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Dunnellon banjo player to play on Letterman with Steve Martin

Steve Martin and Mark Johnson, Levy County emergency management director and innovator of “clawgrass” style, will perform tonight on the Late Show with David Letterman.

Courtesy of Mark Johnson

Steve Martin and Mark Johnson, Levy County emergency management director and innovator of “clawgrass” style, will perform tonight on the Late Show with David Letterman.

DUNNELLON — During the week, Mark Johnson's life revolves in a realm far removed from his passion.

As the emergency management director in rural Levy County, his activities include reviewing flood maps, storm evacuation routes and all things involved with keeping the county's 40,000 residents safe during a disaster.

But when a FedEx truck pulled up to Johnson's Dunnellon home two weeks ago and dropped off an envelope, the passionate part of Johnson's life suddenly came into focus.

He opened the envelope, and a $50,000 check fell out, along with a letter informing him that he had won the prestigious Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Bluegrass and Banjo.

Johnson didn't even know he had been in the running for the award.

"It's a wonderful honor, but I honestly never dreamed I would ever be nominated, much less win it," Johnson said last week. "That's the kind of thing that's given to the great legends of the instrument."

While Johnson, 57, may lack the instant name recognition of banjo greats such as Earl Scruggs, Ralph Stanley and Don Reno, devotees of the stringed instrument have become thoroughly enamoured with the eloquent, melodic style Johnson has dubbed "clawgrass," a hybrid of bluegrass and old-time mountain-style clawhammer banjo.

Even Martin, a prodigious player who for years used the instrument as a part of his comedic stage act, thought enough of Johnson's distinctive style to seek him out for private lessons a while back. As a personal thanks, he and Johnson will perform together tonight on the Late Show with David Letterman.

Born and raised in upstate New York, Johnson first latched onto the banjo in 1970 at the age of 15. At the time, his family was going through a personal crisis; his mother hoped playing the instrument would keep him off the streets and out of trouble.

Though originally drawn to the banjo style made famous by Scruggs, Johnson was steered in a completely different direction by his banjo teacher, Jay Ungar.

"He showed me the basics of what's called frailing, which I always associated with backwoods Appalachian music," Johnson said. "In ways, it was easier to learn, but it was miles from what I thought I wanted to do."

If playing banjo made Johnson an outsider to his teenage friends, playing an archaic style of the instrument that virtually no one had ever heard made him even more of a loner.

Finding people with the same musical interests was tough, so Johnson pretty much stuck to playing by himself. He concentrated on refining his technique and focused on making the instrument sound more soft and melodic.

"I would sit for hours and try different things," Johnson said. "The more I searched around, the more I came up with."

In 1981, Johnson moved to Levy County to work as a safety director at Florida Power Corp.'s nuclear facility in Crystal River. He met noted bluegrass mandolinist Larry Rice, who admired his unique approach to the banjo. The two jammed together often at Rice's house with his also-noted brothers — Tony, Wyatt and Ronnie.

"Larry and his brothers were incredibly gifted musicians who were into bluegrass, but also a lot of other kinds of music," Johnson said. "I got to meet a lot of great music people through them."

His talents have earned him plenty of industry accolades, including an International Bluegrass Music Association nomination in 2007 for best instrumental performance. Further recognition came a few years back when the Deering Banjo Co. introduced a Clawgrass model banjo in Johnson's honor.

Each year, a committee that includes famed banjo players such as J.D. Crowe, Pete Wernick, Tony Trischka, Alison Brown and Béla Fleck meets to decide who gets the Steve Martin banjo award. The two previous recipients were Noam Pikelny and Sammy Shelor.

Martin established the award in 2010 to reward artistry and bring greater visibility to bluegrass performers.

Johnson believes the award is doing just that.

"Anything that boosts the popularity of banjo music and encourages people to listen is a good thing," he said.

Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or lneill@tampabay.com.

Dunnellon banjo player to play on Letterman with Steve Martin 09/23/12 [Last modified: Monday, September 24, 2012 5:29pm]
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