Steve Martin on Sammy Shelor

Steve MartinWe reported on Tuesday that Sammy Shelor had been selected as the 2011 recipient of the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass Music. This is the second year that Martin has endowed this $50,000 annual award, which is meant to recognize the very best artists currently working as banjoists.

The prize winner is chosen by a board of knowledgeable banjophiles, most of them notable pickers. The 2010 award went to Noam Pikelny of Punch Brothers.

Earlier today, we caught up with Steve, who shared a few words about this year’s honoree. I asked him what about Sammy brought him to their attention, and led them to choose him in a unanimous vote.

“Everyone on the board was aware of not only Sammy’s great talent on the banjo, his influence on other players, but also his long dedication to Lonesome River Band. The one thing the award is not is an ‘old master’ award. We like active players who are in the daily struggle of creating music.

We kept the same board as last year who, with some exceptions, are among the top names in bluegrass: Earl Scruggs, Pete Wernick, Tony Trischka, Anne Stringfield, Alison Brown, Neil V. Rosenberg, Béla Fleck and myself. Anne Stringfield is my wife, who was instrumental in creating the award. She also represents the one board member who is a ‘fan’ and not a player.”

Steve wanted to clarify that there is no way for anyone to apply for this award, nor submit a name for consideration. He said that the selection board keeps their ears to the ground, and intentionally casts a wide net looking for both obvious and less well-known candidates.

“The award is young, but it does get mentioned in the wider press, mostly in promotional stories when we (meaning the Steep Canyon Rangers and myself) tour. The television exposure for Noam and now for Sammy on the David Letterman show is outstanding. I’m glad to be in a position to get the winners on television and grateful to the Letterman show’s open mindedness toward bluegrass.

This year’s larger spread in the New York Times was thrilling for us as it spread the gospel of bluegrass and Sammy Shelor that much wider. When a band that is unknown to the larger audience goes on television and delivers first-rate bluegrass it is good for the music.”

The appearance by Steve and Sammy (plus LRB) on The Late Show with David Letterman is scheduled for November 3.

Regarding the aforementioned Steve Martin and Steep Canyon Rangers show…

“We plan to tour again next summer, and do isolated dates here and there to keep the show in shape. I’m dedicated to working with the Rangers, but we all feel it’s important for them to maintain a separate identity, which they have had no trouble doing, even in the context of the shows we do together.

I continue to write new music for the show.”

Kudos to Steve Martin for bringing both his prodigious talents and wider success in the entertainment world to bear on banjo and bluegrass music!

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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.