Five Master Banjoists Receive The Steve Martin Banjo Prize

Steve Martin knows banjo playing and works hard to keep the tradition alive, establishing an annual award given to players who excel on the instrument. This year, the Steve Martin Banjo Prize recipients, announced this week in a livestream, include players of a variety of style, including clawhammer, flatpicking, jazz-influenced and African American.

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The five award winners are Jake Blount, Catherine “BB” Bowness, Matthew Davis, Buddy Wachter and Gerry O’Connor, who will share this year’s $50,000 award equally. Martin introduced the virtual proceedings, which also included performances by all five 2020 awardees, plus Chris Thile, Dom Flemons, and Alison Brown with the Kronos Quartet. 

Steve Martin Banjo Prize winners 2020 (photo courtesy Deering Banjos)

Martin established the award in 2010, with an annual prize of $50,000 to be given annually for ten years to a banjo player of special merit. In true Steve Martin wit, he had originally given it a lofty title- the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass Music. Now shortened to the Steve Martin Banjo Prize as it moves into its second decade, he partnered with the FreshGrass Foundation, a San Francisco-based non-profit dedicated to preserving and promoting American roots music, and Compass Music, an indie label founded by banjoist Alison Brown and her husband, Garry West. The award will be given to a wider variety of players in many different styles, expanding beyond its original master bluegrass and old-time banjo playing focus.

Watch performances from the two of the winners below. Links to full performances of all winners can be seen on the Deering Banjos website.

The 2020 Steve Martin Prize winners are:

Jake Blount: Jake is a clawhammer banjoist and scholar specializing in the music of Black and indigenous communities. He highlights the experiences of queer people and people of color in his work, including his latest album, Spider Tales. clawhammer banjo player who focuses on old time music from African Americans.

Catherine “BB” Bowness: Born in New Zealand and trained at the New Zealand School of Music and University of North Carolina, Greensboro, Bowness is a member of Mile Twelve, which won Best New Artist at this year’s International Bluegrass Music Association awards. She is at the forefront of the current crop of young players reimagining the musical possibilities for Scruggs-style 5-string banjo.

Matthew Davis: At 21 years old, Davis is already one of his generation’s premier banjo players and composers, and a member of “chambergrass” band Westbound Situation and progressive bluegrassers Circus No. 9. He won the National Banjo Championship at age 17, studied jazz at University of Michigan, and has enrolled in seminary to train for priesthood.

Buddy Wachter: Widely regarded as the most influential 4-string banjo player of our time, Wachter has played more than 7,000 concerts to audiences in 130 countries and has introduced the instrument to some of the most remote parts of the globe as a cultural ambassador for the U.S. State Department.

Gerry O’Connor: Dublin, Ireland-based O’Connor has brought his unique tenor banjo style to places no other Irish banjo player has tread before, experimenting with elements from bluegrass to African to Asian and back to Irish again, all the while maintaining his signature sound. He has guested and toured with a long list of artists, including Joe Bonamassa, and played on the Lord of the Dance soundtrack.

Award winners are chosen by the prize’s board, which is comprised of original members Béla Fleck, Noam Pikelny, Tony Trischka, Pete Wernick, Alison Brown, and Anne Stringfield and this year expanded to include Deering Banjos CEO Jamie Deering, American Banjo Museum Executive Director Johnny Baier, International Bluegrass Music Association Executive Director Paul Schiminger, Berklee College of Music President Roger Brown, banjoist and banjo scholar Dom Flemons, previous Banjo Prize winner Kristin Scott Benson, FreshGrass Foundation founder and president and No Depression publisher Chris Wadsworth, and Compass Records Group co-founder Garry West.

Beginning in 2021, a prize of $25,000 will be awarded to one or more banjo players chosen by the Board of Directors of the Steve Martin Banjo Prize.

Previous winners of the award, originally called the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, are Victor Furtado (2019), Kristin Scott Benson (2018), Scott Vestal (2017), Rhiannon Giddens (2016), Danny Barnes (2015), Eddie Adcock (2014), Jens Kruger (2013), Mark Johnson (2012), Sammy Shelor (2011), and Noam Pikelny (2010).

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