2012 Prize Winner
Mark Johnson

Celebrated banjo player Mark Johnson is the recipient of the third annual Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass. Mark is a Florida-based player whose excellence is known nationwide. Johnson differs from the first two years’ winners in that he focuses on a style of playing called clawhammer rather than Scruggs style or three-finger. He has blended the two styles of playing into one approach he calls “Clawgrass.” During the day, he is the director of Levy County’s emergency operations in Bronson, FL, and attends to his banjo playing on weekends and holidays.

The Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass provides the winner with an unrestricted cash prize of fifty-thousand dollars, as well as a bronze sculpture created expressly for the prize by noted artist Eric Fischl. The award was created to bring recognition to an individual or group for outstanding accomplishment in the field of five-string banjo or bluegrass music, the prize highlights the extraordinary musicianship of these artists and brings recognition to bluegrass music worldwide. The winner is determined by a board consisting of J.D Crowe, Pete Wernick, Tony Trischka, Anne Stringfield, Alison Brown, Neil V. Rosenberg, Béla Fleck and Steve Martin.

The award is given to a person or group who has given the board a fresh appreciation of this music, either through artistry, composition, innovation or preservation, and is deserving of a wider audience. The recipient must be a professional or semi-professional and should currently be active in their careers.

The award is funded personally by the Steve Martin Charitable Foundation.

Mark Johnson will be making his television debut alongside Steve Martin on The Late Show with David Letterman Monday, September 24 on CBS.


A native of Yorktown Heights, NY, Mark now hangs his hat in Florida but learned his trade from Jay Unger while living in New York. It was in the early 1970s that Mark learned from this consummate fiddler the basic technique of clawhammer banjo. He also learned the three-finger style of bluegrass picking as his familiarity with the instrument unfolded. Mark moved to Crystal River in Florida in 1981 where, per chance, he met the Rice brothers, Larry, Tony, Ronnie and Wyatt. Mark was working at the local power utility with Herb Rice, Larry and Ronnie and through that relationship, his manner for style and creativity in composition and performance was forever changed. Mark’s unique style doesn’t really fit into a strict category. It’s very bluegrass but has overtones of traditional folk, progressive acoustic, new-grass and old-timey all mixed into one.

More Info:


Mark Johnson Video Clips

Late Night with David Letterman – Steve Martin Banjo Session ft. Mark Johnson & Emory Lester

Mark Johnson Press

Steve Martin Awards Bluegrass Prize
The New York Times
By Dave Itzkoff | September 21, 2012

Mark Johnson on Letterman with Steve Martin
– Bluegrass Today
By John Lawless | September 13, 2012

Additional Prize Winners