Close Up: NC Heritage Award Recipient Marc Pruett

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Marc Pruett, banjo player for NC band Balsam Range, sits on a stool in the middle of a stage with his banjo over his right shoulder and a brick wall backdrop.Renowned banjo player, songwriter, and Haywood County native Marc Reagan Pruett makes a life for himself and his family that reflects his commitment to his mountain region, its music, and its people. Pruett has a deep reverence for traditional mountain music, and his mastery of the five string  banjo is second to none. He has appeared on many nationally released albums, as well as on numerous regional releases. His prolific songwriting, both solo and with various partners, has taken his music to the top of the bluegrass charts. He has even released an album of children’s music with Steven Heller. The humor that graces his bluegrass presentations has been preserved in collections of southern humor. Now performing with Balsam Range, a North Carolina bluegrass group of enormous range and even larger popularity, Pruett’s devotion to the mountain culture of his North Carolina home reaches a world-wide audience.

Pruett was inspired to start playing banjo at age 11 after hearing Cleveland County native Earl Scruggs on the radio. He mastered his instrument’s five strings by watching and listening to local pickers at jam sessions, and he honed his craft over years of practice and performances, playing his first professional gig at age 15. After college at Western Carolina University, Pruett performed with Bill Monroe’s son James, then met and recorded with bluegrass legend Ricky Skaggs.

“To me the best part about Marc is his ability to make the other people in the band sound better. He’s always driving the rhythm and encouraging the other players. With a kind, gentle spirit he walks up to total strangers and sticks out his hand. He loves people, and they love him back.” –Ricky Skaggs

Marc and his brother, Matt Pruett, opened Pic ’n Grin, an Asheville music store that became a bluegrass hub in western North Carolina. Marc taught lessons and basked in the growing community of old time and bluegrass musicians who flocked to the shop. Marc also spent the next 20 years playing bluegrass music on tours through Europe; performing as house band at a local restaurant; and playing locally and on tour with groups such as the Southern Lawmen, the Whites, the Kingsmen, and Jimmy Martin, with whom he first played the Grand Old Opry in Nashville and Lincoln Center in New York City.

In 1995, Pruett reunited with Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, touring and recording with the band. Pruett’s masterful banjo playing on their 1997 album Bluegrass Rules earned him a Grammy. The album is considered a classic recording of the bluegrass genre. 

An avocational scholar of Appalachian culture, in 2004 Pruett and his friend Ted White created a documentary of the life and stories of Haywood County native “Uncle” Albert Burnette, a 92-year-old musician, storyteller, dance-caller, and fox hunter. 

Pruett has played with numerous bluegrass groups over the past 20 years. Currently, he plays with the internationally acclaimed Balsam Range, which he co-founded. His songwriting has helped Balsam Range achieve their remarkable reputation. In 2014, the International Bluegrass Music Association proclaimed them Entertainers of the Year. Now one of the most sought after bluegrass groups in the country, Balsam Range performs from coast to coast and also makes appearances for major radio and television entertainment programs. 

Despite a heavy schedule of appearances with Balsam Range, Pruett still works full time as Haywood County’s Director of the Erosion Control Program, demonstrating his commitment to the interdependency of the region’s natural and cultural resources. Accepting an honorary degree from his alma mater, WCU, Pruett had this advice for the rising generation:

“Pray that you are given compassion. Use it to mold your aptitudes into talent. Grow your talents to the fullest positive expression, and then share yourself with the world in ways that will give you the most noble of attributes, and that is compassion.”

Make plans now to hear Marc Pruett and Balsam Range as part of this year’s North Carolina Heritage Awards Ceremony, which will take place on Wednesday, May 25 in Fletcher Theater at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased in person at the Duke Energy Center, by phone through PineCone’s Box Office at 919-664-8302, or online via Ticketmaster.com. Group rates of $20 per ticket are also available for groups of 10 or more.

This is the first in a series of features about the artists who will be honored at the NC Heritage Award Ceremony. Learn about all the honorees via the North Carolina Arts Council website.