“It was actually at Midway BBQ!” she responded when asked about her first performance. She sat in with her father and grandfather at a private party thrown by Jack O’Dell.
Today, she cannot recall how many times she has played on stage at The Grand Ole Opry, but she vividly remembers the first time.
“I was 19 years old and my parents came,” she said. “It was around Christmas and the Opryland Hotel re-routes traffic for their massive lights display, which takes a very long time to see. I got caught in that and what I remember is nearly missing it! It may have worked for the best because I didn’t have as much time to stand around and get nervous.”
The Union native is now a member of well-known bluegrass band The Grascals, and “busy” would be an understatement for her music career, which has taken her all over the United States as well as Germany, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Italy, Sweden, Greece, The Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland and Canada.
Benson has been named Banjo Performer of the Year — three years in a row — by the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA). The awards are named by a professional peer-based process among IBMA members.
On Feb. 6, Benson was named Banjo Performer of the Year — for the second time — at the 37th annual Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America (SPBGMA) Bluegrass Music Awards in Nashville. In addition to Benson’s award, The Grascals took home Instrumental Group of the Year and band member Danny Roberts won Mandolin Performer of the Year. The SPBGMA awards are voted for by fans.
The wins came one month after the release of The Grascals’ latest album “The Grascals and Friends,” which features a star-studded lineup of guest vocalists including Brad Paisley, Dierks Bentley, Dolly Parton, Tom T. Hall, Joe Nichols, Darryl Worley and Charlie Daniels. One major difference between this album and previous albums from The Grascals is that it is only sold at Cracker Barrel and on www.crackerbarrel.com.
“The Cracker Barrel record is a little different than previous Grascals albums,” Benson said. “We have electric guitar and percussion, along with guest vocalists, so it’s somewhat of a departure. Also, it mainly features titles that Cracker Barrel customers will recognize, rather than mostly original material. Still, it’s a band album that represents the group — just with a heavy country influence.”
Benson added that the Cracker Barrel brand represents the same values that most bluegrass listeners appreciate, such as family and spending time around a table together enjoying a meal.
The focus of the album is a song titled “I Am Strong,” which was inspired by a trip Grascals member Jamie Johnson — co-writer of the song — made to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. During his visit, Johnson was moved by a wall of artwork created by children at St. Jude. “I am …” was printed in the middle of the wall, and the children filled in the blank.
“Through the song, we’ve developed a relationship with St. Jude and some of the kids there,” Benson said.
The music video for “I Am Strong,” was filmed at St. Jude and features some of the children from the hospital. It has aired on CMT and can be viewed on www.grascals.com.
“The research done at St. Jude is shared with hospitals everywhere, so it benefits any patient fighting childhood cancer,” Benson said. “Part of the proceeds from this album go back to St. Jude and we feel blessed to be affiliated with them.”
Benson said the cause is special to her because of her cousin — Will Scott — who lost his battle with leukemia at age 18 in May 2009.
“He impacted everyone around him deeply and I’m no exception,” she said. “He is the most Christlike person I have ever known, and he was only 18.”
KRISTIN SCOTT BENSON’S FAMILY:
Benson’s talent has come from years of dedication, but genetics may have also come into play. Her maternal grandfather — Arval Hogan — was a professional mandolin player from North Carolina. He was one half of Whitey and Hogan — which was part of a larger group known as The Briarhoppers — and was a radio hit during the heyday of radio in the 1940s.
Benson is the daughter of Fred and Carolyn Scott of Buffalo. Fred is also a mandolin player, so when the two met, one thing they had in common was a love of the mandolin.
Benson followed in the footsteps of her mother and grandmother and married mandolin player Wayne Benson, who plays with Atlanta-based group IIIrd Tyme Out — winners of the IBMA Vocal Group of the Year.
Wayne and Kristin have a four-year-old son, Hogan, who was named after Kristin’s grandfather. She laughed as she said they chose not to name him Arval. The couple moved to Boiling Springs from Nashville a few years ago to be closer to family.
“God incredibly blessed me and my husband,” Benson said. “Now — with Hogan — the hardest part is the traveling.”
For more information about Benson or The Grascals, visit www.grascals.com. Radio listeners in the Upstate can hear The Grascals’ performance on National Public Radio’s “Mountain Stage” by tuning in to WNCW-FM 88.7 at 8p.m. on Friday, Feb. 18.