Actor, comedian, writer, producer, and musician, Steve Martin, has played the banjo since 17 years of age, and John McEuen of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band fame played an important role in Martin success with the instrument. The two were friends in their youth, and John helped Steve become a serious picker at that time.
McEuen say that, “Steve and I used to work together at Disneyland.” There, McEuen was a magician, while Martin sold guidebooks and twirled lassos in Frontierland, as well as demonstrated his hand at magic tricks and balloon animals at Merlin’s Magic Shop. When Steve began his career as a stand-up comedian, he used the banjo as something of a stage prop, and would pick a bit during the show. However, it wasn’t until the 2000s that the banjo became a constant career companion for Martin, as he put his instrument at the forefront.
The year of 2001 was a huge year for Martin, as he recorded a remake of Foggy Mountain Breakdown, the standard from Earl Scruggs – with Earl joining in! Just one year later, Steve Martin won a Grammy for Best Country Musical Performance. In 2009 Martin once again brought home a Grammy with his first solo music album, The Crow – New Songs for the Five String Banjo, which was produced by McEuen.
Then in 2010, Martin created the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass Music. This award of achievement was conceived with the thought of bringing recognition to an individual or group for outstanding accomplishment with the five string banjo or in bluegrass music. The recipient of the award is given $50,000 (funded by Steve Martin Charitable Foundation), and a bronze sculpture created by Eric Fischl. The award has its own name…Banjo Hand. To be selected, the prize winner must show excellence in artistry, compositions, innovation, or preservation in banjo music. Up until 2015, the award was presented on The Late Show with David Letterman.
Martin was inducted into the American Banjo Museum Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, in 2015, for his playing and his promotion of the banjo.
In September 2019, the live presentation of the Steve Martin Prize will be resurrected. The American Banjo Museum has partnered with Martin, who will produce a live concert which will be the “apple” around the core of the presentation of the 2019 award winner. Martin has been quoted as saying…“We are so excited to be joining with the American Banjo Museum for the next era of the Banjo Prize.”
On September 19, 2019 at the Town Hall Theater in New York City (promoted by Live Nation), Martin will host a concert with live performances by past and present recipients, as well as Martin himself. Also on hand will be Martin’s Board of Directors who actually select the prize winner each year.
Previous winners of this prestigious award are : Noam Pikelny (2010), Sammy Shelor (2011), Mark Johnson (2012), Jens Kruger (2013), Eddie Adcock (2014), Danny Barnes (2015), Rhiannon Giddons (2016), Scott Vesal (2017), and in 2018, Kristen Scott Benson.
While the finishing touches are yet to be unveiled, you need to save the date… September 19th, the day the American Banjo Museum hands over the 2019 “banjo hand” and the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass Music. Tickets go on sale Memorial Day weekend.