One Hundred Banjos and the People Who Love Them

Camp led by bluegrass bigwigs culminates in a public concert

Kristin Scott Benson holds a unique spot in banjo royalty.

Kristin Scott Benson was the 2018 recipient of the Steve Martin Award for Excellence in bluegrass and banjo. She’s a four-time International Bluegrass Music Association’s “Banjo Player of the Year” designee and a member of the Grammy-nominated bluegrass band The Grascals. She’s performed for two U.S. presidents and graced the iconic stage of the Grand Ole Opry so many times that she can’t keep track, except to say “a hundred plus, for sure.” Benson is also an instructor at the upcoming Blue Ridge Banjo Camp in Brevard, organized by legendary musician Béla Fleck. The camp will host a show with performers including Benson, Fleck, Tony Trischka, Noam Pikelny, and Alan Munde.

Tell me about the Banjo Camp concert.

It’s definitely the culmination of the experience. Last year was my first year, and I didn’t know what Béla had in mind. It exceeded my expectations, showcasing a really wide range of styles and genres. 

Béla is an eclectic artist. I don’t know how many Grammys he’s won. The performance is like that, very diverse and something for everyone, while exposing them to lots of different things. My dad is a diehard traditional bluegrass fan, and he loved it and was engaged the whole time. At the end everyone got up there, over a hundred players. The crowd response was overwhelming.

A hundred banjos! Had you ever experienced such a sound?

No, and they weren’t just clanging. They were all very well-trained and practiced players. 

Like a banjo symphony or choral music?

Yeah, I had never experienced anything like that.

Who’s the ideal candidate for banjo camp?

Camp is for anyone who plays and loves banjo. It’s not for beginners, but everyone else, and we make sure each student encounters all the main banjo styles. You get to work with each teacher about twice, and each of us teaches different things, to enhance [students’] understanding of the instrument.

But how did you learn to teach, which is a whole different skill?

Two things have helped me get better: One is experience and just doing it so many hours each week, with a large variety of students who learn in different ways. The second ingredient is a real desire to see these people succeed. You have to figure out ways to help them grow and get there, deciding to be good at this for their sake. 

Can you comment on your rather unique experience in a musical role historically occupied by men? There are women playing banjo, but they are generally celebrated as vocalists who happen to play banjo. 

It used to be rare to see women who were primarily instrumentalists in all-male bands. When I first started, I didn’t really realize that it was unusual: I was just so happy to have a job and be playing my banjo. It wasn’t until years later that I understood. But it has changed so much in recent years. In fact, it’s tough to find a new, up-and-coming [bluegrass] group who doesn’t have at least one woman. 

Kristin Scott Benson (www.ksbbanjo.com) joins special guests and headliner Béla Fleck for the Blue Ridge Banjo Concert (hosted by Mountain Song Productions and the Brevard Music Festival) at 7:30pm on Saturday, Aug. 17, at Brevard Music Center’s Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium. $20-$65. For concert tickets or for more information about the camp, happening Aug. 14-18, visit blueridgebanjocamp.com.

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