Routes to Roots II: Wayne and Kristin Scott Benson
Performing in a major bluegrass band is a grueling business. In order to subsist as a bluegrass musician, a player is often on the road from Thursday through Sunday, frequently appearing at three different events placed hundreds or even thousands of miles apart. Typically, at a bluegrass festival, a band will perform two 45- or 50-minute sets, one in the afternoon, the other in the evening, plus spending time selling CDs and T-shirts at the merch table. There might be time to get something to eat before loading back into the bus to ride all night to the next venue. Improbably, this is the schedule sustaining a marriage between two of the finest and most recognized side musicians anywhere.
Wayne and Kristin Scott Benson are two of the most highly regarded side musicians in bluegrass. Each has been widely recognized within the profession and by fans as masters of the instrument they play as well as models of professionalism. Wayne describes having been around music all his life, with amateur musicians on both sides of his family. He remembers being given a Roy Rogers guitar for Christmas when he was seven and soon becoming obsessed with learning to play it. His father played banjo, fiddle, and guitar, which seems to have left the mandolin as an obvious alternative for Wayne to play. When his father, a building contractor, was paid a debt with a Harmony mandolin, he gave it to Wayne, saying, “This is not a toy,” spurring Wayne on to teach himself. Like many young bluegrass musicians, he attended festivals with his parents, soon meeting young tyros like guitarist Clay Jones, formerly of Mountain Heart. During this period, he also met 8- or 9-year-old Kristin Scott, who was half his age. They were reintroduced in Nashville some years later, and were married in 2000, after Kristin had graduated from college.
Wayne particularly mentions the influence of the late ’70s band Boone Creek, the first band led by Ricky Skaggs, which combined traditional with more progressive styles into a new and influential sound. He first played with the assertively progressive band Livewire in the late ’80s. He attended the first performance of IIIrd Tyme Out, which he describes as perhaps the first “super band,” at a festival in Dobson Creek, NC, in 1991 and joined them within weeks. Since then, with a three-year interruption to tour and record with the John Cowan Band, he has played with IIIrd Tyme Out for 23 years, becoming one of the dominant forces in the fusion of traditional and progressive mandolin styles. He was named SPBGMA Mandolin Player of the Year five consecutive times. Recently, Wayne released a duet album with fellow mandolin master Alan Bibey while continuing to tour with IIIrd Tyme Out, one of the most awarded bands in bluegrass history.
Kristin Scott, four-time IBMA Banjo Player of the Year, first became interested in the banjo after hearing Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver at a festival. While she had played trombone in her high school marching band, the banjo captured her imagination and fired her musical obsession. Fascinated by the process, she sees playing the banjo as “sort of like assembling a puzzle.” The pieces “by themselves aren’t very musical, but assembled correctly, they create the sound that affected me so intensely. It was addictive, and still is.” She describes her motivation to excel as being entirely internal, with no pressure from anyone else. She attended Belmont University in Nashville, where she majored in marketing with a minor in music business, graduating summa cum laude. Kristin reports that after she finished college, she encountered some pressure not to pursue professional performance, but there was little she could do to resist the pull. Her first professional job was with the Larry Stephenson Band, where she remained for seven years.
In 2008, Kristin joined the Grascals, Larry Nagle wrote in Bluegrass Unlimited, “[n]ot to front the band, not to sing, not to be eye candy, but instead to drive the group with her five string banjo. Until then, no woman had ever been hired to play one of the most defining of the bluegrass instruments in an A-list, festival-headlining, all-male band.” Since then, standing on the left end of this heralded band, Kristin’s banjo has provided the drive that only great banjo rolls can. Her musical versatility increases the range the band possesses, adding fine guitar playing and the occasional vocal lead or harmony. Her friendship with banjo great Sonny Osborne, whose Osborne Brothers band was one of the inspirations for the Grascals sound, was influential in helping find her the position. Her own instrumental brilliance placed her in a position to strengthen the band, which early in its history saw considerable turnover in personnel. Here she is playing Earl Scruggs’ “Bugle on the Banjo,” a version of what began as a big band jazz piece called “Bugle Call Rag” played by Benny Goodman in the 1930s, with the Grascals at Blistered Fingers Bluegrass Festival.
While each of their families provided exposure to the music, the Kristen and Wayne say their accomplishments come from a different place. Kristin says, “Without an intensely strong, internal desire, a person’s raw talent” would not emerge. Excellence requires a strong combination of innate talent, persistence, and encouragement. Wayne talks about about a combination of God-given talent and a deep love for the music combined with an obsession to excel. Both of them are people of deep religious faith, which informs their music and their lives in many ways. They maintain an involved family life as well as busy professional ones. The birth of their son, Hogan, prompted their return from Nashville to Kristin’s hometown of Boiling Springs, South Carolina, in order to involve her parents as caretakers when they are on the road. She credits that help with their ability to maintain their careers. But even with their child in good hands, each time they leave home for the road is a wrenching experience, Kristin says. Wayne talks lovingly about weekday fishing trips on their new bass boat with Hogan, for now an avid young fisherman seemingly uninterested in music.
Wayne and Kristin Scott Benson are widely known through their accomplishments as bluegrass musicians. Their musical interests and accomplishments, however, range far beyond bluegrass, reaching into jazz, progressive stringband music, swing, and more. Wayne, during our discussion, noted that playing with IIIrd Tyme Out has allowed him to merge his interests and styles through using the electric mandolin, the mandola, and the conventional mandolin in pieces regularly played by the band. Here he is with his own composition, “Spindale.”
Kristin often plays in the duet “Danielle’s Waltz,” written by Grascals’ mandolinist Danny Roberts, showing her own, more reflective side.
Kristin and Wayne rarely perform together, but here’s a sampler video showcasing Kristin in one of her studio recordings, called Stringworks, with Wayne on mandolin as well as other top artists.
This is Part II of an occasional series exploring the backgrounds of bluegrassers. You can read the first installment here.