Scott Vestal wins 2017 Steve Martin Prize

Over this past weekend, the 2017 Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass Music was awarded to Scott Vestal. This makes him the 8th recipient of this prestigious prize, which recognizes a player who has demonstrated “a fresh appreciation of this music, either through artistry, composition, innovation or preservation, and is deserving of a wider audience.”

In addition to the recognition, which comes from Martin and a board of banjo players who choose each winner, the prize also includes a $50,000 honorarium and a custom piece of sculpture commissioned from Eric Fischl. The endowment which funds the prize was a donation from Martin.

The award was presented Saturday night (July 29) at the RockyGrass festival in Lyons, CO where Scott was appearing with The Sam Bush Band. Vestal said he had no idea what was going on when someone from offstage approached the microphone.

“We were just finishing up our set, getting ready to do a jam thing to close out. Pete Wernick came out on stage and he had a letter, and I didn’t know what he was up to. I was totally in shock when he read it.

I was almost just kind of laughing… is this really happening? Is there where I should cry? All I could do was giggle.

It was really special having Pete read the letter out. He was always a big cheerleader for me – he and Tony Trischka thought it was so cool that I could play it super straight with Doyle back in the day, but then play all that other stuff too.”

Scott was referencing his introduction to most of the bluegrass world when he worked with Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver from 1985 to ’88. This was the same group that introduced vocalist Russell Moore to the scene, and in fact Scott and Russell came to Doyle together. They had been performing with Southern Connection, along with Scott’s brother, Curtis, on bass and Marc Kellar on guitar. Russell was playing mandolin.

The band had moved from Texas to North Carolina a few months earlier. They were booked at the Denton festival, and just stayed. Lawson called when his original band (Terry Baucom, Jimmy Haley, and Lou Reid) left en masse to start their own group. He hired the whole Southern Connection minus Kellar, and moved Moore over to guitar.

With Quicksilver, Scott played a very traditional, driving banjo style, in keeping with the template that Baucom had laid down for the band. But he also began to slide in some more modern sounds, incorporating more blue notes and unexpected melodic twists that were then known as the chromatic style. It was always perfectly appropriate to Doyle’s approach, but caught the ear of a great many young banjo pickers who were eager to do the same. The band recorded an instrumental of Vestal’s on their Once And For Always album that was an instant jam session classic, Up On The Blue Ridge.

When Scott left Doyle in 1988, he moved down to Georgia and formed Livewire with Wayne Benson, Ernie Sykes, and Robert Hale. They produced a single album, Wired!, for Rounder in 1990. After that group ran its course, Vestal took a gig in Japan for nearly a year. Upon his return he settled in North Carolina, until Harley Allen called from Nashville and told him, “Come on down here and we’ll put us a band together. We’ll get Parmley; he’s just driving a bus.”

That was the beginning of Continental Divide, a partnership that Scott and David Parmley kept intact for the next four years. Allen was only involved at the beginning, as Scott tells us that Harley’s songwriting career was picking up and he really didn’t want to travel much. Their sound had a decidedly Nashville vibe, intentionally seeking to mix bluegrass with contemporary country.

This was a time when Scott’s musical interests were expanding rapidly to include influences from a variety of styles and sounds. He recorded a solo project in ’92 called In Pursuit Of Happiness which merged all these new ideas on a single disc. There were very modern blues funk numbers side-by-side with Texas fiddle tunes and banjo classics. The banjo approach included all the styles he was experimenting with, roll-style, a Reno-esque single string style, and his fully-developed melodic style. His version of Earl Scruggs’ Ground Speed is a perfect example.

In 1996, Scott won the IBMA’s Banjo Player of the Year award, one he shared with Sammy Shelor.

