2021 Steve Martin Banjo Prize winners

Steve Martin, Don Vappie, and Alan Munde – Vappie photo by Brad Edelman; Munde photo by Tom Dunning

Today the winners of the 2021 Steve Martin Banjo Prize have been announced by Martin, and the Board of Directors of the Prize. This is the 2nd annual selection for the renamed award, now administered by The FreshGrass Foundation and Compass Records, with a title chosen to reflect its focus away from bluegrass banjo exclusively, as it had originally been configured, to a more general prize for high artistic achievement in the wider banjo community.

This year’s recipients are Alan Munde, long time 3-finger bluegrass banjo player and educator, and Don Vappie, noted New Orleans jazz player on tenor banjo. Each will receive an unrestricted cash award of $25,000.

This prize was originally conceived and implemented by Steve Martin as The Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass Music, with the first awarded to Noam Pikelny. At that time a cash grant of $50,00 went to a single artist, along with a piece of original sculpture designed for the purpose. Martin funded the prize with own resources for ten years, and has since turned it over to The Freshgrass Foundation and Compass Records who will continue it with a broader focus.

During his oversight, the prize went to Pikelny, Sammy Shelor, Mark Johnson, Jens Kruger, Eddie Adcock, Danny Barnes, Rhiannon Giddens, Scott Vestal, Kristin Scott Benson, and Victor Furtado. In 2020, the first year under FreshGrass, the award was split among five players in a variety of styles: Matthew Davis, Buddy Watcher, Gerry O’Connor, Jake Blount, and BB Bowness. 

Steve says that he feels honored that they have chosen to keep his name on the award.

“I am so proud to have my name on the new, expanded Banjo Prize, with its wider scope and broader considerations. The world of the banjo is expanding and our goal is to bring it under one roof.”

A young Alan Munde first emerged on the nation al bluegrass scene playing with Jimmy Martin in 1969 at the age of 23. He had already made the musical acquaintance of future bluegrass greats Byron Berline and Sam Bush, and had worked with Bush in Kentucky in a short-lived group called Poor Richard’s Almanac. Moving to California in 1972 to join the Flying Burrito Brothers, Alan helped form Country Gazette with Berline when the Burritos band dissolved. He remained with the Gazette for the duration of the band’s existence, and then joined the faculty of South Plains College in Texas where he taught banjo until he retired. No one who learned banjo from the 1970s onward has failed to be influenced by Alan’s creativity and musicianship, whether on Earl Scruggs style material, Munde’s own instrumentals, or on jazz-oriented approaches to 3-finger banjo.

Don Vappie is known as a purveyor and preservationist of New Orleans music, which he describes as Creole jazz. Known as both a guitarist and a banjoist, he has been featured on his own seven solo recordings, plus in both television and film. Like Munde, Don’s career is also focused on education, and he serves on the faculty of Loyola University, and offers workshops and concerts at high school and middle schools in the region as part of his passion for teaching young people about the music and culture of his home town. He also teaches at the Jamison Heritage School of Music in New Orleans, where he is noted for both his virtuosity and his authority on the subject of Creole jazz.

This afternoon at 6:30 p.m. (EDT), Deering Banjos will host a special video presentation on YouTube featuring Martin, along with this year’s recipients of the Steve Martin Banjo Prize. It will also be available on the Facebook pages of Prize sponsors and friends The FreshGrass Festival, Compass Records, No Depression, Folk Alley, and The International Bluegrass Music Association. The video will include both performances and interviews with Alan Munde and Don Vappie, plus thoughts on both men’s contributions from Sam Bush and Wynton Marsalis.

Following the Deering Live presentation, the video will remain active for after the fact viewing on YouTube.

Many congratulations to Alan Munde and Don Vappie!

Prize winners each year are chosen by the Board of Directors of the Steve Martin Prize:

  • Steve Martin (Chairman Emeritus)
  • Alison Brown (Co-Chair)
  • Béla Fleck
  • Noam Pikelny
  • Anne Stringfield
  • Tony Trischka
  • Pete Wernick
  • Johnny Baier
  • Kristin Scott Benson
  • Roger Brown
  • Jamie Deering
  • Dom Flemons
  • Paul Schiminger
  • Chris Wadsworth
  • Garry West (Co-Chair)

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.