Mark Johnson wins 2012 Steve Martin Prize

Clawhammer banjo innovator Mark Johnson has been announced as the 2012 recipient of the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, the 3rd annual honoree.

While a number of 3-finger banjo pickers have used a roll technique to play old time music, Johnson’s style is an interesting hybrid which utilizes the clawhammer/dropthumb method to play bluegrass songs.

Mark refers to his approach as Clawgrass, which he demonstrates in this arrangement of a classic Bill Monroe composition.


This award, endowed by the Steve Martin Charitable Foundation, includes a cash prize of $50,000 and a bronze sculpture by noted artist Eric Fischl, designed expressly for the prize.

Each year’s honoree is chosen by a board appointed for this purpose, which includes J.D Crowe, Pete Wernick, Tony Trischka, Anne Stringfield, Alison Brown, Neil V. Rosenberg, Béla Fleck and Steve Martin. The two previous recipients were Noam Pikelny and Sammy Shelor.

Mark is a New York native, now living in Florida, who has performed and recorded of late in a duo with Emory Lester. He has also recorded with The Rice Brothers and has a solo project under his name.

We’ve been been unable to reach Mark this afternoon to get his reaction, but will update when we get ahold of him.

Congratulations Mark Johnson for this signal honor!

UPDATE 7:10 p.m. – Finally caught up with Mark… As you might have guessed, he was a bit verklempt.

“What a crazy day it has been! I am still in a bit of shock over this award. I would dream sometimes about what it would be like to be fortunate enough to be recognized for this banjo award like Noam and Sammy, but never figured it would happen. I figured there were many more great players out there  that the judges would consider before ever taking a look at me.

I had taken the day off yesterday to handle some personal business when the Fed Ex truck pulls down my driveway. I opened up the envelope from Steve Martin and read the award papers……..and my knee buckled as I dropped the envelope on the ground.

The Fed Ex driver asked if I was OK, and I said yes, and told her what had happened. Even she got excited. I was stunned….and I still am.

My goodness, what an honor. And then to read all the voting board members names and signatures and especially Steve and Anne’s signatures. Amazing. After all these years making my  Clawgrass clawhamer banjo music… well, it sure felt good. Real good. I am so humbled.”

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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.