County Worker Mark Johnson Wins $50,000 Steve Martin Award, Chance To Play Banjo On 'Letterman'
A job reviewing storm and flood maps for the local county government office is hardly the kind of thing that makes you a hard-partying "wild and crazy guy." But for 57-year-old Mark Johnson, his day job as the emergency management director in Florida's Levy County has allowed him nights to pursue banjo playing -- and get a big check from actor-director and banjo-lover Steve Martin.
And thanks to the "clawgrass" method of banjo playing that he invented, which is a combination of bluegrass and old-time mountain-style clawhammer technique, Martin chose Johnson for his third annual Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass -- and a $50,000 check.
Johnson found out that he won the award during a day off, when a Federal Express truck pulled up to his house to deliver an envelope to him. "I sure hope you're from the Publishers Clearing House," The New York Times reported Johnson as saying. "I could use a change of gig here." When Johnson saw the check, he dropped to his knees. He said that he didn't even know he was a contender for the award.
"It's a wonderful honor, but I honestly never dreamed I would ever be nominated, much less win it," Johnson told the Tampa Bay Times last week after receiving the check. "That's the kind of thing that's given to the great legends of the instrument."
Soon, he was invited to perform with Martin on the "Late Show With David Letterman," a collaboration that took place Monday night. Although Johnson isn't a household name, he's been recognized for his banjo-playing before. In 2007, his album, "Acoustic Vision," was nominated for International Album of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association.
In 1981, he moved to Levy County, located in northwest Florida, which today has a population of 40,000 people. His first job was as safety director at Florida Power Corp.'s nuclear facility in Crystal River.
All along, he has pursued his banjo-playing. While the most familiar banjo technique might be plucking up the strings, in the style of famed banjo-player Earl Scruggs, the clawhammer style is characterized by striking down, with the fingernail and without picks. "It's like the difference between tap and ballet," Martin told The New York Times.
Martin, who created the award to bring greater visibility to bluegrass performers, told The New York Times that one reason why Johnson was a great candidate for the award was: "He has a day job."
Indeed, to have pioneered a musical form while also holding down a steady job is by all definitions impressive. And Johnson has done it while doing vital work in a region of the country, along the Gulf of Mexico, known for producing emergencies -- such as those created by hurricanes.
Just earlier this month, Johnson spoke to The Gainesville Sun to promote a new storm surge warning system being introduced by the National Hurricane Center to the region. The new system will make use of high-resolution maps that will provide information about storms themselves, as opposed to the old Saffir-Simpson Wind Scale, which only focuses on wind.
Johnson felt that Levy County residents were ready for the change. "It's not our first rodeo," he said.
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Dan Fastenberg was most recently a reporter with TIME Magazine. Previously, he was a writer for the Thomson Reuters news service's Latin America desk. He was also a reporter and associate editor for the Buenos Aires Herald while living in South America.
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