Kristin Scott Benson – What the banjo means to me today

Anyone who knows her realizes that Kristin Scott Benson is a musician of the highest caliber, as her multiple IBMA Banjo Player of the Year awards can attest, but also that she is among the most thoughtful and intelligent people in our industry. Her involvement with The Grascals this past 12 years has cemented her place in bluegrass history. Today she shares a reflection on finding meaning in music, and the power of filial love.

Our relationship with music is like any other; it changes over time. Like a marriage, it breathes and evolves. While our closeness with it may vary through the years, it’s a constant that we can depend on, regardless of what’s happening around us. Just like a child, our musicianship grows and matures until we hopefully become a valued, functioning member of our musical community. Like a beloved pet, music is loyal. It requires nothing from us, but it’s there to endlessly give back. The more we invest, the more rewarding the relationship, but it will accept whatever we give and won’t demand anything unless we’re attentive and desire its company.

I’m currently co-authoring a book with Bill Evans called 25 Great Bluegrass Banjo Solos. One reason I was attracted to this project was that it allowed me the opportunity to interview some of my favorite banjo players, many of whom haven’t been interviewed in a while. In light of recent events, I’m particularly thankful I got to spend some time talking to Bill Emerson. I knew a lot about most of these artists already, but this was a chance to satisfy my own curiosity. I could ask them anything I had always wondered about, and there was one inquiry that overshadowed any other: What does the banjo mean to you today?

The banjo has meant a lot of different things to me. Simultaneously, it has been one of my greatest sources of joy and worry. In my younger years, it accounted for an unhealthy amount of my identity, but that led to some wonderful opportunities to grow in my faith. The banjo is responsible for many of my closest friendships, meeting my husband, and my livelihood. There are times that I feel overwhelmed with obligations, even musical. Being a musician is like any other job that way, but there has never been one single time that I’ve picked up the banjo and not wanted to play it. Not ever. I’m still fascinated by it, and I love it more now than I ever have. I am acutely aware of what I don’t know, and the breadth of the unknown increases exponentially with every crumb of new knowledge I manage to absorb with my middle-aged mind.

I was blessed with parents and grandparents who nurtured my love for bluegrass and the banjo. Instruments, lessons, shows, jamming, performing with my grandfather’s band….all of these things helped afford me the privilege of playing professionally. My dad was at the heart of it all. He was never prouder than when he saw me play. And my goodness, how he loves Don Reno. He used to bribe me with trips to Norman Adams festivals by saying: “If you learn Remington Ride (or any other Reno tune) just like Don played it, I’ll take you to Dahlonega (or Lincolnton, or Myrtle Beach, or Jekyll Island).” Of course, I’ve still never gotten any of those tunes “just like Don played it,” but my dad would reward the effort and I’m a better player for it.

My dad had a stroke a month ago and he has a long, long road ahead. While his life doesn’t appear to be in imminent danger, the quality of his life is not good. So, when I visit, I do what I think he’d like best; I play the banjo. Honestly, it hasn’t had the effect I hoped for, but we will celebrate little victories and today, a man who hasn’t strung together a coherent sentence in weeks tried twice to sing, once to Old Rugged Cross and once to Home Sweet Home. That’s not nothing and it’s absolutely what the banjo means to me today.