The Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass

Noam Pikelny has been named the recipient of the inaugural Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass. This annual award, determined by a panel of expert judges, carries with it a cash prize of $50,000 and an exclusive bronze sculpture designed by Eric Fischl.

Noam is every inch the epitome of the standards announced for this honor.

The recipients should be a person or group who has given us a fresh appreciation of this music, either through artistry, composition, innovation or preservation. They should be professional or semi-professional, should be currently active in their careers and deserving of a wider audience.

Funding for this award comes from Steve Martin Charitable Foundation, and Steve has been the spearhead for this project. He assembled a board of recognized banjo experts, which includes Earl Scruggs, Pete Wernick, Tony Trischka, Anne Stringfield, Alison Brown, Neil V. Rosenberg, Béla Fleck and Martin himself.

Pete Wernick explained a bit about how the selection process worked:

“Steve conducted this by way of emails mostly, and a few phone calls. The board was carefully and slowly chosen and then Steve would address the board about the nature of the prize and its goals. The statements about the prize and even the letterhead stationery was discussed in some detail. With that all in place, he solicited names, and some of us suggested names and we all discussed those by email, and came to our decision by consensus.”

Noam’s career has been primarily on the progressive side of the bluegrass ledger. He had stints as a member of Leftover Salmon and The John Cowan Band before emerging as a member of Chris Thile’s recent aggregations which, despite almost identical personnel, have been known variously as Tensions Mountain Boys, How To Grow A Band, and finally Punch Brothers.

Pikelny displays a proficiency and artistry on the banjo that sets him apart from both its current practitioners, and the instrument’s historical masters. But he has never been inclined to diminish or overlook the music of the forefathers of 3 finger banjo, and is equally adept at more traditional styles of playing.

Martin is well pleased with the selection of Pikelny for the prize.

“Since getting involved in today’s bluegrass scene, I have been impressed with the overall level of musicianship that exists in the world of the professional and semi-professional player. Now, the skill sets of bluegrass artists rivals those of classical and jazz musicians and it’s time the world notices it. Noam exemplifies the best of those players.”

Here are a couple of videos that demonstrate Noam’s mastery across these many genres.

No encomium for Pikelny would be complete without reference to his quick wit and dry sense of humor. His introductions and monologues are always a highlight of the Punch Brothers show, and his self-deprecating manner makes him a hard man to dislike.

Much of that is on display in this episode of ChapTV, shot with Jeremy Chapman during the 2008 IBMA convention.

Noam has a solo CD, In The Maze, from Compass Records.

50,000 congratulations to Noam Pikelny for this prestigious award! And kudos to Steve Martin for choosing to honor the banjo and its devotees in this way.

UPDATE 3:30 p.m. – I just heard from Noam, and as you would expect, he was blown away by the news.

“I am so honored. I didn’t know that this award existed. You can imagine my surprise at opening the letter yesterday. Steve and the board of directors (which reads like a list of my musical heroes) have established something really special for the banjo and bluegrass. They deserve to be commended…

This prize will fuel creativity and inspiration amongst acoustic musicians. I’m humbled to be the first recipient.”

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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.