Banjo virtuoso Mark Johnson to play MerleFest

By Derek Halsey (

Article Published: Apr. 24 | Modified: Apr. 27
Banjo virtuoso Mark Johnson to play MerleFest

2012’s Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass Music winner Mark Johnson will perform this weekend at MerleFest.

Photo submitted

Beginning Thursday, April 24, MerleFest will again take roots music lovers on a four-day ride in nearby Wilkesboro.

With more than 130 artists performing on 13 stages, this year’s lineup once again follows the musical path of the late Doc Watson, as in music he described as “traditional-plus.”

Some of the featured artists at the festival include Merle Haggard, Alan Jackson performing his bluegrass show, Sam Bush, Old Crow Medicine Show, Donna the Buffalo, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Scythian, Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott, Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice, Ricky Skaggs, Dr. Ralph Stanley, Peter Rowan, Della Mae, Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen, Jerry Douglas, The Waybacks, the Lonesome River Band and many more.

Performing on both Friday and Saturday will be banjo great Mark Johnson. Johnson is known for his unique style of playing the five-string, called clawgrass, where he uses the Earl Scruggs three-finger approach to the banjo, while blending in the clawhammer technique of playing the instrument, as well.

A few years ago, actor, comedian and musician Steve Martin created the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass Music. In 2012, Johnson won the prize, its $50,000 payday and performed on “The Late Show with David Letterman” with his long-time collaborator, Emory Lester, and Martin.

Johnson’s first album was appropriately called “Clawgrass,” and on it he is backed by the Rice Brothers, featuring the late Larry Rice, Wyatt Rice, Ronnie Rice and the new International Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Fame inductee, the legendary Tony Rice.

About the time that “Clawgrass” was released, Johnson found himself in North Carolina, hanging out with Asheville resident, TV host and musician David Holt. It proved to be a time when Johnson learned first-hand how unique his style of playing was compared to what others were doing with the instrument.

“When I did the album, ‘Clawgrass,’ with the Rice Brothers and friends in 1994, the guys that wrote the liner notes for that album were David Holt, Jay Unger and Tony Rice,” Johnson said. “In the late 1990s, David invited me up to Mount Airy, N.C. When I got up to Mount Airy to meet David, he was going around with a film crew from the University of North Carolina. He was filming with them, and he said, ‘Mark, go and enjoy yourself a little bit. We’ll meet back here at a certain time.’

“So, I took my banjo and started walking around, and I heard this big jam going on in this one area. The people were really rocking and making this cool sound. I went in there and pulled my banjo out and starting playing what I play. I started getting all kinds of looks, and not good ones. People started closing their cases up and walking away and stopped playing. I broke the whole jam up. What I was doing was I was picking leads with my clawhammer style, taking breaks and playing loud. I was like, ‘Man, what did I do? What happened? What have I done?’”

Eventually, Holt found his way to Johnson and heard about his unintentional jambusting.

“I walked back and waited for David to come by, and he asked, ‘Well, did you have a good time?’” Johnson recalled. “I told him what happened, and he said, ‘O-o-oh. You went to that end of the field. That is where the preservationists play, all of the people that want to preserve the sound of old-time music. You’re not old-time, Mark. You have your own sound.’

“He was one of the first guys to tip me off on that. Then, David said, ‘You should go down to the other end of that field down there.’ There, bluegrass bands were picking away, and I fit right in. But that is when I first realized I was doing something different, because, up until then, I thought I was playing old-time music. That was my first exposure to it, because I started getting out. I never really went to an old-time festival. It was funny. Not to put it down, because I love it. I’m fascinated by old-time music. It’s just not what I do.”

At MerleFest, Johnson will take part in the all-star BanjoRama Jam, which will happen on Friday at the Creekside Stage at 3:30 p.m. and again on Saturday at the Creekside Stage at 2:45 p.m. He will also perform with Emory Lester on the Cabin Stage at 1:45 p.m. and on the Traditional Stage at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, and he will host a clawgrass workshop at the Cohn Auditorium at 11:45 a.m.

For tickets and more information, visit More information on Mark Johnson can be found at

Additional Images

2012’s Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass Music winner Mark Johnson will perform this weekend at MerleFest.
Photo submitted

From left, Mark Johnson and Emory Lester will perform this weekend at MerleFest in Wilkesboro.
Photo submitted

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