barnes/banjo honors

Congratulations to Danny Barnes on winning the coveted Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass. No one could more deserve the recognition and the money ($50,000). First I heard, over the weekend, I was at a bluegrass gig and a couple people were buzzing about it. I ran home and googled excitedly, then texted Danny my elation.

The board's decision to honor him speaks well of it. No banjoist has been more adventurous in exploring the outer limits of the instrument (harmony, repertoire, environmental setting), and I can't think of any who have been remotely as interested as Danny in melding banjo and modern machine tools, mainly the laptop computer. He's an artistic genius who follows his heart happily and resolutely, which has now and then stupefied and stumped his natural audience and shrunken his purse. In short, an artist like this and an award like this are ideally matched.

The notable diversity and undisputed excellence of banjoists who have won the prize since it was established in 2010 -- Sammy Shelor, Noam Pikelny, Mark Johnson, Jens Kruger, Eddie Adcock -- bespeak terrific judgment as well as a commendable indifference to status, contemporaneity, and prominence within the scene (a scene, I might note, with a lot of pretty-good players and style vultures). As Barnes remarked in a post-award interview, "Bluegrass is an underground music, and I'm even deeper underground." This is a good occasion to celebrate that the living world around us holds truly dynamic artistic pathbreakers as well as organizations lean and smart enough to shed some light on them, and well-financed enough to ease their load substantially. (MacArthur fellowship next for Danny!)