We were finally able to catch up with Kristin Scott Benson today, the 2018 recipient of the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass.
When the prize was announced yesterday morning, she had a busy day of teaching scheduled, and we were motoring down to Raleigh for the World of Bluegrass convention. But this afternoon, we caught her between lessons to talk about this impressive honor, which comes with a $50,000 honorarium and a limited edition art piece by Eric Fischl as a trophy.
Kristin is not only the award-winning banjo player with The Grascals, she is also one half of bluegrass music’s original power couple, married to Wayne Benson, mandolinist with Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out. Together, they are raising an 11-year old, while both maintain an active touring schedule in the bluegrass world.
First of all, we wanted to hear about her reaction when she first learned of the award.
“I found out in a different way than most award recipients. I was at Béla Fleck’s house, talking about his Blue Ridge Banjo Camp, where I taught, and going over things with him. At one point he excused himself, saying that he needed to care of something, and went upstairs. When he came back down, his wife Abigail Washburn was with him, along with Noam Pikelny, and Alison Brown and Garry West. I knew something was up.
For me, just being in a room with those banjo players is prize enough. Growing up, I never thought I would get to meet my banjo heroes, much less get to know them.
After they gave me the news, I called Wayne, and asked him to guess what we were celebrating. He said, ‘Well it was Bill Monroe’s birthday a few days ago…'”
Needless to say, Kristin was overwhelmed with the news that she would be receiving the award, and despite her four IBMA Awards for Banjo Player of the Year and the acclaim she has received for her work with both The Larry Stephenson Band and The Grascals, finding her name inscribed alongside Noam, Sammy Shelor, and Eddie Adcock was a bit difficult for her to process.
But banjo fans know that it is well-deserved, as did Béla, who had hired her to be an instructor at his initial banjo camp in North Carolina. Kristin says that teaching there deepened her already passionate love for the five string.
“Camp was an invigorating experience, and it inspired me more than most anything I’ve done in years. Seeing all those eager students hanging on to every word, I fell in love with the banjo all over again.
We each took classic solos from hallmark players to break down for our advanced class, and I took Sonny Osborne’s break from You’re The Kind Of Woman I Got. I was amazed again by how inventive it was, and when I called him to ask a couple of questions about the solo, he remembered every note he had played.
It still tickles me that I know him and get to talk to him about things like that.
Before we left for Bean Blossom after meeting with Béla, I got to hang with Sonny for a bit, and then we saw Doyle Lawson on the Opry, who was what made me want to play bluegrass when I was 8 years old.”
In describing how Lawson had inspired her, Kristin says that the age of his band was a big part of what drew her in.
“When I saw them in Dahlonaga, GA, it was Russell Moore, and Scott and Curtis Vestal. I was already playing mandolin and liked bluegrass. When I saw them, it struck me immediately because the guys were all really young. And it was pandemonium under the tent – the audience was going wild. Scott’s banjo playing was so powerful, and the Quicksilver sound had so much drive, with the banjo being such a foundational part of that drive. The momentum Scott created with how cleanly he played just took my breath away.”
Soon she had her own banjo and was learning how to make it do what Scott had done. But she never thought about music as a career, she just wanted to be part of that magical sound.
Kristin got an early start in the professional bluegrass world, taking the banjo job with Larry Stephenson while she was still in college. She had moved to Nashville to study at Belmont University right out of high school, and it plunged her deep into the world of professional bluegrass. During her days growing up in South Carolina, she had worked with a Gospel group, and did some shows with Petticoat Junction, an all-female bluegrass band headed up by Andrea Roberts.
“I started playing for Larry when I was a sophomore in college, and Sonny Osborne produced the first two albums I did with them. I was 19, and I had never really gotten to know Sonny before. This was a time when the Osborne Brothers were still out there, and he became a personal mentor to me.”
When she started playing, there weren’t many female banjo role models, but that didn’t slow her down one bit. It was the sound that drew her in, and what had captivated her about the five string.
“Banjo is an instrument of puzzles. I couldn’t believe that this grouping of strings could produce this music that I loved so much.”
A lot of things have gone right for Kristin Scott Benson in her life, which she never really imagined would find her touring the world with her banjo. But here she is, recognized as among the greats of the instrument by its most popular current practitioner.
Well done Steve Martin, and the rest of the selection committee!