Wineka column: Mandolin player's music family holding benefit concert

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 25, 2012

CLEVELAND — David Murph and his mandolin slide next to guitar-playing Dave Leatherman in the misshapen circle that has formed in the middle of CJ’s restaurant.
The Monday night oval takes in young and old bluegrass musicians and their fiddles, banjos, basses and other guitars and mandolins.
Leatherman sings like a lark on this particular song, reminding Murph of the 1974 Old Time Fiddlers’ Convention in Union Grove. Back then, he and Leatherman joined Murph’s banjo-playing father, the late Andy Murph, as part of the Tri-County Bluegrass Boys.
Convention judges chose the band as bluegrass world champions that year.
David Murph, now 52, was a young teen then but already a veteran mandolin player. The world-champion designation in Union Grove led to the band’s automatic booking with country star Archie Campbell in Blowing Rock.
That was ages ago.
This Saturday, Murph’s bluegrass friends will be playing music all day at CJ’s as part of a benefit fundraiser for Murph, who has long been fighting sarcoidosis, an auto-immune disease causing him severe headaches, back and joint pain.
He was first diagnosed in 1991, and symptoms of the disease plagued him for more than a decade. But when the sarcoidosis seemed to go into remission in 2004, Murph thought he had it licked.
In the latter part of 2010, it returned with a vengeance.
Since then he has missed a lot of work — and music — from severe headaches and back pain. The headaches are so bad his eyes can’t focus. He has tried low-dose chemotherapy, while also taking steroids aimed at reducing inflammation.
Murph has an appointment today with a neurosurgeon to discuss a possible operation aimed at relieving pressure on his brain.
The missed days of work as a truck driver for Knox Grain Farm and the health insurance co-payments on medical bills have added up. But Murph was shocked when he heard other musicians had organized Saturday’s fundraiser for him.
He seldom mentioned the financial challenges to his friends.
“It just makes you feel good about people,” Murph says. “It floors me. You really don’t know what to say.”
Gary Gibbons, a non-musician friend of Murph’s, has been among the many people spreading the word about Saturday’s fundraiser though advertisements, fliers, telephone calls and conversations.
It has been an easy sell. Through the years, Murph often was the musician organizing other charity events.
“He has always stepped up to do it for somebody else,” Gibbons says. “People listen when you (mention) David’s name. He’s a good fella, like his daddy, so they stand up and listen.”
Gibbons sometimes drives Murph to his doctor when Murph has to get a pain shot and can’t be behind the wheel. “The music family is a tight family,” Murph explains.
Mentor to others
Murph has been a mentor and source of encouragement to a lot of other bluegrass musicians, and it hurts to see him battling the pain, fellow mandolin player Mike Stewart says.
“David loves to pick, even if he can’t hold his head up,” Stewart adds. “… We just thought we’d get together and do this. We love him to death. He’s just like family.”
Going to fiddlers conventions are like attending big family reunions, Murph’s wife, Rita says. She laughs, recalling that when she first met David as a 16-year-old, she was not a bluegrass fan.
Now she loves the music, always marveling at how complete strangers find an immediate bond when they sit down together and play bluegrass.
“What his friends are doing touches his heart a lot — and they want to do it,” Rita Murph says.
The couple have two grown daughters, Tracy and Gail. Tracy is expecting a boy in June, and he will be David and Rita’s first grandchild.
Rita works at the Jockey International plant in Mocksville. David’s truck route often takes him into the mountains, where he delivers liquid nitrogen and fertilizer to “farms out in the middle of nowhere,” he says.
On the weekends and a few weeknights such as this, Murph still finds time for music, if he feels up to it. Many of his musician friends, such as Leatherman, Stewart and John Goodson, like to play in the two-hour bluegrass jam session at CJ’s on Monday nights.
Musicians gathering
John and Sandra Goodson have done a lot of behind-the-scenes work in scheduling musicians and bands for Saturday’s fundraiser. Vivian Hopkins of Gold Hill also has been promoting it.
Murph becomes excited, thinking of the musicians who have committed. They include banjo player and tenor Al Wood of Hiddenite. Murph describes Wood as “a living legend.”
He also looks forward to hearing Tal Holbrook, a great fiddle player from Traphill in Wilkes County.
Murph helped to organize the weekly jam sessions at CJ’s restaurant. They started out on Wednesday nights but have been changed to Mondays to fit better with several of the musicians’ schedules.
The bluegrass music takes the place of karaoke nights, CJ’s owner Cathy Bowles says, and it has proved to be just as popular and a great fit for customers. Bowles’ late father was a huge bluegrass fan and musician, and she wishes he could have lived to see these sessions.
“He would have loved this,” Bowles says.
CJ’s will be open for breakfast until 10 a.m. Saturday before closing and allowing the David Murph fundraiser to take over. Sound systems and playing venues are expected to be set up inside and outside the restaurant. There also will be an area just for jam sessions, Murph says.
Why has Bowles made her restaurant available for Saturday’s event?
“He’s a good friend, No. 1,” Bowles says of Murph, “and it’s just part of the community.”
In recent years, Murph has turned a lot of his own talents toward gospel music, and his church family at Safe Harbor Baptist Church “means everything to me,” he says.
On a recent Sunday, the church had a “spur-of-the-moment” love offering for him, Murph says, and the congregation donated $600 to his family.
Murph tells his wife if wealth were determined by how many friends they have, “then we are very rich people.”

Bluegrass Fundraiser for David Murph

When: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday
Where: CJ’s restaurant, 210 Amity Hill Road, Cleveland
What: live bluegrass music throughout the day
Proceeds: To help with medical expenses of David Murph
Auction: 2 p.m., cakes and miscellaneous items
Food: Hot dogs and hamburgers served from 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; barbecue, 5-7 p.m.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263 or