I’ve been asked many times if I’m related to Ben Clark. While we don’t share lineage he has definitely become part of my extended bluegrass family. Ben has a very unique story from most of our interviewees – he doesn’t play music on the road, rather he’s one of the most prominent (if not THE most prominent) resources in the world for banjo, mandolin, and bluegrass guitar lessons. Ben’s story is truly one of a kind and I’m really excited that we’re going to get to chat with him about it today. Ben, thanks for taking some time to tell us a little about your story. Where are you located and what would you say your title is?
Glad to be here with you, Jed! I’m a big fan of your playing, as you know. And I’m excited about what AcoustiCult is doing for the scene! I live in Mount Juliet, TN, just east of Nashville. I’d mostly call myself a teacher and content creator. I have a studio at my house (an old cabin built in 1830) where I create videos and try to help people all over the world fall more in love with bluegrass and acoustic music.
JED: You’ve recently become a sponsor of AcoustiCult. What was it about AcoustiCult that made you want to be involved?
I love supporting anything that promotes awareness of bluegrass and all the incredible pickers within this genre. I believe we all benefit when the world learns a little more about bluegrass. The more I’m around this music, the more I’m amazed at all the talent. I believe the world’s best musicians are bluegrass musicians and I want their stories told. Y’all do such a great job of that! So I’m honored to have my brand associated with AcoustiCult, helping to shine a spotlight on this craft we all love.
JED: Tell us a little bit about your beginnings. Your origin story, so to speak. You’re a Texas native right?
I grew up on a 5th generation family farm in east Texas. It was a quite a diverse upbringing. My mom’s folks were well-known classical musicians and farmers and my dad worked a refinery and the farm. I grew up practicing Bach et al. on the piano a couple hours a day, then running cows and farming with Daddy when not in school. It was incredibly unique and I wouldn’t trade a single second of it.
JED: That sounds incredibly unique. Having the discipline of a classical music background paired with the character-building lessons of life on a farm sounds like a busy (and very well-rounded) life! How did you get into bluegrass music?
Where I grew up in east Texas there wasn’t a bluegrass scene. One festival did start up in nearby Overton, Texas. My parents would go, but I was in high school and more into Metallica. They finally convinced me to go and I saw Chris Jones perform. His guitar playing and expression mesmerized me. Looking back, Chris’ music is probably what started my pursuit of bluegrass. I also saw Matt Menefee play banjo with his family band–man! He was just a kid and I remember wishing Mama had started me on banjo instead of Bach. A couple years later I saw J.D. Crowe play in Overton and that was all she wrote. I was smitten.
JED: You attended South Plains College in Levelland Texas. What made you decide to pursue acoustic music on a collegiate level and how did you end up there?
I first heard of South Plains when I attended the Overton festival that first year. Some of the performing musicians that weekend were SPC alumni and studied under Joe Carr and Alan Munde. They were such good pickers and I remember thinking: “You can go to school and study banjo? And play like these folks?” I never forgot that. I went on to study entomology at Texas A&M and pursued forensics in grad school, but the love for banjo and bluegrass grew. While slaving over a morphology term paper late one night, I made up my mind to switch gears. I dropped out of grad school the next month, enrolled in South Plains, and never looked back.
JED: I had no idea that you’d originally taken a more traditional college route before attending SPC! So after college did you make a bee-line for Nashville?
Yeah, though I’ve never formally used my A&M education, I’m still thankful for it. If nothing else, A&M taught me more discipline. When I got to South Plains I knew I only had a couple years to soak up what Alan, Joe, and the other profs could teach me. I didn’t have time to jack around. I wanted to go to Nashville but I was so far behind other pickers my age. I treated those two years like a full time job. I literally played, practiced, and wrote for 8 hours a day, most every day, for two years. It was such an amazing education! I knew that Nashville was going to require me to be diverse, so I also used the time at SPC to get my piano chops back.
JED: Who are some of the notable artists you worked for when you first came to town? I know you worked for Taylor Swift for a time.
My first gig with a known artist was Lila McCann. We flew all over doing acoustic radio gigs and I played guitar and sang harmony for her. My first “tour bus” gig was a fill in spot on piano for American Idol finalist Josh Gracin. I just subbed for the weekend on keys but I also carried my banjo. Josh loved the banjo, and even though he had already hired another piano player, he offered me a utility musician gig playing guitar, banjo, and mandolin. That led to a piano/banjo/mandolin gig with Grand Ole Opry member Craig Morgan. Then I got a call from a friend who was bandleader for a brand new artist, some 16-year-old chick that had landed an opening spot on tour with George Strait. As a Texan, that was tough to turn down, so I accepted the spot with Taylor Swift and toured the world with her over the next few years playing mandolin/banjo/guitar/piano/dobro and singing harmonies.
JED: What made you decide to get off of the road?
Oh man, I reckon a combination of things. When I started with Taylor she was a brand new artist. When I quit, she was the #1 selling artist in the world. What a ride! The Taylor gig allowed me something special, which was to experience most everything a touring musician dreamed to experience. If you can name the TV or awards show, we played it, and probably more than once. I even played banjo with Def Leppard…what?! Though those experiences were incredible and I’m so very thankful for them, I discovered that my worth was not in that gig. I was conflicted because I knew there was something else for me to do, but I didn’t have a clue what it was. I was also really missing bluegrass and acoustic music. Through a crazy series of events I got offered a songwriting contract with Sony, so I put in my notice with Taylor and came off the road to write songs.
