If you haven't seen Pete Wernick's article in the July 2007 Banjo Newsletter, you should pick up a copy and "check it out".
He talks about working hard on one vocal song melody per week for an entire year -- after which you'll at least have 52 melodies that you've worked your way through and learned but, better yet, you'll likely boost your ability to "suss out" a melody on the fly.
Now, I already know a "reasonable" number of bluegrass melodies BUT there are a bunch of standards/classics that I haven't learned yet PLUS there are a bunch of lyrics to songs I already know the break to that I would like to get memorized.
So, I started up over the weekend. First song in the queue is "Molly and Tenbrooks". In addition to listening to various versions of each song that have previously been recorded, my goals for each song will be:
1) Be able to play the "bare minimum" melody for the song in the "normal" jamming key. G for Molly and Tenbrooks.
2) Figure out at least one low-break for the banjo with a few alternative licks. Note, this is "figure out", not memorize tab from someone else.
3) Work out a simple backup for the song. Vamping, rolling, or rolling with fill-in licks. The part will assure that I have the chords memorized AND can spend time figuring out less common chords and getting used to playing them. I also need TONS more work on backup and I hope that working out a little stuff before-hand will help me during jams.
4) Memorize the vocals. At least the chorus but the entire song if possible.
5) Work out a high-break for the banjo.
If I still have time left in the week, here are a few additional steps.
6) Work out the bare melody line in a different key (like D) with no capo.
7) Work out a simple backup in the alternate uncapoed key.
Over the weekend I was able to get to half-way through step 4. I have the melody down, a respectable low-break worked out, a simple vamping backup, and the first two verses memorized. Tonight I need to get the rest of the verses down. Then maybe I can see how well I can work out this tune in D.
Keeping "at it" is going to be the hardest part of this. Life has a habit of getting in the way, but we'll see how I do.
I think next weeks song will be one of my personal favorites -- Wall around your heart -- which I love to listen to but have never worked on before now.