When I was making the inside cover for my new album "Stripey Cat" (more info, including purchasing availability here), I only really had one panel to work with. Instead of giving a bunch of info on each track, I decided to spend that space on gratitude (panel reproduced below):
Given all the help I've had getting this album out (and along my banjo-journey as well) I think this was the right choice for what to do with a single panel inside a CD cover. However, I thought I'd do some liner notes in the form of a blogpost as well. What follows is a track-by-track breakdown of the album - hope you find it useful!
1) Stripey Cat - This is an original tune played on my Buckeye (more info about that banjo here). Its one of the few tunes I play in what Adam Hurt calls "Sandy River Belle tuning" (gEADE). For those unfamiliar with that tuning, its a non-open tuning for playing in G, meaning that you hold down a chord shape (specifically 3203) to get a G chord - you kind of play melody notes around chord shapes (kind of analogous to the way that Chet Atkins treated the guitar). I typically play my G tunes out of "Old G" (gDGDE - more on that tuning here) but this tune came out of goofing off in SRB tuning one day - I first introduced "Stripey Cat" in a blogpost here. My original low-fi recording of stripey cat (just banjo + guitar) is embedded below:
Stripey Cat played by Jeff Norman on banjo (gEADE) + guitar (standard tuning, no capo)
If you compare that recording to what ended up on the album, you'll notice that we rush the walk down to the B part by a beat or so on the album - this was Molly's idea and I think it adds a lot of excitement to the tune! We did a few takes before i noticed what she was doing, then I just had to follow along so we ended up using the 3rd or 4th take (note that this album was recorded in a bit of a hurry - we typically only got 3 or 4 takes per tune). Obviously, I like this tune since it ended up as the title track (and the inspiration for the cover art) - why not make it Track 1 as well?
2) Dubuque - I learned this tune at the request of my friend Cory, who passed away tragically at the beginning of 2017 and its been rambling around my head since that happened. Nobody really played it when I lived in VA, but, being a midwest tune, I heard it a lot in MI. The thing that always frustrated me about this tune was that it made you go way up the neck on a standard banjo - I finally realized that this was one of those tunes that a 6-string (low bass) banjo was built for! When I converted El Hefe, the Pisgah-esque banjo I built in a workshop (here) to a 6 string (here) Dubuque quickly jumped to the top of my tune list. On this track I play it 4 times switching octaves (low then high then low then high) - again, the low octave only really works with an extra bass string. I *think* it was my idea for Chris to play DADGAD (irish-style) guitar on here so I'll go ahead and take credit for that decision : ). Some people may not dig the genre-mixing but I just LOVE how this track came together. We did this in 4 takes or so and the last one really clicked.
3) Texas/Newcastle - This is a Henry Reed tune that I learned from Jen, the banjo player that replaced me in the Happy Hollow String Band after I moved to Michigan (I'm playing my buckeye tuned aEADE). I have a recording of me playing that tune on El Hefe (before the extra string was added) with Adam Hurt on fiddle - audio embedded below, blogpost about that here.
Texas/Newcastle - Jeff Norman banjo, Adam Hurt fiddle.
I'm not sure how much I've "made this tune my own" but I wanted to put it on my album because its one of my favorites and I just don't hear enough recordings of it. Also, Molly and I frequently played it together at our frequent "Rock Andy Lunchtime Experience" gigs (...when we'd meet up during lunch to play tunes on the MSU campus...). We were all happy with the first take of this tune so thats all we did! A bit on the name - Henry Reed told Alan Jabbor two different names for the tune (i.e. "Texas" and "Newcastle") so its typically listed as I've listed it here. I thought about picking one but I had difficulty making a decision since I was born in Texas but learned to play banjo right down the road from Newcastle...
4) Spotted Pony - I've said it before and I'll say it again: Spotted Pony is the greatest fiddle tune ever written (okay, at least the greatest "top 40" fiddle tune ever written). Maybe its un-cool to put such a basic (likely over-recorded) tune on your album but something about this tune has always put a smile on my face and I kind of had to record it. I've used "Spotted Pony" as an example in this blog more times than I can count and I even wrote a blogpost outlining 27 different variations for the first 4 notes of the A part (here). I told Molly that I wanted to go kinda nuts on this tune and she should do the same thing - the version we ended up with is pretty bananas overall with only a few regrets on my part (I ended up playing parallel 6ths for the A-part-walkup twice, which seems excessive). However, I really like how my minor chord substitutions came out and I LOVE Molly's B part harmony the 3rd time through, which I didn't have any idea she was going to do. Initially, I had plans to do one more repeat on finger style Baritone Ukulele, which is why we stopped on a dime. However, I just loved the way that sounded so I decided to leave the uke out in the end (not sure if I could have matched the energy of that fiddle-banjo duet anyhow...).
