Steve Martin’s Bluegrass Award Faces Uncertain Future

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Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers perform at the Shoreline Amphitheatre on Oct. 20, 2012 in Mountain View, Calif.

One morning last week in Boston, Victor Furtado woke up to a mailman’s knock. He was handed a little unmarked package.

“I opened it up here in my apartment and kind of looked at it for a second, hoping somebody would wake me up. I was shocked, completely blown away.”

Inside was word that the 19-year-old Virginia-bred musician had won the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, which comes with a $50,000 prize and a sculpture.

“I feel so honored to be considered,” he said.

But the award was somewhat bittersweet since Furtado — the youngest recipient of the prize given out every year since 2010 — may also be the last. The prize is in danger of disappearing.

Martin said that he and the prize board members are overwhelmed by the sheer number of qualified musicians as bluegrass goes through a flowering.

“It became very difficult to keep pace, even with all our great board members, of so many great players. In the ’60s, when I was first learning, great players were rare,” said Martin.

“Now, if you listen to a bluegrass channel, you listen to the banjo player and go, ‘Who’s that?’ And you’ve never even heard of him and they’re playing incredibly sophisticated stuff I couldn’t even pretend to do.”

Martin hopes some entity might take over administrating the prize. Furtado, a student at the Berklee College of Music, hopes it somehow continues but is still grateful if he’s the last recipient.

“That was just another added layer of amazement, being that it might be the last one. That they ended up choosing me for it is just such an honor,” he said.

Martin and his wife, Anne Stringfield, dreamed up the prize after Martin noticed that some master musicians were still paying off their banjos. “I thought, ‘That’s got to change.’” The first draft of the prize’s statement of purpose was written on the back of a cocktail napkin. It’s the only prize of its kind and has an impressive monetary value.

“The one way in America — or anywhere — to bring notoriety is with money,” said Martin. “It had to be ‘Wow!’ It had to really mean something to someone.”

Winners — including Sammy Shelor, Danny Barnes and Jens Kruger — have been determined by a board consisting of Martin and Stringfield, J.D Crowe, Pete Wernick, Tony Trischka, Noam Pikelny, Alison Brown, Neil V. Rosenberg and Béla Fleck.

Martin, whose comedy has enriched “Saturday Night Live” and who has written books like “Shopgirl” and music for Broadway, frequently returns to his banjo. “I’ve always found it moving. I’ve always found it emotional,” he said.

Both Martin and Furtado have noticed the genre has exploded with top-notch musicians, more experimentation and complex playing. “The advances in technique have really taken off,” said Martin.

Furtado agreed: “All these amazing players are coming up, bringing jazz influences and different rhythms and different musical qualities to the old-time bluegrass and combining the two.”

As for how he’ll celebrate, the young banjo player hopes to have a good time with his friends and celebrate. But some of the prize winnings will go to pay off college debt.


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