I know who play bluegrass!

"Think this photo of lady 'Ronnnieeee' Stoneman can be of use?" Don wrote. (This is the photo you see on page x.) And I loved seeing Roni perched up there between Glen Campbell and Steve Martin. I missed, however, seeing her trusty old RB-250. I also noticed that she was sitting in true "good girl" fashion, with her knees held tightly together, something Mama was always trying to get me to do. That's one reason I hated wearing dresses. Having to sit like that was so uncomfortable. Just look at Roni. Does she look comfortable? No, she does not. Does Don Lineberger look comfortable? Yes, he does!

After a few other chatty remarks, Don says, "Bobby Thompson and I talk about every week or so. I've got his old Gibson that he used with Carl Story and Jim & Jesse. He gave it to me when Baldwin gave him the 'Hee Haw' banjo. In fact, I played it two hours today! All those Thompson licks are still in it!" Then somewhere around the end he says, "Earl is 80 years old now. Can you believe it?" Then comes my favorite sentence, written in three lines with a circle drawn around it: "Don't you/want to be/near Earl?" Well, of course! Thanks, Don, for a delightful letter and permission to share it.

The next subject is gory in two places, so you might want to move on to Janet Davis. She never writes about gore. Actually, I've never written about gore before. (Lovely little unexpected rhyme there.) I'm going to talk about the 1964 horror flick 2000 Maniacs. And why would I be writing about a forty-year-old B movie in a banjo magazine? Because it has banjo playing in it! And you know you can always count on this column to focus on the banjo. (Not!)

2000 Maniacs, now on DVD, is a low-budget flick, "gruesomely stained in blood color," filmed in St. Cloud, Fla. Interestingly, the movie includes a bluegrass band, the Pleasant Valley Boys, on the soundtrack and on screen. And those boys are none other than Paul Champion on banjo and Gamble Rogers and Chuck Glore on guitars.

The movie opens with a high-sounding banjo playing a few notes of Dixie. (When Paul comes walking down the street playing you can see he's capoed up five frets.) Then a singer breaks into a folky-sounding ballad whose chorus is "Yee-haw! The South's gonna rise again!" Paul plays a solid Scruggs style, but right at the end of his break he puts in a delightful little Reno-style, single-string riff. The opening credits are shown over the head of Paul's banjo which fills the whole screen. I could tell was that it was a flathead Gibson with "squashed frog" inlay and a Presto tailpiece. But because I knew you'd be interested, Cap, I found out more. Red filled me in on some details: style-three peghead, style-four fingerboard. Another knowledgeable source said the banjo was a no-holes, pre-war flathead three, but was not an original five-string. The source also said she (or he) was almost sure that Paul had drilled holes in the tone ring. Whatever. I tried for a long time to be interested in this minutiae so I could be part of the banjo conversation that always materializes when two or three (guys) are gathered together in Earl's name, but I finally realized I simply wasn't interested. I was interested in other minutiae: whether Earl played an open first string or third fret second string at the beginning of Little Girl in Tennessee. Important stuff like that. But I digress…

Sometime in late '80s, when Gamble visited us here in Virginia, we rented the video of 2000 Maniacs. Our kids were around six and nine and, perhaps not surprisingly, we didn't make it to the end. I bailed midway with them in tow when the movie showed a closeup of a man cutting off a woman's thumb with a knife. There was lots of blood. And screaming.

Fifteen years later, Casey gave Red the DVD for his birthday and we watched the whole thing. (Okay, I did close my eyes a few times.) Mostly it's "camp." Which the dictionary defines as "contrived, overdone, and tasteless." But it also has its humorous moments. The funniest bluegrass-related part occurs at the barbeque. The bad guys have now chopped off the woman's arm and are roasting it on a spit over a fire. Gamble and Paul walk around the fire playing and singing Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms, which is surely a stroke of macabre genius. After this, the bad guys demand that the crowd sing and the band breaks into a full-length version of Dixie. Paul plays an inventive break with just enough melody notes worked into the Scruggs-style roll to make the song like Dixie even to those who don't have banjo ears. If I were in a tune-learning phase, I'd be standing in front of the TV, banjo in hand. The two other bluegrass songs in the movie are Darling Corey, done in uncapoed D with a folky-sounding melody, and Old Joe Clark, complete with singing. It's pretty amazing to see a well-played bluegrass banjo featured so prominently in a film from the 1960s. If you're into all things banjo and you can stand a little fake gore, you need to get a copy of 2000 Maniacs. Rest in peace, Paul and Gamble.