Clawgrass goes to the Opry

Mike Snider and Mark Johnson on the Grand Ole Opry – photo by Nicole Christianson

Florida’s Mark Johnson, inventor of the clawgrass style of banjo, had a big moment last weekend when he traveled to Nashville to appear on the Grand Ole Opry as a guest of fellow 5 stringer, Mike Snider.

Mark is known for developing a style of clawhammer banjo that fits well within bluegrass, which he gave the name clawgrass. The rhythmic pulse of old time and bluegrass are quite similar, but evolved from the same roots with a very different banjo sound. Not only does the clawhammer player strike down on the strings with bare fingers instead of picking up on them with picks as in bluegrass, it uses a repetitive, loping rhythm to drive the music and state the melody as opposed to the rolling sound of three finger banjo.

As an old time banjoist who often found himself participating in bluegrass jams, Mark modified his old time banjo picking to more closely fit the bluegrass beat. You can see in this video of his version of Bill Monroe’s Brown County Breakdown how he utilizes the common contemporary clawhammer and drop thumb techniques to play a bluegrass tune.

Mark came to wider attention through recordings and appearances with The Rice Brothers, and later as a duo with Emory Lester on guitar and mandolin. These led to Homespun producing an instruction DVD on the clawgrass style, and to Deering creating a signature model banjo for Johnson.

His playing also caught the attention of Steve Martin, who not only sought Mark out to demonstrate his technique, but also awarded him the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass in 2012.

The story of their musical encounters is told in the February 2017 issue of Banjo NewsLetter, in a cover feature.

Congratulations Mark, for your Opry debut!

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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.