Watching Kristin Scott Benson on stage with The Grascals, it’s easy to imagine her as the shy and retiring type. She rarely if ever speaks, and doesn’t often even smile. Just a little lady and her banjo quietly driving the band forward song after song.
But when you get a chance to speak with her, it becomes quickly evident that this banjo gal is possessed of a sharp and agile mind, and that she has plenty to say about the banjo and bluegrass music – and about life in general. Don’t let the stage persona throw you.
One half of the Scott/Benson bluegrass power couple – husband Wayne plays mandolin with IIIrd Tyme Out – Kristin has worked out a way to mix motherhood with a full time touring schedule, far from the craziness of Nashville where her band is based. They moved back to Carolina when their son, Hogan (now 9), was born to be closer to both Kristin and Wayne’s parents, who are a big time help when both of his parents are gone every weekend.
We reached out to Kristin last week when word slipped out about the impending release of her next solo album, Stringworks, from Mountain Home Music. It’s now been 7 years since the last project from this 4-time winner of the IBMA’s Banjo Player of the Year award, and when we asked why the delay, her answer was characteristically to the point.
“I don’t do a record often, and when I do I look at them as musical snapshots, where I am at these different times in my career. I guess it was time again to let people know where I am these days.
The instrumentals I write, they come off and on, but once I had enough material, I realized, hey… I’ve got an album here.
The vocal material is a nice cross section of my tastes, what I’m into. It’s not that I set out to make a new banjo record, it’s just that I seemed to finally have enough songs.”
Stringworks breaks down as half instrumental, and half vocal, as records from pickers tend to go these days. Kristin was kind enough to share a few words about each of the songs to offer a little tease in anticipation of its release.
“When Fall Comes To New England – Claire Lynch sings this one. As soon as I heard this song, I knew I wanted to record it, but that it wouldn’t be a Grascals song. It’s from singer/songwriter Cheryl Wheeler. One of my students (Luke Smith, with Ash Breeze) wanted to learn it and brought it in to his lesson.
What is so much fun about solo projects is being able to hand pick the singers for the songs that you love. I knew that Claire would be perfect for this song so I emailed and asked if she would, and she was very gracious and said yes.
All I Want Is You – I found this on an old Flatt & Scruggs live tape. The song featured Lester singing, not Earl on the banjo, but I loved playing it as an instrumental, just for fun. I thought about recording it as an instrumental, but it wasn’t an instrumental. I thought maybe the only person I knew that could sing it was Chris Jones. Chris is so knowledgeable about the music, and he was familiar with the original.
I take the longest banjo solo imaginable on this song – I jokingly call it my War and Peace solo.
Sink or Swin – This one was written by Grant Williams. We went to college together at Belmont. Mickey Harris sings it and he did a great job. Initially I thought it might be a Grascals song, but it ended up here.
You Climb Over The Cross – Becky Buller and Guy Stephenson wrote this one. When I heard this one I immediately thought of Shawn Lane. Blue Highway is maybe my favorite modern (new) bluegrass band. I don’t really know Shawn all that well, so I was delighted when he said yes.
Foggy Mountain Top – This old Carter Family number is very special to me. My grandfather was half of a brother duet style act called Whitey and Hogan. I have a cassette tape from a live show early in their career at WBT singing this one. John and El from The Grascals sing it. The track starts with the duet with my grandfather, and also ends with the radio outro from the early ’40s. You so rarely get a chance to experience your grandparents as young people, much less perform with them in the studio.
Till The Day Breaks – Grant Williams again. He sings it to end the record. I was honored to use Sonny Osborne’s old six string Vega banjo on this one. He asked me after I recorded with it if the wider bridge spacing had fouled up my right hand like it did his back in the day, but it really didn’t since this is a slow, different kind of song.”
Kristin said that she chose husband Wayne Benson to play mandolin, Cody Kilby on guitar, Tim Surret on bass, and Adam Haynes and Jim VanCleve on fiddle. They managed to cut all the rhythm tracks in one day, with some fixes the next, before starting to capture the various vocalists. Given the busy schedules of all these top players, they didn’t really have much choice.
For the instrumental tracks, the album includes a mix of original tunes with one standard.
“I wrote four myself – sort of a nice representation of what I like. Some straight grass, and a couple touchy-feely ones. And there’s always got to be a standard. I always think of my dad… if he walks up to a record table to look at a banjo record, he’s going to look right away for a standard banjo tune he can use to compare a player to the greats. So I played Farewell Blues.
Bill Emerson gave me a song of his that he had never recorded, Locust Grove. I think that Bill is one of the best writers of banjo tunes and I was proud that he offered me one of them for this record.”
She also said that there was a concerted effort to give this new project its own distinctive flair.
“We didn’t want it to sound like a Grascals record because… what’s the point? Mickey Gamble and Tim Surrett with Crossroads strongly urged me to look for songs that wouldn’t be meant for Grascals stage shows, and I agreed completely. To me, a solo record is about revealing whatever musical personality you have that doesn’t show up in the band setting. It’s a chance to show a more complete picture.
A solo record is an indulgence – a chance to be so individualistic that it would be selfish to force this sort of choices on a band. Plus it lets you reach out to people you don’t normally perform with, and in my case to reach back to the ’40s as well.”
Look for Stringworks from Kristin Scott Benson on Mountain Home Music July 22.