A Nashville Experience (with Banjo Ben)

During orientation my first year at Mizzou, all freshman were required to give a short speech before an instructor to determine if the student had a speech impediment. We were warned not to talk about what we did on summer vacation because the topic was too tedious. Nevertheless, that’s what I’m going to do—share my two-day Nashville trip.
What lured me to make the five-hour drive to Nashville? Answer: Banjo Ben Clark’s 
“Nashville Experience” banjo camp. Well-known for being the banjo, guitar, mandolin, dobro, and keyboard player for Taylor Swift, and touring with American Idol star Josh Gracin, Ben Clark hosts banjo and guitar instructional camps at his home on the outskirts of Nashville and other sites across the country. 
Ben, along with twin sisters Katie and Penny, who are also known as the country/gospel duo “The Purple Hulls,” provide instruction in banjo and guitar at the camps. Like their brother, if an instrument has strings, they can play it. On stage, Ben and his sisters can change from one instrument to another, as easily as I can switch from a knife to a fork at the dinner table, and never miss a lick.
No doubt, banjo camp wouldn’t be a motivation for everyone. Mark Twain quipped, “A gentleman is someone who knows how to play a banjo and doesn’t.” Some people hate banjos and tell disparaging jokes about them. For example, they ask what is a perfect pitch? And then answer, that’s when a banjo is thrown into a dumpster and lands on an accordion. You get the idea.
On the other hand, banjo expert and author Joe Spann of Gruhn Guitar says, “If you know G, C, and D chords on a guitar, you can join a bluegrass jam, but if you pick up a banjo, you better know what you’re doing.”
Upfront, I need to confess that I am a terrible banjo player. I suppose, if you’ve never seen a banjo, you might think I can play one. But I guarantee, nobody in Nashville would agree with you.
Unlike Banjo Ben’s usual instruction-focused camps, the Nashville Experience camp was more limited in size (23 people) and designed to give an insider’s view of the Nashville music scene. Thursday’s highlights included private tours of Sony Publishing and the legendary Gruhn Guitar Store (where I got to strum a $90,000 Gibson banjo); dinner at Blake Shelton’s Ol’ Red restaurant; and a performance at the Ryman Auditorium by the renown bluegrass band, The Earls of Leicester, anchored by world-famous dobro player Jerry Douglas.
On Friday at Banjo Ben’s home, we worked on banjo licks, heard presentations by music industry insiders, and ate excellent barbeque with all the trimmings served with Southern hospitality by his charming wife Hannah and Ben’s staff. 
At the Sony Publishing, which represents the “who’s who” of country music, from Luke Combs to Miranda Lambert, studio producer Adam Englehart rattled off the first names of famous recording artists he had produced as if they were family members. He said, “You can take the best musicians from your area, and they wouldn’t make the top one-hundred in Nashville.”
That got me to thinking about the local musicians who were around Willow Springs in the 1960s. I don’t recall any banjo pickers, but Lola Osterndorf comes to mind as a pretty good guitar player. She owned the best guitar I’d ever seen—a 1964 Chet Atkins-model Gretsch—and could play “Under the Double Eagle,” a fairly sophisticated tune, which put her way ahead of me.
High school buddy, Netta Harris (WSHS, 1966) took me to her Aunt Lola’s house to play her guitar. The electric Gretsch was easy to play and produced dulcet tones. By comparison, the acoustic Truetone that Peanut Gilbert sold me at the Western Auto store in Willow Springs was hard to play and sounded like a fork scraping a pan. 
Fiddle player Charlie Hiler and his band and Otha Wake and the Acorn Hullers, another country string band, are the only two musical groups I recall from the era. Could Lola, Charlie, or Otha have found success in Nashville back then? Maybe. But the starry-eyed musicians who flock to Nashville today, hoping to make it big, have the same moonshot chance the best scratch golfer at a local country club would have qualifying for the PGA tour. 
Ben Clark, however, is one of the success stories. Not an overnight deal, but his journey started when Ben, as a Texas A&M sophomore entomology major, who had begun playing classical piano as a child, picked up a 5-string banjo and fell in love with bluegrass music. Remarkably, in short order, his life changed from bugs to the banjo. 
Ben arrived in Nashville in the fall of 2004, and began working non-musical jobs such as selling tourist books at the Grand Ol’ Opry. Although loaded with talent, he soon discovered he wasn’t the best musician in Nashville. Even now, as successful as he has become, Ben told us, “On my phone, I have the names of dozens of musicians who are better on any instrument I play.” With advice from a well-known bandmember, he found his niche by becoming versatile and expanding his skills to multiple instruments. 
Luck, or his remarkable ability for being in the right place at the right time helped, too. One day, shortly after he had left Taylor Swift’s band to start a family and was looking for another job, he responded to the cry for help from a songwriter on Music Row whose car had just been robbed by some hoodlum. 
On foot, Ben chased the armed crook down an alley and subdued him until the police arrived. Because a 911 call had reported “a man chasing another man,” the cops weren’t sure who was the bad guy, and made Ben lie on the ground until they got the facts ironed out and arrested the actual criminal. The stolen property was returned to the rightful owner.
The next morning, he got a phone call from an executive at Sony Publishing, who had heard about Ben’s adventure on Music Row. The executive said the car burglaries had been rampant, and that he and others in the publishing business were grateful for the arrest, and that Sony had a gift for him.
Later in the week, Ben went to Sony to accept a gift basket, and the Sony exec, said, “If there is anything I can do for you, just let me know.” Ben said he and his sisters were looking for work as songwriters. The next week Sony gave them a tryout and signed them to publishing contracts.
Around 2011, Ben launched the Banjo Ben website offering online video instruction for the guitar, mandolin, and banjo. He produces entertaining videos in a studio in a refurbished 19th century, two-story log cabin adjacent to his home. Thousands of viewers from around the world have learned or improved their skills by logging onto Banjo Ben’s website. 
Banjo Ben has an Ozark connection. In 2018, he opened Banjo Ben’s General Store in Exeter, Missouri, that sells musical instruments and accessories. Ben hired local musicians who used to work at a previous music store in the area. The retail store ships both nationally and internationally.
Banjo Ben’s Nashville Experience camp met my expectations for fun and learning. With Ben’s connections, surprise celebrity guests often visit his camps. Country Radio Hall of Fame member and Grand Ol’ Opry announcer Kyle Cantrell, who hosts Bluegrass Junction on SiriusXM Radio, emceed our Friday dinner. The backstage stories Kyle and Ben told us about Grandpa Jones, Little Jimmy Dickens, George Jones, Earl Scruggs, and other Opry members thoroughly entertained us.
For someone who has appeared on Good Morning America, the Tonight Show, Letterman, and Saturday Night Live; played the Grand Ol’ Opry; and traveled for two years with Taylor Swift, Ben Clark retains his East Texas humility, and is as next-door-neighbor nice as someone you might meet at a church social. 
Enough said—I had fun.
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