11 June 2018

The Archduke and the accidental dobroist

Thanks to Colin Henry, Belfast dobro maestro, for this memory of Stacy Phillips (left: photo by Marcia Goodman), who died last week:

I owe my existence as a dobro player to two people. The first is our own Frankie Lane and the second is Stacy Phillips, the 'Archduke of the Dobro'. I used to play the banjo (badly) and I was heading into town one day in the distant past to buy banjo strings. The car radio was playing and on came the sound of a wonderful slide instrument being expertly played. I was immediately taken by the sound. When the tune finished the announcer said that it was a track from Frankie Lane's new CD Dobro. Of course I had heard a dobro before on Flatt & Scruggs recordings, but I didn't really pay much attention. Frankie's playing, however, completely captivated me.

I went into the shop to buy the banjo strings and on the way out I stopped at the books. I was going through the banjo section when I came across The dobro book by Stacy Phillips, the 'Green Book' as it is known. I thought 'well, that is that instrument Frankie Lane was playing', so I bought the book. I went home, converted an old guitar, and began to go through the book. Within a very short space of time I realised that I understood this instrument better than the banjo or the guitar. You could play fast tunes like a banjo and you could play the slow tunes with plenty of feeling, and it allowed me to express the sounds in my head that refused point blank to emerge from my throat and mouth!

Roll on six months. I had been practising hard and trying (with varying degrees of success) to copy the tunes off Frankie's CD. I bought a recorder and recorded myself for the first time. Oh dear! Every note was slightly off - all just a bit flat. I was totally disheartened and concluded that, try as I might, I just did not have the musical ear to play the dobro. As it happened I had just got a computer with internet access for the first time. On the back of the Green Book was an e-mail address for Stacy Phillips, so I thought I would just e-mail him. I doubted if I would get a response, but I said in the e-mail that I was starting out playing and that I had just heard myself recorded and all the notes were out of tune. I asked if it was worth continuing, or did I just not have the aptitude for the instrument?

Within half an hour he replied - all the way from New York - and his words have been with me ever since. He said: 'You are half way there; you know you are out of tune! Practise, practise, practise and you will get there.' He went on to explain the issue (a story for another time). So I did practise, and then some, and he was right, it came good. If anything I'm obsessed with being in tune now!

Stacy Phillips literally wrote the book on learning the dobro; in fact he wrote several classic books. He was a unique player and from all reports a unique character. I have thanked Frankie Lane in person, but I never had the chance to meet Stacy and thank him; but without his sage words I would still be trying to master the banjo. (I leave that to my son James now!) So thank you Frankie but, on this occasion, a particular thank you to Stacy. I tried in tribute to do a couple of his complex slant/pulls at Westport over the weekend and failed miserably; as he said, practise, practise, practise!

Colin and James Henry will be joining singer/songwriter Gary Ferguson (USA) for a ten-day tour of Ireland in the first half of next month. All dates are on the BIB calendar.

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At 5:53 pm, Blogger Unknown said...

Well said. His humour comes across in his books. I got a lesson by Skype once and those slants he tried to explain about where your body should be but it remains a bridge too far. Playing out of tune that explains those funny looks I've been getting.

At 8:19 pm, Anonymous EilĂ­s said...

A lovely story, Colin


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