This article is a contribution from Cindy Faulkner, a writer and bluegrass fan living near Raleigh, NC.
After Marc Pruett received a North Carolina Heritage Award recently, I had the pleasure of candidly chatting with him about bluegrass, playing the banjo, and some of his experiences and impressions along life’s way. As soon as he begins speaking, you know Marc is one of those people who is genuinely kind and makes conversation easy and enjoyable. (I love talking to people like that.) As soon as you hear him play the banjo, it is also evident he is a very talented musician. What a great combination!
Marc is the banjo player for Balsam Range, and they were IBMA’s 2014 Entertainer of the Year. Balsam Range performed Moon Over Memphis at the 2016 North Carolina Heritage Awards last week, where Marc was honored as one of eight recipients to receive the award from the NC Arts Council.
The same five guys have played together in Balsam Range for nine and a half years now, and in the music world, that speaks loud! The bluegrass group is in the middle of recording their 6th CD project, and they have a special event coming up this year. They are hosting the first annual Art of Music Festival in Haywood County, at Lake Junaluska, December 2nd and 3rd, 2016. The event will feature various workshops during the day and fun “aftersupper” shows, including performances by Balsam Range, Lonesome River Band, and Marty Stuart.
When I asked Marc his thoughts on learning to play the banjo, he made some great points which anyone who plays or wants to play the instrument should appreciate. First, realize there are unlimited “types” (or degrees) of music one can play on a banjo, and someone’s potential is basically determined by his level of interest. If one simply wants to be able to sit on the porch and play a few tunes in the evening, then learn those tunes and do that! “To play with equal proficiency takes the same effort,” Marc says, and that front porch ability is very satisfying to many people. As he pointed out, people are limited by daily lifestyle and time, and it’s important to set reasonable goals in learning an instrument. I find that advice very encouraging!
Marc got his first banjo when he was 11 years old. His mother gave him a few minutes each day after school to listen to the Cornbread Matinee on the radio, and he heard the music of Flatt & Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys. He says the music of Earl’s Breakdown jumped inside him, and his mom informed him that instrument was a banjo. Marc expressed his desire to have one, and he got it for Christmas. He studied the banjo with the help of local Haywood County musicians and was playing at Ghost Town in Maggie Valley by the age of 15. Marc paid his way through college with the money he earned at Ghost Town and with other bluegrass bands.
After college, Marc taught banjo at a music store in Asheville called Pic ‘n’ Grin, which he owned with his brother Matt. He sometimes taught up to 90 people a week, and he led the band every weekend at Bill Stanley’s Barbeque and Bluegrass Restaurant in Asheville. He eventually played and recorded with Jimmy Martin and Ricky Skaggs, winning a Grammy with Skaggs. Currently, in addition to playing with Balsam Range, he is the Director of Sediment and Erosion Control for Haywood County. Busy man!
I asked Marc what was so impressive to him about the music of Scruggs, and he said it was the “artful presentation of the music” and how Flatt & Scruggs moved beyond the stereotypes of bluegrass at the time. Their sound gave bluegrass a quality and showed it as a true artform. “It was traditional music presented in a classy way.” Marc says his desire now is to take the music he plays, to the world, in a respectful, fun way that makes people think.
Marc and his wife, Anita, who write songs together and both have strong backgrounds in bluegrass, hope to do an album together soon. They treated the audience at the NC Heritage Awards to a folksy demonstration of their talent when they performed together.
It was a pleasure to learn more about Marc, the banjo, and his history with bluegrass, but my favorite takeaway is what he said he sometimes tells his kids. “It’s good to stay upbeat if you can….two of the biggest things they can possess in life, are passion and compassion. Passion for what they do, and compassion for other people.” That’s great advice for us all.