Banjo Newsletter

February 2003: Party On, Dude
By Murphy Henry

The Picking Party Goddess is smiling on me! Recently, I had the good fortune to attend an incredible number of picking parties, and at some of these I even played the BANJO! So in the time-honored fashion of writers everywhere, I will now proceed to relive (and possibly embellish) the best parts and leave out the parts that I didn't like!

One of these parties was my first old-time picking party. And there was no better place for it to happen than in the wilds of West Virginia at the home of Critton Hollow's Sam and Joe Herrmann. Red and I walked into a house packed with people, most of whom I didn't know, so I immediately got out my fiddle so I didn't have to talk to anybody. There were already two other fiddlers, but as you may know, in old-time music, the more the merrier! I declined Joe's kind offer of a chair, preferring to stand in the background because I could tell that they were going to be playing a bunch of tunes I'd never heard before. Fortunately, the beauty of old-time picking is that everybody plays lead at the same time and the songs go on forever. In my callow youth I hated this arrangement; I thought it didn't give me an opportunity to impress everybody with my banjo playing. But now I relish the anonymity of being in a group of fiddlers while I'm trying to figure out the tune. I also understand the idea of everyone trying to lock into that group-generated musical groove and I love to feel the energy that is generated when that happens. It truly is magical. No wonder old-time musicians want to keep playing the same tune over and over! It's like catching a wave and riding it. You don't want it to end. With bluegrass, you get the energy in intense bursts. With old-time, the energy gradually builds up and lasts longer. I can think of a great analogy here, but I think I'd better keep it to myself...

New Year's Eve found us in Nashville, Tennessee. Home of the Grand Old Opry and Casey Henry. Looks like she's going to stay because she just bought a house. There was a lot to be done in the way of repairs before she could move in, so who better to help than parents, who will work for food! Our jobs included painting (ceilings, too!), stripping paint, sweeping, vacuuming, mopping, and washing down dusty walls. I can't help thinking of that old Bill Monroe number "Wait A Little Longer, Please, Jesus": "The labor is so hard, and the workers are so tired and our weary hearts are yearning for a rest." Four days did we labor (and listen to Hank Williams) and on the evenings of three of those days, we went to picking parties!

On New Year's Day, after putting in the requisite number of hours at Casey's house, we all went over to Tim O'Brien and his wife Kit's annual New Year's Day party. (Casey works as Tim's personal assistant.) Casey said we should bring our instruments, so we did, but we thought we'd just leave them in the car until we saw what the picking situation was. But when we got there, we saw other folks walking in with their instruments so we decided to take ours in, too. After we got inside, however, and saw who was picking, I eased my banjo unobtrusively into a corner! For there, jamming away, were Bela (!), Jerry Douglas (!), and Tim (no exclamation point because we knew he'd be there). They were joined at various times by Gary Scruggs, Chris Thile, Barbara Lamb, Brian Sutton, Edgar Meyer, Maura O'Connell (exquisite, passionate voice!), and Kenny Malone (one of the great Nashville drummers, who was quietly and tastefully playing what I would call a large bongo drum).

I sat and listened to these incredible musicians for a while, but wouldn't you know it? I soon felt the urge to pick. I knew I wouldn't feel comfortable joining this jam (I didn't know the songs and most of them had way too many chords), so since I was sitting amongst friends-the Heartstrings band (an all-female group based in Nashville)-I asked them if they wanted to go somewhere else and pick, and they answered with a resounding YES! So I grabbed my banjo and we headed for the other end of the house. The only missing Heartstrings player was my banjo-playing friend, Sally Wingate, so I took her place. Casey and Red soon joined us on banjo and mandolin, and we had a grand time playing some old-fashioned, three-chord bluegrass. When Bela took a breather from his own picking he came over to say hello, but of course with him standing there (politely, of course, after everyone had been introduced) who could muster up the courage to pick? Being a Sensitive New Age Guy (apologies to Christine Lavine), he understood our musical reticence, so he threw up a paw (as we say here in the Valley) and left. Classy guy, Bela.

But the piece of resistance (or piece de resistance, if you prefer), the main reason we were in Nashville, was Casey's birthday picking party on January 3. She was celebrating her first quarter of a century in her new house. So what if there was no furniture? A few tables, a few folding chairs, and a fridge full of beer, and you've got a party! Oh, yes, and a Big Earl poster hanging over the mantle. Our son Chris, bless his heart, drove all the way over from Winchester (ten hours!) just for the party. Seated in the middle of two other tolerant fiddler players, I again fiddled to my heart's content, backed by the banjo playing of both LeRoy Troy and Casey. (I think LeRoy would really like to have one of those Big Earl posters. Hint, hint, Flint Hill Flash, if you're still out there! He took a picture of it!)

And last, but not least, when we got back home, Chris came over for supper, and afterwards he and I picked a few tunes. Here the tables were reversed and Chris played the fiddle while I played the banjo. We have a friendly competition going about our fiddle playing. When he took up the fiddle a few months ago, I figured I could either pretend I wasn't envious of his quicker learning ability and his agile fingers (especially his little finger!) or I could admit it up front so we could joke about it. He's whipping my butt for sure, but on the other hand it's such a delight to hear him play. I can only hope that I can be the tortoise to his hare!

And just one more thing. At one of these parties I was sitting beside Casey. She had the banjo, I had the fiddle. When I took my break on some song, I was out of tune pretty badly on some of the high notes, and I saw Casey flinch. I jokingly said to her, "Don't flinch!" Her reply: "I'm flinching with you, not at you!" Here's to flinchless playing in the future!