Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Some Gorgeous Banjo Playing (If You Can Believe It)

I hope that Ellen's alter ego won't be too upset with me if I say that it is quite rare that one describes banjo playing as "gorgeous." Driving, exciting, pounding -- those are the typical adjectives. (Also, clanging, jarring, annoying -- but let's not go down that path.)

Well, let me say that on Kristin Scott Benson's new CD Second Season, there is some really gorgeous banjo playing. She has an incredibly gentle and smooth touch. Listening to "Far Enough Away," one of the later tracks on the disc, I said, "Is that the mandolin? Is that a guitar?" But it was actually Kristin playing a graceful melody line on the banjo.

When Kristin Scott Benson won the International Bluegrass Music Award as banjo player of the year this year, I have to confess that this bluegrass DJ scratched his head and said, "Who?" It turned out that she had been playing with the Larry Stephenson Band for some time. (And in fact, once I knew that, I said, "Oh, yeah... I do remember some good playing on those discs.") She left that group in November, however, to join one of the hottest bluegrass bands out there, The Grascals (the 2006 and 2007 IBMA Entertainer of the Year winners), and it seems like a great move for her. (It also is great to have a woman playing as part of a leading bluegrass group. Rhonda Vincent and Dale Ann Bradley may be prominent bluegrass artists, but big name bands like Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder or The Infamous Stringdusters are all dudes.)

Just because her playing is gorgeous doesn't mean that it can't knock your socks off, too. "Don't Tread on Me," which kicks off the disc, is powerful bluegrass, and she hits top speed on "No Steering, No Breaks," too, which also features great work on guitar by Cody Kilby. (And her husband Wayne Benson plays delicious mandolin throughout the album.) But her nuanced playing on classics like "Sandy River Belle" and "Bugle Call Rag" are what really stand out.

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