Banjo Newsletter

November 2003: Something About Banjos
By Murphy Henry

Okay, at the end of last month's (fiddle) column, I promised you something about banjos. Well, fortunately this year's IBMA World of Bluegrass provided lots of copy!

But first, a question. (You can skip this part if you're not interested in restrooms.) In some of the women's restroom stalls along the interstate, there are two hooks on the back of the doors, one high and one low. There is a sign beside the top hook that reads: "Caution: Protect your valuables. Do not use hook to hang your purse. [Huh? Why not?] Place purse here." [On the lower hook.] This drives me insane, and, of course, compels me to hang my pocketbook on the high hook. Is there something I'm missing? If you have a clue, please let me know! [Editor's note: Please do not let her know. She got LOTS of responses to this question and now knows why the lower hook is there!!] Now that I've got that out of my system…

The Trade Show started off with a bang Monday when someone came up to me and said that they, too, taught banjo. Great! I love to talk about banjo teaching. "I teach just like you, except that I use tab." I was speechless. Literally. What could I say? The gap was simply too great. I went back to my booth and wrote it down.

Banjo great Butch Robins was there with his new book What I Know 'Bout What I Know: The Musical Life of an Itinerant Banjo Player. I immediately bought three copies and dove in. Butch, who toured and recorded with Bill Monroe from 1977-1981, is a very opinionated man. (Imagine that! An opinionated banjo player!) As the book says, he and Monroe had a "caustic" relationship, which Butch talks about throughout the book. On the light-hearted side, he confesses to putting a thumb pick in Bill Monroe's coffin. (He hopes Monroe comes back as a "black, female banjo player.") In a serious vein, Butch says of Monroe, "It's difficult to learn to live with your hero's feet of clay. Believe me. Life is difficult in amongst that paradox: accepting the frailty of a human yet regarding him as a god. I did and I do." What I Know is a powerful book-a bluegrass memoir from a man with an admittedly warped and twisted sense of humor, a consuming passion for bluegrass music, and an awareness of the cosmic possibilities. Butch also doesn't mind exposing some of his dark places to the light of day, but my guess is that others who find themselves in that bright light are not going to be too happy. I often hear bluegrass folks say that they, or somebody, should write a book and tell those "feet of clay" stories that circulate underground. Well, Butch has done that, and he may take some heat for it. The saving grace is that he is able to poke fun at himself, as the last picture in the book clearly indicates. Order from Amazon or [Note: This link now goes to Butch's MySpace page.]

Another banjo great, Tom Adams, was also there, participating in a seminar called "What Happens When The Music Stops?" Tom talked candidly about his ongoing right hand problems. What he has is Task Specific Focal Distonia, which affects the middle, ring, and little fingers of his right hand. They don't know what causes it, and there is no cure for it. Yet. Tom can do everything with that middle finger except play the banjo, and he mainly can't play forward rolls. The biggest problem is speed, because to get the finger to work properly, he has to consciously will it to move. Tom said he was very down in the dumps for a long time, naturally, but, according to his wife, Judy, he has "rejoined the human race and is determined to fix this problem or find a way around it." He is working on two-finger picking (look out Will Keys!), flatpicking, and playing Irish tunes on the tenor banjo. Mark Johnson, of course, wants him to play clawgrass…

Thursday, at the Special Awards Luncheon, Distinguished Achievement Awards were given out: to five men, no women. (I know, I know, you don't want to hear about it, but it is SO disheartening.) Anyhow, John Wright, former BNL columnist and author of the wonderful Ralph Stanley bio Traveling The Highway Home, made a heartfelt and enthusiastic presentation to Jack Cooke, who has played bass with Ralph forever. I wish Jack had been there to see the standing ovation he got. John told us that Ralph used to introduce Jack by saying, "There's not a thing he wouldn't do for me, and there's not a thing I wouldn't do for him. (Pause.) That's the way we go through life, doing nothing for each other." Vintage Ralph. I remember Ralph introducing Jack as the "ex-mayor of Norton, Virginia." According to John, Jack has been made honorary mayor of Norton, which I think is fitting. John, who teaches Classics at Northwestern University, said he always imagined Ralph as the Greek warrior Agamemnon with Jack and Curly Ray Cline as Ajax and Achilles, standing on either side of him. Ralph, like Agamemnon, was "trusting in the greatness of their strength." I love that image-three bluegrass warriors. Roy Lee Centers was there for a long time, too. Maybe he could be Patroclus…

Thursday evening Casey and Chris and I got all gussied up to go to the main Awards Show. Of course nobody was paying any attention to Chris and me (whine, whine) because Casey had on a killer red outfit she'd borrowed from her cousin Helena who wore it in the Miss Georgia pageant. I felt like Mammy from Gone With The Wind, trying to get Casey zippered into that thing. Fortunately, she didn't pout as much as Scarlett did, nor did she say "fiddle-de-dee." When we left the room, we went down the fire exit stairs since the elevators were so slow. How country is that? Here we were, all decked out in our formal clothes, going down these dirty, disgusting back stairs. I felt better when we met bass player Tom Gray doing the same thing!

Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski were the hosts, the first time in years that the Awards have been hosted by two bona-fide bluegrassers. Casey and I were a bit nervous about Alison, thinking she might be a bit of a loose cannon with her wild and crazy sense of humor. Sure enough, she started out by saying "My pits are sweaty already!" And then she proceeded into some bizarre story about growing some thick black hair on her shoulder (or was it her back?) right before the show which J.D. Crowe had clawed off with his powerful right hand. Dan Tyminski, the perfect foil to Alison's zaniness, never tried to upstage her but provided rock solid support for her unscripted antics. Many of her jokes were visual-such as pretending to swoon into Dan's arms, dramatically kicking one leg up as she did-and (fortunately) couldn't be seen by the radio audience, which, I'm sure, is why Alison felt at such liberty to cut up. Her high jinks kept the show lively and never kept her, or Dan, from fulfilling their duties as hosts. I'm all for having them back again next year!

J.D. Crowe was inducted into the Hall of Honor, the first of the second generation of players to go in. Sonny Osborne, who made the presentation, pointed out that "few have attained one-name recognition: Earl, Bill, Ralph, Lester, Sonny…" Vintage Sonny. J.D. was gracious (and short) in his acceptance speech, concluding with "I've had a ball, it's been great, God bless you, and good night."

Jerry Douglas, who was one of the presenters of the Banjo Player of the Year Award, said, "If it wasn't for this instrument, there would be no bluegrass music." You tell them, Jerry! And the award went to Smilin' Jim Mills, who now ties Sammy Shelor with four wins. Lynn Morris and Marshall Wilborn were on hand as presenters (and nominees) and they got a standing ovation just for stepping on stage. Lynn has made amazing progress since her stoke in March and she looked radiant.

Musically, for me, there were three highlights. The Isaacs sang He Ain't Never Done Me Nothing But Good, which, though not grammatical, was definitely high energy with Sonya Isaacs on mandolin and lead vocals. Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, with Terry Baucom back on banjo, performed a song (whose title I failed to catch) which was hard-core bluegrass singing at it's best, and made me wonder why Doyle has never won Mandolin Player of the Year. Too hard-core bluegrass, I guess. And the Young American Bluegrass Idols-with mandolin player and singer Sierra Hull, 12, oozing personality-performed How Mountain Girls Can Love in D!

But undoubtedly the show-stopper occurred when Del McCoury and the Boys were on stage to receive their Entertainer of the Year Award. All of a sudden, Ricky Skaggs and Sonny came on stage and started harassing Del. Frankly, I was annoyed. I thought it was the same sort of foolishness that you might see at a bluegrass festival which I thought was out of place at the IBMA Awards Show. They were asking Del where he was going to be on October 25. (Me to myself: "Who cares?") Well, Del didn't know. Then they sprang the trap: "How would you like to become the newest member of the GRAND OLD OPRY?" Tears came into my eyes. YES! Del, a member of the Opry! Nobody deserves it more. After Del got over his shock he said, "When I was little, we listened to the Grand Ole Opry, but I didn't even know where it was." Rob and Ronnie both hugged their dad right there on stage. Are they Sensitive New Age Guys, or what? (Apologies to Christine Lavin.) Then Alison, who was trying to get things back on track as a good host should, said, "We don't want to stop the embracing. I can feel the love." Which had just the right amount of irony in it so that everyone could laugh and move on to the closing portion of the show which featured J.D. Crowe in a number of different band configurations. "They're working me to death," J.D. said, but you could tell he loved it!

Saturday morning found me on the "Belle of Louisville," an honest-to-goodness steamboat, for the John Hartford Tribute Cruise down the Ohio River. I mainly wanted to see my friend Katie Laur, but Leroy Troy, Mike Compton, and Tony Ellis were also strong drawing cards. Katie ended up singing only one song but it was a good one called Dance Till Your Feet Get Warm which she and John had written on the back of a placemat.

Leroy Troy, who never fails to entertain, was there with Matt Kinman on guitar and fiddle. Leroy played it straight to begin with then drawled, "I reckon I'll cut a monkeyshine for you now" and went into his Uncle Dave-inspired banjo twirling. He also sang My Gal's A Corker, She's A New Yorker which I learned as a kid on my ukulele. For some reason, Mama didn't care for that song. I think she thought it was risqué, and maybe it is. I thought it was funny: "She's got a pair of hips, just like two battle ships, oh, Lord, that's where my money goes." Now that Leroy has "legitimized" it for me, I'll add it to my slow jams since it's a three-chord song that uses a "two" chord and has lots of verses. Leroy also sang Marie Laveau ("another man done gone"), Bobby Bare's 1974 country hit about the voodoo queen from New Orleans, which goes to show that the "country folk" don't care where a song comes from as long as it's a good song, as Bill Malone has pointed out. The John Hartford Band, which includes Bob Carlin on clawhammer banjo and Larry Perkins playing Scruggs style, did a number of John's songs, including Bring Your Clothes Back Home and Try Me One More Time and, of course, Gentle On My Mind. I was impressed mightily with how fast Bob changed the tuning on his banjo (without bellyaching) as they jumped from key to key.

By Sunday afternoon it was time to "lock and load" as my dad used to say. With the help of two Cokes, a cup of tea, half a chocolate bar, and Christopher riding shotgun, I pulled into our driveway shortly after midnight. Since then I've been obsessed with listening to Larry Cordle sing Lost As A Ball In High Weeds over and over in the car. I don't know what that portends cosmically, but it's a good place to stop. Chow, as we spell it in bluegrass…