The banjo to beat 

Mark Johnson is the unassailable King of Clawgrass

Mark Johnson is a pioneer among contemporary American banjo players. Unlike his buddy Bela Fleck, whose music came to incorporate diverse elements of jazz, classical and world music, Johnson has always stayed within shouting distance of traditional bluegrass – but there’s an elegant melodicism to his playing, and turns of phrase, rhythm and feeling that invoke the spirit of folk, country and old–time string band music.

Acoustic Rising, his 2006 recording with multi–instrumentalist Emory Lester, was nominated for Instrumental Album of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association.

Johnson and Lester perform a “hot–pickin’ duo show” (Johnson’s words) Saturday, Dec. 3 at Randy Wood Guitars in Bloomingdale.

The 56–year–old musician plays clawhammer banjo, which differs from the standard “Scruggs–style” finger–picking technique in the way the movement of thumb, fingers and wrist are combined in rhythmic patterns. Johnson calls his music “Clawgrass.”

Said acoustic music legend Herb Pedersen: “He has brought to the world of bluegrass a gentle reminder of where this all came from. Mark is truly musical. His phrasing and timing are impeccable, and let’s not forget the TONE we keep hearing about.”

A New York native, Johnson studied briefly with Jay Unger before moving to Colorado in his 20s. There he frequently caught concerts by John Hartford, John McEuen and standup comedian Steve Martin – all of whom were first–order clawhammer banjo players.

In 1981 he relocated to West Central Florida, and made fast friends with flat–top acoustic guitar master Tony Rice and his brother Larry, himself a legendary figure on the mandolin.

Johnson is Director of Emergency Management for Levy County – a low–lying coastal area of Florida prone to hurricanes, floods, tornadoes and wildfires.

All of which keeps him plenty busy.

Day job

“I have a lot of responsibility. I’m the guy that evacuates a county, that gives the order to do that, and that can really cause some heartache for people. I’m always, in my mind, ‘God I wish I could play all the time, full time,’ and then I see people out there ... especially the way the economy’s going over the last three years ... I see big–name people struggling, trying to keep their heads above water. I’m a big–picture guy, and I just try to keep it in perspective. I teach a lot, and I’m about to do my second How to Play Clawgrass Banjo DVD. I’m blessed in a lot of ways, and I don’t want to throw away gifts for silly reasons.”

Steve Martin

“I didn’t realize that he was a fan of mine. I started getting these embossed cards in the mail, saying ‘I can’t believe how beautifully you play.’ He invited me up to New York City at Christmas ‘09 to give him a lesson, and he and his lovely wife had a big party with me as the guest of honor. We had dinner the first night, and we sat for almost five hours, just playing – he was so fascinated with what I do, and I said ‘Well, Steve, you’re just hearing an echo of yourself,’ and I explained the whole connection there. The next night, at the party, Kevin Kline was there, and Martin Short, and Paul Simon showed up. Meryl Streep couldn’t make it. Emory drove down from Toronto, and we put on a concert, did quite well, and then Paul Simon came over and picked a tune with all of us. It was a lot of fun. Whenever you see Steve out with the Steep Canyon Rangers, he’s got an open–back banjo with a really ornate peghead – that’s the Mark Johnson Deering Clawgrass model banjo. So we’re friends, and it’s all based in banjo.”

The Rice Brothers

“I wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for Tony and Larry. Those guys took me under their musical wings when I moved to Florida in ’81. For me, that was like lightning hitting in a thousand places in one shot. That was my rhythm section, that was my influence. Especially Tony – I had no stage experience, no microphone experience, no recording experience, and he took me out on the road with the Tony Rice Unit. He would always put me on his left shoulder, second set, fifth and sixth tune. If Tony saw me choking up, or just getting tight, he’d lean over and start cracking jokes in my ear, and I’d get back into the music. What he was doing was teaching me, training me. And I really owe it to him.”

Coming soon

“I think I finally got my first big break in this business! Last week, I got contacted by this big advertising firm. They’re taking my solo tune, ‘Down By the River to Pray’ from Acoustic Rising, and putting it into a Dodge Caravan commercial. Of course, I didn’t write it, but I’ve got the publishing on my arrangement. And Emory and I are in the studios again, getting ready to do a fourth album.”

Mark Johnson and Emory Lester

Where: Randy Wood Guitars, 1304 E. U.S. 80, Bloomingdale

When: At 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3

Tickets: $23 at randywoodguitars.com

Artist’s website: clawgrass.com


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About The Author

Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung was Connect's Arts & Entertainment Editor from May 2009 to August 2014.

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