In a surprising twist, the 2016 Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass Music has been awarded to Rhiannon Giddens, founding member of The Carolina Chocolate Drops. Along with banjo scholar and musicologist Dom Flemons, Giddens has been at the forefront of a movement of young black American artists who seek to reclaim the important contributions that African transplants have had on American folk music.
Known as much as a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist, Rhiannon has accompanied herself using the banjo since she first hit the music world in 2005. More recently, she has won plaudits as a solo artist. Her current release, Tomorrow Is My Turn, was produced by T-Bone Burnett for Nonesuch Records.
Here is a video example of her playing style in an excerpt from David Holt’s State of Music, which aired in January 2015 on North Carolina Public Television. The song is Julie, which Giddens wrote, based on a slave memoir.
Steve tells us that the vote was unanimous among the board who choose the winner each year, which comes with a cash award of $50,000 and a custom-made statuette created by artist Eric Fischl called The Banjo Hand.
“The banjo’s history is deep and wide. The board wanted to acknowledge the variety of styles that have contributed to the banjo’s place in America. Rhiannon Giddens nobly exemplifies, with rich talent, an era that otherwise might be forgotten.”
In addition to being bi-racial, Giddens is bi-continental, maintaining a home in her native Greensboro, NC and in Limerick, Ireland with her husband and two children.
Previous winners have all been noted bluegrass artists, including Noam Pikelny, the inaugural winner, Sammy Shelor, Mark Johnson, Eddie Adcock, Jens Kruger, and Danny Barnes. Rhiannon now joins their ranks with the 2016 award.
Martin endowed this prize in order to help elevate the banjo, and it’s prominent players, within the wider music world. He and his wife, Annie Springfield, serve on its board, along with notable banjoists J.D. Crowe, Tony Trischka, Pete Wernick, Béla Fleck, Noam Pikelny, Alison Brown, and Dr. Neil Rosenberg.