Kristin Scott Benson has flourished as the virtuoso banjo player in the Grascals, Dolly Parton’s former backing band and one of the most acclaimed groups in bluegrass music. They headline Saturday’s annual Museum of Making Music benefit concert at Irwin M. Jacobs Qualcomm Hall.
But Benson’s musical success was anything but assured 20 years ago, when she faced an existential quandary after graduating summa cum laude from Nashville’s Belmont University. She majored in marketing, minored in music business and was considering a tempting offer to pursue a master’s degree in engineering.
“I had a wonderful opportunity to get a fully paid scholarship for a graduate degree, but I just didn’t want to do that,” said Benson, who is a member of the award-winning band the Grascals and a four-time International Bluegrass Music Association Banjo Player of the Year honoree. “So I thought: ‘I’ll just try music and can always go back to grad school’.”
Some questioned her decision at the time. But Benson received key backing from her grandfather and early mentor, Arval Hogan. From 1935 to 2001, he had been the mandolinist in Whitey and Hogan, the longest-running duo in country music history, and gave Benson her first instrument as a child.
“My grandfather was the most supportive person when I decided against grad school,” she recalled. “He told me: ‘Don’t worry about the money; you can always survive on whatever you make.’ And then he said: ‘Trust me: When you get to be my age, the memories will matter a lot more than the money’.”
It was sound advice, although Benson seemed destined for bluegrass even before she started her sophomore year in college.
In 1995, three years before graduating from Belmont, she started a five-year stint as the banjo player in the Larry Stephenson Band.
“I missed the first day of school my sophomore year to play a gig with Larry in Maine,” Benson recalled with a laugh.
In 2000, she co-founded the bluegrass band The Sidewinders. Then came a stint with Larry Cordle & Lonesome Standard Time, followed by a return to Stephenson’s band, before she joined the Grascals a decade ago in 2008.
It was the first time a female musician had been hired to assume a leading instrumental role in a top bluegrass band. Last week, Benson was the only female instructor at North Carolina’s inaugural Blue Ridge Banjo Camp, presented by Béla Fleck, who is one of her key inspirations on her instrument. She also sings the praises of San Diego-raised banjo star Alison Brown, although Benson only became aware of Brown some years after taking up the banjo herself.
“I used to be an oddity at bluegrass festivals as a girl in all-male bands,” Benson noted. “But now every band has a girl. It could be the fiddle player, the guitar player— it could be on any instrument, which is the best way to integrate things. Sometimes, it’s more effective to just do it and act like it’s normal, and then it’s not a big deal.”
Benson has made three solo albums and six albums by the Grascals, whose 2011 release, “The Grascals & Friends (Country Classics With A Bluegrass Spin),” featured such high-profile guests as Parton, Brad Paisley and Charlie Daniels.
Parton was so impressed the first time she heard the Grascals that she hired them to be her backing band in 2004. She then had them accompany and open for her on her 2005 tour, before the Grascals decided to focus on their own career. To date, the group has earned three Grammy nominations and won a slew of other awards. In 2009, the band headlined the ninth annual Summergrass San Diego festival in Vista.
“My day life is teaching online banjo lessons,” said Benson, who lives in rural South Carolina with her husband, bluegrass mandolinist Wayne Benson, and their 12-year-old son, Hogan. “The vast majority of bluegrass musicians do something else professionally during the week. So if I have an extremely talented student, I always encourage them to go to school.
“I’ve been doing bluegrass for 20 to 25 years. And even now I don’t feel like I committed to playing it professionally! But I love it so much that I’m very thankful and blessed I get to do it.”
Museum of Making Music Bluegrass Benefit Concert, with the Grascals and Flatt Lonesome
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Irwin M. Jacobs Qualcomm Hall, 5775 Morehouse Drive, Sorrento Valley
Phone: (760) 438-8001