While working with Doyle some years earlier, Vestal had begun working on his idea for a radically different banjo design. Its unique look and sound came partly by design, and partly by chance. In England he had seen a banjo where the 5th string was attached at the headstock with the others, and traveled through a tunnel cut in the neck until it emerged at the 5th fret. He was taken by the smooth contour of the neck and intrigued by not having a 5th string peg in the side of the neck interfering with his left hand movements.

The first neck he had made like this had a shorter scale than a standard 5 string banjo, requiring that he move the bridge in towards the center of the head in order to note true. Scott liked the darker, richer tone it generated, and he has played a banjo like this ever since. He markets them to banjo players worldwide as the Stealth Banjo. It is a distinctive part of his sound.

After he left Continental Divide, Scott worked from 1998 to 2003 with The John Cowan Band. Here he was able to stretch his creative wings and reach for new things on the banjo. John’s music was acoustic, but very progressive, plus he performed much of the material he had recorded with New Grass Revival. This was all right in Vestal’s wheelhouse. They even cut an acoustic version of Long Distance Runaround from ’70s English prog-rockers, Yes.

Scott kept his bluegrass sweet tooth sated while working with Cowan by producing and playing on a series of popular instrumental projects for Pinecastle, starting with one called Bluegrass ’95. This one started as a solo record for guitarist Clay Jones, but when he went to ground after it was finished Pinecastle called Scott to ask what they should do with the master. He suggested they put it out as a generic release and call it Bluegrass ’95. They did, and it was so well received that he created one each year for them through 2001.

The material on these CDs included jam session standards and original tunes, produced with a rotating cast of Nashville super pickers. All are still available from Pinecastle, including a pair of compilation albums they put together when the CDs went out of print a few years ago. Taken together, they were the most successful instrument albums Pinecastle ever had.

A couple of tracks from Bluegrass ’98 demonstrate the whimsy and respect that they showed on these projects. First, a tune Scott put together as G Runs and Scruggs Licks, which is just as described. Along with Aubrey Haynie, Wayne Benson, Jeff Autry, Mark Schatz, and Randy Kohrs, Vestal throws a bevy of stock phrases at the wall and ends up with this tune.

And this cut of Dear Old Dixie, a Dixieland classic that Earl Scruggs recorded in 1957 and now exists in the forefront of the bluegrass banjo canon. Listen as Scott lays down a note perfect rendition of Earl’s arrangement.

Midway through this Pinecastle series, Scott opened his own recording studio, Digital Underground, located now in Greenbrier, TN. Bluegrass ’99, 2000, and 2001 were tracked and mixed there. Today he records just about every type of music Nashville produces, including top bluegrass acts like Band Of Ruhks.

He left Cowan’s band in 2003, and worked with a number of groups, spending time with Rock County, doing some fill-in work with Longview, and free-lancing with Shawn Camp.

Then in 2006, just as he had released a record with his wife, Alice, a call came from Sam Bush. Vestal has been a member of The Sam Bush Band ever since. Most of his performance energy has gone there, though he was featured playing banjo on Dwight Yoakam’s recent bluegrass record, Swimming Pools, Movie Stars.

In a bit of cosmic timing, he is finishing up a new instrumental project now which he hopes can be released later this year or early next. It will be more like his most recent solo album, Millenia, released in 2000, than the Bluegrass series for Pinecastle, i.e., on the progressive side of banjo music.

Speaking of his most recent honoree, Steve Martin tells us that they had Scott in mind each year since the award was launched in 2010.

“Scott has always been shortlisted and this year was his year. He’s a great melodious player with chops a mile wide.”

Each time it came up in conversation, Vestal’s response was the same… “It’s still kind of shocking.”

He says that his Bush bandmate Stephen Mougin accurately summed up his plans for the cash award. Someone came up to Mougin at RockyGrass and said, “I bet Scott will be buying a bunch of fancy new microphones with that money,” and he replied, “No. He’ll be paying for school for those kids!”

Congratulations Scott Vestal. A true innovator on the five string banjo and one of the most creative players we’ve yet seen.

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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.