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Arts & Music

Florida banjo picker wins $50,000 Steve Martin award

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 01:42 PM

For Mark Johnson, playing the banjo is a great stress reliever.

The director of Levy County's emergency operations plays the instrument mostly on the weekends and evenings. He's a familiar face locally, playing at clubs, including Skipper's Smokehouse.

So imagine his surprise when he learned his blazingly-fast banjo skills earned him the third annual Steve Martin Excellence in Banjo Award.

"I just dropped to my knees when I read the letter and the check fell out," said Johnson, recalling the day a FedEx driver delivered the envelope with the news and a $50,000 check. "She thought I was having a heart attack."

Created by funnyman and actor Steve Martin, the banjo award is given for excellence in banjo and bluegrass music. Martin, who formed his own bluegrass band called The Steep Canyon Ranchers, won a Grammy last year in the best Bluegrass Album category for his banjo album, "The Crow/New Songs for the Five-String Banjo."

Johnson, 57, is the third winner of the award. He also receives a bronze sculpture created for award recipients by artist Eric Fischl.

The award, which is voted on by a board of bluegrass greats such as Bela Fleck, Tony Trischka, Alison Brown and J.D. Crowe, is funded by the Steve Martin Charitable Foundation.

A New York native now living in Ocala, Johnson got hooked on the banjo when he was 15, listening to Flat & Scruggs "World of Bluegrass."

"The song was so infectious, it was like a telegraph coming through to me that wouldn't stop," said Johnson, whose CD "Acoustic Rising" with Emory Lester was nominated for the International Bluegrass Association's best instrumental album in 2007. "It became a record for me to express myself."

Johnson saved his money as a newspaper boy and bought his first banjo in 1970.

He even developed his own style, which he calls "clawgrass," a hybrid that utilizes the clawhammer/dropthumb method.

An avid fan of Martin's, Johnson saw him perform in concert at the University of Northern Colorado with John Prine and John Hartford.

In 2009, Martin invited Johnson to his home for dinner, where the two talked bluegrass music and played banjo together.

"We jammed for five hours," Johnson said. "I used to follow him around back in the 70s, and here I was sitting on his coach having dinner with him and playing the banjo. We're banjo geeks; we just love the instrument."

Cricket Larsen, host of a Saturday morning bluegrass show on 88.5, WMNF-FM, said Johnson is very deserving of the award. "It's about time he got this recognition," Larsen said. "He's one of the best banjo players I've ever had the pleasure of listening to."

Johnson will appear with Steve Martin on "The Late Show with David Letterman" on Monday, and the two will jam.

"This is like a lightening bolt hitting me," said Johnson. "I am absolutely humbled by this. Winning an award is one thing; what you do with it, that's another thing. I'm going to do a lot with this."


ccabrera@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7656

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