5) Ducks and Drakes - This is the second of my original tunes that made in on the album and the tune that most people have commented on since hearing the album (I really thought "Stripey Cat" would be the hit!). I originally posted this tune as "Skipping Stones" in a blogpost here. My original recording is below:
"Skipping Stones" (later renamed "Ducks and Drakes) by Jeff Norman banjo (aEAC#E) and guitar (standard tuning capo 2)
Before the album came out, I googled the name and it just seemed a bit too common, even in the fiddle world. In fact, Brad Kolodner even has an album called "Skipping Stones" - I decided I had to change it. My mother-in-law was visiting at the time and figured out that "Ducks and Drakes" is another name for the activity of skipping stones - I really liked that name a lot so it stuck. My only request to Chris (who, in addition to playing guitar, mixed and mastered the album as well) was to dial back my banjo thumb slaps a bit - they get a bit excessive in the A part : ). I think it came out pretty well in the end. In terms of track order, I wonder if I should have moved it a bit further away from Texas, which has a fairly similar vibe (and guitar intro).
6) Sally in the Garden - This was one of the first dark/minor tunes I learned on the banjo and I'm still hooked on it. Molly and I played this at our lunch get-togethers a lot too and its even captured on video:
Jeff Norman (banjo) and Molly McBride (fiddle) playing "Sally in the Garden" on the MSU campus.
I have a standard set of tricks (including a low harmony to the B part) that I always try to get into this tune - its so trancey that this year I decided to play it with some friends for half an hour at Clifftop (...like, we set a timer...), which was pretty fun. I'm going to try to build momentum early to get a big group to do that again this year!
7) Five Miles from Town - This is a crooked Clyde Davenport tune that I learned from Molly. It seems to be fairly in vogue at jams over the past few years as well. Molly always played it with the parts swapped from how Clyde did it and we did the same thing here. I mostly wanted to include this as another great 6 string banjo tune. The two parts are an octave apart so if you're playing on a 5 string you either have to go up the neck for the high part (which I never like doing) or play both parts in the same octave, which falls a little flat (and requires a fiddle to give it some context) - the 6 string solves this quite handily. However, Molly is the true star of this track and it probably should have ended up on her album (here) instead of mine! Chris and I had a brief debate about whether to go to the B-minor or G-major chord in the A part (Clyde's B part) - the melody I've settled on suggests the B-minor chord, but I know that people have strong opinions about this so my apologies to whoever I've offended with this choice.
8) Yew Piney Mountain - This is a varyingly-crooked West Virginia tune. I say "varyingly-crooked" because everybody seems to add or subtract a few beats making it just a bit different for each player. My version mostly mirrors Chance McCoy's solo fiddle version from his album "Debut," which continues to blow my mind every time I hear it. I incorporated constant ghost note double thumbing into my solo banjo version (more on that here, including a tab and recording) and I'm really happy with how it came out. The folks on banjo hangout really liked that version too. The other solo banjo version I've heard is by Dwight Diller. As you might imagine its super bouncy and plunky - I think that Dwight tunes his banjo way down to aAEAE like a crossed tuned fiddle with an added 5th string. Super cool idea and Dwight's version sounds amazing. My version is in the more commonly-used tuning of A modal (aEADE) so I have to jump up an octave mid-phrase towards the ends of the A and B parts to get all of the melody in. I played this onstage at Clifftop a few years back earning me a lot of praise from people who came and found me afterwards...but unfortunately no place in the finals (reserved for those in the top 5). Though rankings beyond the top 5 are never released, I like to think that I came in a strong 6th that year : ) Chris dialed up the reverb on this one, which is really evident after my sparsely-placed clucks (more on clucks here) - a couple of them sound downright metallic!.
9) Swingin' on a Gate - I learned this Irish tune at a Pretty Shaky String Band jam from Fred and/or Tana and immediately fell in love with it. I couldn't help but learn it and I even hosted a "tune of the week" thread with Swingin' on a gate on banjo hangout, which you can find here - there are some really great versions on there from other players and I posted a tab (in Old G) as well. My original idea was to go straight Old Time on the recording - I was going to ask Chris to play straight boom-chick guitar in standard tuning and ask Molly to leave out all the "Irishy" stuff (e.g. grace notes and triplets) from her fiddling (and maybe add in some shuffle). However, once I heard Chris play DADGAD guitar and Molly play it how you hear it on the recording....well it sounded too good to mess with. Unfortunately, I think we practiced too many times because my left forearm muscle, which is really activated by super notey tunes where I use a lot of pinky, was totally worn out by the time we hit record! I fee like I can hear "struggling" in my playing. We did a lot of takes but I mostly picked this one because I liked the way everyone else sounded : ) It was Molly's idea to have me go fiddle-less for the first run through, and I just love it when she sneaks in on that long-bowed single-note crescendo!
