In 1981, at the age of five, Kristin Scott played mandolin for family and friends at home, even as she learned about circles and squares in kindergarten at Foster Park Elementary School in Union, South Carolina. Nothing unusual about that in her family, or in the region. Her father, Fred, played mandolin and guitar; her mother, Carolyn, gave support. Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and Don Reno’s records played on her mom’s record player. But the unique inspiration for Kristin was her maternal grandfather, Arvil Hogan, who played professional music with a group called the Briarhoppers, a country and bluegrass band whose home base was Charlotte’s 50,000-watt radio station, WBT. The band featured the Decca Record Company’s singing team, Arval and Whitey Grant.
Arval Hogan was born in Andrews, North Carolina, near the Smoky Mountains, Lake Chogie, and the Nantahala River in the southwestern corner of the state, a place tempered by thousands of years of limestone; the charm and heartbreak of the Cherokee Indians; the sounds of dulcimers, guitars, fiddles, and banjos; long winter nights where families and neighbors played music, sang old-time ballads and hymns, and learned vocal harmonies together. Songs and instrumentals were handed down. Playing string instruments was so common that few thought of it as a special gift. In these mountains and valleys, long before Kristin Scott was born, Arval Hogan was nurtured, made whole by the music, character, and religion of these up-country folks. As she explained in an unpublished interview in Nashville with the author in October 2005, Grandpa Hogan had told her many times, as she packed up her mandolin and tagged along with the Briarhoppers to bluegrass festivals, that her life’s work should be doing something she enjoyed and all else would work out. This message and its underlying philosophy became a central focus of her life.
Appalachia and its eastern plateaus produced artists who were the best friends banjos ever had. From Lexington, Kentucky, there was J.D. Crowe; Don Reno from Spartanburg, South Carolina; and Sonny Osborne of Hyden, Kentucky. And, of course, Earl Scruggs from Shelby, North Carolina. In 1934, at the age of ten, Scruggs played a three-finger style that revolutionized banjo picking and bluegrass music as it is known and played today throughout the world—music from the roots of white, rural working folks, a social corollary to jazz and blues produced by Southern blacks like the Mississippi delta’s Robert Johnson. Scruggs’ banjo compositions, led by “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” his mastery of tone, timing, innovation, and rhythm earned him a revered position in Americana music, a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, the adulation of millions of fans and imitators. So Bela Fleck is from New York City, Scott Vestal is from Oklahoma, and Alison Brown’s jazz-tinged banjo licks were picked up in California; but Scruggs, known all over the world, is their hero, too.
Now comes Kristin Scott Benson, voted the 2008 Banjo Player of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association. She is the 32-year-old wife of world-renowned mandolinist Wayne Benson and mother of two-year-old Hogan. Her adult life has been an extension of days on the road, weekends and summers roaming the friendly grounds of bluegrass festivals playing mandolin on stage with her grandfather, Arval. She has been a member of the Larry Stephenson Band; part-time member of Larry Cordle’s band, Lonesome Standard Time; studio musician on Tom T. Hall’s CD for Blue Circle Records, Tom T. Hall Sings Miss Dixie & Tom T; and in November 2008, she became a member of the award-winning Grascals and will travel with them for their 2009 gigs.
At the age of 13, she took up the banjo, played the old Scruggs’ tunes over and over, and never looked back. She was the girl-next-door who played sports, rode four-wheelers, earned academic honors at Union High School, and found playing banjo with friends and solo lessons fun. Benson became so enthralled by the excitement of learning the banjo that her parents often suggested she spent too much time at it.
By 15, she was playing professionally with the Harmony Express. As a senior at Union High, she played in a gospel band, then professionally withPetticoat Junction and the Larry Stephenson Band all the while earning a bachelor’s in marketing, summa cum laude, from Belmont University in Nashville. Benson toured with Sally Jones, Laurie Lewis, and Larry Cordle to Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, France, Luxembourg, and Italy. In the spring of 2006, she taught at East Tennessee State University as an adjunct faculty member in their esteemed Bluegrass Music Program. Her fellow band mates told of her courage and spirit of adventure. These words from Kristin’s eulogy for Arval Hogan, 92, at his funeral in 2003 give insight into Benson’s appreciation of the region’s musical heritage and her own:
Playing music often creates many special and beloved memories and Whitey and Hogan are blessed with great stories. Whitey recently recalled a show in Greenville, South Carolina, when Hogan forgot his mandolin. Luckily, they were playing with Bill Monroe, so Hogan borrowed Mr. Monroe’s mandolin that evening. At another show in Lexington, Kentucky, with Flatt and Scruggs, Whitey and Hogan were thrilled to meet their heroes, the Delmore Brothers. They were also happy to have Earl Scruggs as a guest on their set to play banjo on one of their popular tunes of that time “Jesse James.”
