Jammin’ at Murphy’s: Bluegrass and More; Next Jam Takes Place on Wednesday

Published Monday, February 1, 2016 at 2:52 pm
Murphy's uses the "circle" approach for its jams

Each Wednesday night, a group of local musicians get together and jam with acoustic instruments in a portion of Murphy’s Restaurant and Bar’s dining room. Photos by Carl Tyrie

By Carl Tyrie

The sign outside Murphy’s Restaurant on Wednesday nights advertises a bluegrass jam but Bill Monroe might roll his eyes if he heard some of the songs played for several hours beginning a little after seven. Country and folk tunes and even some Beatles songs pop up now and then.

The jam at Murphy’s is in its fourth year at the downtown Boone spot after meeting for several years at the home of ASU Economics Professor Mike McKee. As a member of the Appalachian Heritage Council, he decided the jams would be fun to have after council meetings.

That idea somehow evolved into additional pre-jam meals prepared by Mike’s wife Jane, who ended up working on meal prep as early as Monday getting ready for the jam two days later.

Coming to the rescue was Murphy’s co-owner Erik Larson.

“We offered them space in the restaurant half where we move tables out of the way and put chairs in a circle for the jam,” he said. “It cuts down on the restaurant seating area but the hope is that the popularity of the jam will help fill the remaining tables.”

Mike McKee is appreciative.

“Erik has been a saint to let us do this,” he said.

Mike also likes the circle set-up as opposed to a stage that puts performers in front of everyone else.

“This way,” he said, “nobody has a microphone. We go around the circle, each person picks a song and leads it and everyone else tries to follow along. There’s nobody who’s the star.”

Boone financial advisor John Payne has been a Murphy’s regular since the first jam, bringing along his 1935 Kalamazoo guitar, a 65th birthday gift a few years ago. He gives the impression that he’d be there Wednesday nights even if he didn’t play guitar.

“It’s a place where people can come and listen to music without tips or a cover charge,” he said. “They can just sit and hang out, eat some good food and stay as long as they want.”

John said an interesting aspect of the jam is not knowing each week who’ll show up that night. “I was here one night and there were just two of us for a long time,” he said. “Then there were four of us but only two instruments so Andy Owen and I were passing our instruments around. Then on other nights we’ll have 18 people playing and several other real good musicians sitting around at the tables listening.”

Even though bluegrass tunes aren’t always played at Murphy’s, the five classic bluegrass instruments are almost always represented — acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle and upright bass. Although bass players aren’t usually expected to take breaks (playing solo melodies during a song), that won’t be the case if 2013 Watauga High grad Zach Smith chooses to play his big bass fiddle instead of his guitar. Jam members seem to take pleasure in seeing if Zach can play a break on about every tune, not just bluegrass songs.

“I like it,” Zach said. “Even though the jam is advertised as bluegrass, it really isn’t just one genre.”

Zach is also aware of the obvious age-group mix at Murphy’s each week with half the players either approaching or beyond retirement age and the other half being college age or younger.

“The age mix is awesome,” he says. “I mean, you’ve got Liam, who’s only 13, and then I don’t even know how old John Payne is. That gives you the chance to learn songs from old-time people who have been playing songs for longer than some of us have been alive. I love playing with older people because you learn so much.”

The 13-year-old is Liam Purcell, whose band Cane Mill Road was featured in the August 2015 issue of High Country Magazine. Liam appreciates the mix of people and music he finds at Murphy’s.

“There’s a sound you get when everybody’s together and you get in a groove,” he said, “and that’s kinda easy to fall into here.”

Liam has been a Murphy’s jam regular since he was eleven and says he has never felt uncomfortable.

“I’ve never been really concerned,” he said. “I mean, I’m surrounded by a lot of people I know and trust.”

Liam’s dad William agrees.

“When I first started taking Liam to Murphy’s, I would stay there,” he said. “But we knew almost everyone in the circle plus some parents and spouses sitting at tables. It didn’t take long before I became comfortable with leaving him there. He’s in good hands.”

William frequently stays for a meal and listens to the music.