10) Sandy Boys - I was just dying to play something on my fretless Buckbee (more on that banjo in this blogpost on fretless banjos here) and this admittedly "festival version" (here) of the West Virginia Tune "Sandy Boys" is what often pops out of my fretless banjo when I pick it up. Initially, I planned on trying this as just two-finger Baritone Uke (which I've been working on in the past - here) and fiddle. However, Molly and I's versions didn't really mesh that well and, frankly....I just couldn't hang on baritone uke. At first, I scrapped the uke all together and decided to make this a solo banjo piece - I tuned the fretless down to open F (fCFAC) because it just sounds great down there. However, Chris, who co-produced the album in addition to playing guitar, urged me to try twin banjos...then put the baritone uke (tuned down to CFAD to let me play in F) on top of that...and a tenor uke (tuned an octave above the baritone using a tiple string) on top of that! Add in some reverb, pump up the bass, and you've got a pretty funky take on this tune! Definitely an oddball compared to the rest of the album but also one of my favorites on there!
11) Hobart's Breakdown - this tune is basically "Banging breakdown," popularized by Hobart Smith, who reportedly learned the tune from his bandmate John Greer, with the "banging" removed (i.e. I don't bang on the banjo head like Hobart did because I can't really pull it off). I always thought it would work well as a full band tune and I was right! I also moved it up from C to D for tuning ease on my part (I just don't like tuning down) but Molly tells me the tune probably works better there on the fiddle as well. Though Hobart's recordings don't have a guitarist to guide you, I've always conceptualized this tune in Bm, the relative minor key of D major - I wrote out some chords for Chris to play in line with that decision; he played them but noted that they didn't work well for voice leading (which shows you that Chris is a much more thoughtful guitarist than I'll ever be). All of that is to say that this is a track where I really made some "producer" decisions and its really neat to hear how it all came together! I really love this one and I probably should have moved it a bit closer to the front of the album.
12) Snake Chapman's Tune - A group of friends in VA and I used to have a "tune of the week" thing going - my friend Beth suggested "Snake Chapman's Tune," a crooked D tune that includes both a flat 7th note (hinting at a Mixolydian scale) and a sharp 7th note (hinting at an Ionian scale) - if you don't know what I'm talking about, check out my blog post on modes (here). This modal confusion actually provided the inspiration for me to try the same thing in A when I wrote "Ducks and Drakes." This same modal confusion also makes harmonizing a bit tricky at times - I try a parallel 3rds harmony the last time through the B part and get a bit befuddled on how to harmonize the switch to Ionian (there are two possible note choices near the end of the B part and if you listen closely, you'll hear me pick both : ). I certainly couldn't presume to add any tune history beyond what BHO user EggerRidgeBoy put forth when he used this tune as a "tune of the week" addition on the hangout: here.
13) Cheese and Crackers - this crooked D tune was actually the first fiddle tune I ever wrote (maybe in 2009 or so?) and its still one of my favorite originals. The friends I played with back then weren’t all that used to crooked tunes at the time (neither was I, but this one just happened to come out that way), and actually suggested that I straighten it out by chopping off the pauses at the end of each phrase. However, I thought the melody needed a bit more space than that approach would allow for, and as often happens with crooked tunes, eventually “Cheese & Crackers” started sounding downright normal. The tune was named after two friends of mine, who’s last names kind of sounded like “Cheese” and “Crackers.” Note that I used to spell “Crackers” with a K in the title (reflecting that particular friend’s last name) but decided to defer to the normal spelling for the album to avoid any confusion. I mentioned this tune in a blogpost about original tunes (here). Also, here’s an MP3 of some friends and I playing “Cheese and Crackers” at a friend's wedding several years back:
A few friends and I playing "Cheese and Crackers" at a friend's wedding.
14) This Way - While I'd love to add an original tune to the Old Time festival canon one day, I don't really think the album-ender "This Way" stands much of a chance of meeting that goal : ) While tunes like "Ducks and Drakes" and "Stripey Cat" could presumably blend in with other fiddle tunes, "This Way" is just a bit too weird - maybe one day I'll hear it all "fiddled" up but I won't be holding my breath. Still...I'm really proud of it - blogpost about the tune here, which includes example chords for those inclined to harmonize Not so much a "toe-tapper" as it is a "head-scratcher," "This Way" works well as a solo banjo album coda of sorts. For whatever reason, two repeats was all I could get in without train-wrecking that night so this one clocks in fairly short. As with other original tunes, I recorded an example version (guitar included) that you can hear below:
"This Way" written and played by Jeff Norman - Buckeye 159 tuned aEADE; Ephiphone Masterbilt guitar tuned to standard (no capo).
Hope that was somewhat interesting to whoever has made it this far - thanks for reading!