JED: What made you decide to start offering lessons online? How did you get started doing that?
A road gig has a lot of downtime. I was playing pop country every night with Taylor, but my heart was in love with bluegrass. I didn’t grow up with bluegrass and I was trying to learn all I could, especially flatpicking. I searched everywhere for more instruction, and was disappointed that there wasn’t much out there–not yet, anyway. I made a promise to myself that if I ever figured out where to put my fingers, I’d make videos to hopefully show other people how to do it, too.
JED: Did you start on YouTube?
Yep, I did. I created my channel way back in 2006. I had no idea what YouTube would become, and I surely didn’t imagine anyone would watch my silly videos (hence the big dip of snuff in my mouth in the early days). After a couple videos went “viral” I started getting requests from folks to teach more tunes and licks. That just grew and grew, until I wondered if I could maybe even do it for a living. I still put videos out on YouTube every week, 13 years later! And I’ve quit dipping snuff.
JED: Did you have a mentor or anyone helping you through all of this?
Besides the support of my awesome wife, I didn’t. YouTube began in 2005, and I started creating content just a year later. There weren’t a lot of folks doing it in those days. There sure wasn’t near the amount of content there is now. I wish I did have someone to ask for help! It would have kept me from making lots of mistakes and saved me some bucks, that’s for sure.
JED: How long have you been providing lessons online?
Wow, I had to do the math, but I’ve had a website for 10 years. I started with YouTube in 2006, but in 2010 I humbly asked my YouTube patrons to support my content creation on the website. They did, and here I am a decade later. I’m extremely thankful for those folks that believe in what I do.
JED: In the last few years you’ve branched out to also having an online retail outlet for acoustic instruments. Jake Stogdill manages that division of your business in South-Western Missouri. I know he worked at Janet Davis Music Company for a long time before they went out of business, but how did you end up meeting him?
That’s a long story, but I knew who Jake was from the JDMC product videos on YouTube. I thought he was hilarious and a great picker. I always thought, “Me and that guy would be friends.” JDMC closed down a couple years ago, right about the time Jake tragically lost his dad. I sent a Facebook message to Jake letting him know I was praying for him and that began a friendship. We would meet face to face just a couple weeks later.
JED: How did the store originate?
I wanted to open a store for years. It just made sense, you know? I had these students who were looking for a trustworthy place to buy their gear. They’d constantly ask me where and what to buy, but I didn’t know exactly where to send them. My dream was to offer my students a place to buy gear from someone they could trust, but I honestly didn’t have the retail knowledge or time to spend building something like that. That’s where Jake enters the picture again. Just a couple weeks after we first talked, we had lunch in Missouri. It was somewhat a chance encounter. My wife’s family took a vacation to Table Rock Lake and I found out Jake lived nearby. As we ate lunch, I learned more about JDMC closing down and him losing his job. He didn’t know exactly what he was going to do. I told Jake that day at lunch that I wanted to open a store, and he told me he knew how to do it. We shook hands and Banjo Ben’s General Store was born. We make a great team, and that guy has become like a brother to me. One thing is for sure, the store would be impossible without Jake (and his wife, Michelle!).
JED: Jake is fantastic. My brother and I went and spent the weekend with him years ago to record some music for an album he was making. I don’t remember what tunes we recorded, but I do remember that I hadn’t laughed that hard in a really long time; he’s hilarious. Stepping away from the store for a minute, tell me who are 3 musicians that you’ve run across in your musical travels that you think are underrated or deserve more notoriety for their art?
Wow, what a great question! I could name thirty instead of three. I’d have to say that Robby Boone of Missouri is one of the best banjo players on earth. He’s in a new band called Route 3 that y’all have to check out. They have a debut album just released that was produced by Clay Hess–it’s stellar. Another favorite picker of mine is Carl Miner. Folks know who Carl is and he does tons of session work in Nashville, but I don’t hear his name enough when top flatpickers are talked about. He’s a wizard and one of the most humble and gracious guys I know. Finally, I’d have to say Dennis Parker. Dennis plays in [Ricky] Skaggs’ band. I know Kentucky Thunder has notoriety, but Dennis is one of the best all-around artists and musicians that Nashville has ever seen. He plays mainly rhythm guitar in KT, but that guy is as good as it gets with just about everything he picks up. Go check him out on facebook. I was blessed to co-produce his latest album, “Songs Under the Air-Conditioner Unit.”
JED: What are you currently working on?
I’m just about always up to something new, haha. We have Cyber Monday coming up at the General Store and that’s requiring all of our attention. The store has grown so much in two years…we’re just blown away by all your support (thank you!). I’m always churning out new lessons for banjo, guitar, and mandolin at BanjoBenClark.com. Otherwise, I’m producing a few music projects for folks here and there, about to start a new website project to launch next year, and my Cabin Camps have really started to grow. Fun and crazy times!
JED: Gracious you are busy man! Well thank you for taking the time to chat with me about your story and the latest and greatest from your corner of the world.