Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Earl Murphy, All American Fiddler, Toastmaster, and Guiding Light
Earl Murphy has left the building. you paid your money, got a show, and now he's gone.
I will truly miss Earl. He, at ninety three, could still stay up all night and fiddle tune after tune...with his friend Jack Daniels right beside him. He had forgotten more tunes than most fiddlers knew because he lived long enough to learn more of them. I have spent some very entertaining times with Earl.
One night we were playing a party for my brother Bob, and asked Earl to join us. He agreed to be put on the payroll. Earl didn't do much in the way of music for free. His wife, and lifelong companion, Francis, was still alive. She always saw him to the door and admonished him to behave and have a good time. No need to remind Earl of that. We got down the road a little way, and Earl asked if I minded going back to the house...he had forgotten his friend Jack. Jack was waiting for him in a flower pot on the car port. We were all friends of Jack before the party was over. Francis and Jack Daniels were on uneasy terns, I think.
Earl tells the story of going to work for the CCC and not being very happy with it. The "deal" was if you could find employment you could opt out of CCC, and go to work if you employer could vouch for your job. His Uncle ran a stockyard in Utah or Idaho, in the middle of the Wilderness, for sure, and took Earl and his brother into the stockyard business.
Earl played with, or started, a band call the Stockyard Ramblers, and played music during the stock sales. Earl was a guitar player for the band..There is a great picture of Earl taken late 30's of Earl and an old Gibson "mother of toilet seat" Century Guitar and he in his $50.00 cowboy boots...he was proud of them boots! A handsome threesome. I'll find and post the picture later.
Earl played a lot of Missouri tunes, and they were different than the Appalachian tunes, not in the NAME of the tunes, but the WAY they were played. Earl's style was free, wide open, fast, long bow strokes, lots of notes. Not quite Western Swing, like the Texas long bow fiddlers, but a wilder, more basic approach. Earl's bowing was not silky smooth, but friends, he knew how to put the power in it. He didn't like whimpy back up either.
Earl always liked a strong ensemble "backing him up".. He was always in charge of the music...and would depend on ohters to take care of the details, intrductions etc. Earls job was to play, and keep the band on it's toes. After playing a few numbers, Earl would begin commentary on the proceeding amongst his fellow musicians...always a enlightening part of playing a gig with Earl.
His waltzes were a big part of his fiddling. He knew hundreds. I guess Earl Murphy and Woody Simmons, a West Virginia fiddler knew more waltzes than nearly anyone on the planet. I wish I had recorded more of them...they were a handful for me to play.
He knew the words to a thousand songs, and would drop a gem or two occasionally, but preferred to play back up and listen to you sing.
I first hear Earl at Sparky's in Athens Ga. There was an open mike called " The Hoot" that took place every Wed.night for years. It still runs once a month after 20 odd years. Earl showed up with his grandson, Andy Carlson of about 12 or 13. They played a few tunes, a rare pair that had "the gift" I could tell. His grandson Andy Carlson went on to get a Doctorate in Music, (violin?) and teaches at Dennison College in Ohio. He also is about the hottest fiddle player you'll ever hear, and can wear a guitar out. Yep, ole Earl started that boy out on a lifelong search for the "true vine."
Earl, with the help of his friends, Dr.Charlie and Nancy Hartness, and Art Rosenbaum sorta' took it on the road. They played everywhere. Earl got a picture in New Yorker Magazine. Charlie and Art talked Earl into going to Port Townsend for the International Fiddle Tunes Festival which features fiddlers from all over the world. Charlie and Nancy took the job of "care taking" Earl...no mean feat. I don't think I would have been up to the task!
Earl got a standing ovation for his version of Turkey In the Straw. That I heard from a fiddler from California. he was a big hit, and why not? He was, after all, Earl Murphy. According to informed sources there were many younger attendees fiddlers, and musicians, that were bleary eyed for their morning performances. Earl never missed a beat. He confided in me he was never told he had to teach....or he never would have gone. "Hell, what's and old man gonna' teach a young man...they know everything". he said. I think they learned a thing or two from Earl. I always did!
So, ladies and gentlemen, even though Earl has left the building, you can be sure the Angel Band will be playing some hot tunes when Earl gets there. I might be more inspired to get there, also, to play guitar with him.