“It’s a great jam,” he said. “I like it because it’s democratic. Everybody gets a chance to choose a song and there’s all styles of music.”

The music may vary during the course of the evening but it almost always begins with the bluegrass classic “Crawdad Song” by banjo player John Peterson.

John has been coming over from his Todd shop, where he builds mountain-style fretless banjos, for a couple of years. He said he’s not sure why he has the honor of going first.

“The first time I was here, Mike said ‘Why don’t you start things off, John?’ and for some reason I still do that,” he said.

John echoes comments made by others about the jam being open to different styles of music and instruments.

“We get a lot of guitars, banjos and fiddles but sometimes we get some oddball instruments,” he said. “One time, this new Todd resident showed up with a slide trombone. They called him Doctor Z. So here we were with a bunch of guitars and banjos and fiddles and he walks in with his trombone and I’m thinking ‘How’s this gonna work out?’ when someone started in on a fiddle tune and Dr. Z matched it note-for-note. It was great.”

Although there’s a good chance that jam visitors will see an obvious mix of age groups among the participants, there tends to be not much of a gender mix. Two, maybe three, female players are the norm.

Mandolin player Abbie Crumrine, who by day is a graphic designer for Mast Store, points to a similar breakdown in bluegrass music in general. “I don’t know why that is,” she said. “But I don’t really feel uncomfortable. Everybody here is easy to get along with.”

Abbie is one of several jam participants who describe the Murphy’s atmosphere as welcoming.

“I had never even come and watched the jam when I came the first time two years ago,” she said. “I had played in slow jams and I could barely play with others when I first came here but everybody was very welcoming.”

Murphy’s jam visitors might not see a slide trombone but there’s a chance they’ll see a father-son duel of sorts. On one side of the action will be ASU Motor Pool Manager Bob Smith with his 1973 Gibson banjo.

His opponent on the upright bass fiddle will be his son Zach, the WHS grad mentioned earlier who is now an ASU Art Education major. Their bass-fiddle-versus-banjo version of “Dueling Banjos” will probably be worth the price of admission.

No, wait. Even better — there is no admission fee.

Tom Pillion of Banner Elk with his 1964 Martin D-28 and Bill Young of Blowing Rock with his 1921 Gibson open-back banjo

Tom Pillion of Banner Elk with his 1964 Martin D-28 and Bill Young of Blowing Rock with his 1921 Gibson open-back banjo

Mike Rominger on guitar and Liam Purcell on banjo

Mike Rominger on guitar and Liam Purcell on banjo

First-time jam visitor Andrew Barnes from Virginia and Lou Murrey of Boone with their open-back banjos

First-time jam visitor Andrew Barnes from Virginia and Lou Murrey of Boone with their open-back banjos

Todd banjo builder and player John Peterson, who usually begins each jam in classic bluegrass style

Todd banjo builder and player John Peterson, who usually begins each jam in classic bluegrass style

Robert and Zach Smith have their own approach to "Dueling Banjos"

Robert and Zach Smith have their own approach to “Dueling Banjos”

The sidewalk sign says Bluegrass but that's not all that's heard at the Murphy's Wednesday night jams

The sidewalk sign says Bluegrass but that’s not all that’s heard at the Murphy’s Wednesday night jams

ASU Economics professor Mike McKee with one of several instruments he brings to each jam.

ASU Economics professor Mike McKee with one of several instruments he brings to each jam.

Murphy's uses the "circle" approach for its jams

Murphy’s uses the “circle” approach for its jams

The young and the young-at-heart: 13-year-old Liam Purcell plays the dulcimer while John Payne plays his 1935 Kalamazoo guitar.

The young and the young-at-heart: 13-year-old Liam Purcell plays the dulcimer while John Payne plays his 1935 Kalamazoo guitar.

Scott Smith on guitar, Trey Wellington on banjo and Zach Smith on guitar

Scott Smith on guitar, Trey Wellington on banjo and Zach Smith on guitar

Christine Operario plays guitar and Abbie Crumrine plays the mandolin

Christine Operario plays guitar and Abbie Crumrine plays the mandolin

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