Benson’s second CD for Pinecastle, Second Season, is her best studio work yet. As producer, song selector, and primary musician, the organic nature of her work is apparent through the 12 tracks. Although the sounds are modern, recorded on fine equipment, mixed at a high-tech studio, and performed in good taste, a natural evolution of ancient tones that could only come through the soul of a person cognizant of the heritage of mountain music are laid down in these tunes. Benson knows the difference between art that will be preserved in the Smithsonian Institution, recognized by the National Heritage of the Arts, honored by peers in professional associations, and music done primarily for money or novelty. Listeners looking for raucous, gutbucket sounds, off-the-wall tuning, or corny pieces like “Whoa, Mule, Whoa” from the days of buskers and minstrel shows will not find them in her repertoire.
Four of the tunes were composed by Benson. “Trying Times,” inspired by a family situation, is built upon an introduction that invokes empathy. A story without lyrics, Benson’s banjo is complemented by each musician’s take on the story with bluesy notes, their parts blended seamlessly into the whole. “Freedom Park,” named after Charlotte’s 98-acre park of trails, sports’ fields, trees, scenery, is one listeners can whistle and is bound to be covered by other artists. This bouncing tune evokes thoughts of children laughing, people playing and sharing a moment of respite in nature, apart from screaming expressways and hot city sidewalks. Played with a fast tempo, it has a touching melody that builds up to a feeling of warmth as mandolin, guitar, fiddle blend to complete the musical scene. When Benson reached back to one of Earl Scruggs’ classic tunes, she chose one Scruggs plucked away from the Big Band era of World War II when swing music was popular. “Bugle Call Rag,” often performed by Glenn Miller and Cab Calloway, written by Jack Pettis, is played with smoking fervor, straight- ahead banjo made real by Benson—not a copy of Scruggs’ version, but renderedwith her personal melodic touch including muted strings that call for reveille, an all-American riff.
One of Nashville’s premier songwriters, Larry Cordle, vocalizes in a Dylan- like style on a plaintive, unresolved love song, “Something ’Bout You.” Benson controls the banjo from the song’s smooth, clean kickoff throughout as a lead instrument, like a fiddle or mandolin. The song’s message and vocal rendition could complement the soundtrack of a Hollywood romance. “Gospel Way,” with lead vocals from Larry Stephenson, is a fast-moving spiritual delivered with fervor in the Southern tradition of worship made joyous. Josh Williams sings lead vocal on the song. “No Southern Comfort” adds the obligatory melancholy lyrics about lost love. The song is replete with sweet harmonies, Southern magnolias, and dreams of the old Dixie Highway. It gives Benson a chance to display her superb backup banjo skills, executed as well as those of J.D. Crowe. “Scottish Hornpipe,” a difficult tune to play on banjo, will remind listeners of an Irish pub with dark wood, men smoking pipes, dart games, and fellowship. Another tune easy to whistle was written by Bill Emerson, a musician’s musician. “No Steering, No Brakes” moves as fast as a Porsche up a twisting two-lane blacktop in the Cumberland Mountains—fast, clean, with distinct melodies, powerful notes complement the adventure. Other tunes include “Far Enough Away,” a Benson composition played with a gentle touch—a sleepy, melancholy song that would not be out of place at a wedding or in a child’s room at bedtime. “Don’t Tread On Me,” “Imagine That,” and “Sandy River Belle” complete the disc.
Benson is accompanied by talented musicians Shad Cobb, Mickey Harris, David Grier, Sally Jones, Cody Kilby, Andy Todd, Jim Van Cleve, and Josh Williams.
Second Season is a solid, diverse CD. The collection focuses on Benson’s strengths and her coming of age as an artist, yet it is a treat to listeners who look for something in addition to instrumental prowess. The tracks offer diversity with quality songs and instrumentals fresh to aficionados of bluegrass and beyond. With vocal numbers included at unpredicted intervals, Second Season is a favorite on bluegrass radio playlists, and the tunes attract attention at live shows. Benson’s good taste and ability to capture classy musical goals that have evolved since she began playing at age five have come to life in Second Season. With attention to tradition and personal heritage, she has traveled unimpeded from the bluegrass roots of her childhood to contemporary bluegrass and Americana music.
Editor’s note: This story was submitted to LikeTheDew by the author and published originally in the Appalachian Journal – A Regional Studies Review (VOLUME 36, NUMBERS 1-2; Appalachian State University). To find out more about Kristin Scott Benson and listen to some of her music, you can find her on Facebook, MySpace, Amazon, and YouTube.