While he’s quite proficient on guitar, mandolin and piano, professional musician Ben Clark has been head over heels about the banjo since he first gave it a twirl in college.
He tackled it with such gusto that his pals quickly dubbed him Banjo Ben, a nickname that’s stuck like glue and one that he’s proud to wear.
Over the past 10 years, Banjo Ben Clark, via instructional videos on the internet, has taught hundreds of students in more than 50 countries how to play the banjo, guitar and mandolin.
His gift of music also paved the path for him to play in the bands for Taylor Swift, Craig Morgan, Josh Gracin and Lila McCann after he made the leap from East Texas to Music City.
His first instrument? He started playing piano at the age of 4, a selection due to the prowess of his mother and grandmother on the keyboard.
Describing his childhood as diverse, Clark, said, “I had on one side of the family a lineage of classical music performance and that was mixed with the rural-farmer-ranch lifestyle. I was probably the only kid around practicing Bach pieces and also milking cows before I went to school. I had one foot in the classical music world and the other foot in the cow manure.”
His rapture for his main instrument came when he was a student at Texas A&M University.
“I didn’t pick up a banjo until my sophomore year in college after I had gone to a couple of bluegrass festivals and fell in love with the music. I had played the guitar a bit but then the banjo became my main focus very quickly,” said Clark, who hangs his pick in Mt. Juliet.
“The banjo is the most recognized instrument in the genre of music that is entirely American: bluegrass. And when you hear the banjo, you’re taken to a place in your mind and in your spirit that is full of joy.”
He expressed his style of banjo playing, saying, “I have a hybrid between Scruggs and melodic style which makes sense according to my influences. I love the whole, entire spectrum of banjo playing and try to incorporate lots of styles.”
Along with his music, the banjo man confesses to having a self-deprecating sense of humor, which is apparent in his videos.
He grew up with three sisters on a fifth-generation working farm near Kilgore, Texas, where the family raised beef cattle, peas and watermelons.
About the latter he recalled, “We had so many, I would walk through the field and pick up a big, black diamond watermelon and drop it and then take one big bite out of that one watermelon and I would walk all across the field doing that.”
After high school he began studying veterinary science but changed his major to entomology. After nearly completing his master’s degree in civil and urban forensic entomology, he dropped out and decided to enter South Plains College and immerse himself in bluegrass.
“I believe the Lord put it in my heart to make that change,” said Clark. “There wasn’t any sensible reason to do that. I just fell in love with the music. My passion for it just exploded, and I knew I had to pursue it, and at the same time my drive for the master’s degree came to a stop. Looking back, it definitely was a providential paradigm shift.”
The main reason he chose South Plains was due to banjo instructor Adam Munde, who had played for bluegrass giant Jimmy Martin and the Country Gazette. While there, Clark met a young woman at the Baptist Union’s 50-cent Tuesday lunch program. They began dating and a year later he followed her to Nashville.
“Honestly, the other part was I wanted to see if I had what it takes. I had quite a huge opportunity in grad school before chasing the music thing. I didn’t want to leave it half done. I wanted to see if I could make a living making music and had to come to Nashville to find out,” he said.
Soon, he was playing guitar and singing harmony for Lila McCann, followed by a stint with Josh Gracin. After marrying Hannah, the sweetheart he followed to Music City, in January 2006, Clark took a gig with Craig Morgan, playing mainly piano along with banjo/mandolin. Eight months later came a phone call from the fellow assembling Taylor Swift’s first band as she was preparing to tour with George Strait.
“She was looking for someone that played the instruments I played (piano, banjo, dobro, guitar and mandolin), and being a Texan, with her having that George Strait tour that was enough to make me jump ship,” said Clark.
It was during that period he met one of his Nashville heroes, singer-songwriter Tom T. Hall, who provided scholarships for students at South Plains College. Clark had been one of those scholarship recipients.
“I sent him a thank-you letter at end of my schooling, and he wrote me back and said to reach out when I got to Nashville,” recollected Clark. “Jason Hutchinson, the road manager with Taylor Swift, had played bass in Tom T’s band back in the ’80s. When I told Jason about the invitation, he took me to meet him. Honestly, I got to do many great things but at the top of my list was meeting Tom T. Hall, and I got to write a song with him.”
In late 2009, Clark and his sisters, Penny and Katy, also bluegrass musicians, signed a publishing deal with Sony ATV and began performing as the Purple Hulls.
“The songwriting deal allowed us to begin creating for whatever might happen in the future. We were writing more mainstream-commercial songs and we got a few cuts by other artists, but eventually begin writing more for our own band,” he said.
While on the road with lots of down time, Clark learned lots of new songs. With YouTube hitting its stride at the time, he began uploading short instructional videos, teaching others how to play the songs he had learned.
“Those gained more and more popularity and the evidence there was enough for me to see that people out there wanted to learn what I was teaching,” said Clark, who started his website, BanjoBenclark.com in 2012, one of the premier websites for folks seeking to learn bluegrass music on banjo, guitar and mandolin.
Clark’s site allows his students access to hundreds of lessons, via subscription, and uploads a new lesson weekly.
He also plays host to pickers with several Banjo Ben’s Cabin Camp workshops every year. The next two will be held near Mt. Juliet in April but are sold out.
The entrepreneurial Clark also operates Banjo Ben’s General Store in Exeter, Mo., near Branson. With the majority of sales transacted online, here he offers a wide selection of instruments and accessories for bluegrass and acoustic music.
The home life
In 2012, after coming off the road, Clark said he felt a second calling, this one “the calling of my life” as he stepped into ministry as family and young adults pastor with Tulip Grove Baptist Church in Old Hickory. Nowadays, he said his role has changed. It’s not official. “They call me the teaching pastor.”
He and Hannah have two daughters, Charlie Belle, 9, and Ellie Mae, 6, and both are playing mandolin and piano with Charlie favoring the mandolin and Ellie Mae the piano.
When looking for a home east of Nashville, they discovered a house at the end of a subdivision in Mt. Juliet that offered privacy and a bit of land. The icing on top was a poplar log cabin that was built in 1830.
“It worked perfect as a studio for my work. When we saw that it was connected to the house through a breezeway, we knew it was perfect place for us,” said Clark, whose hobbies include hunting, fishing and flying airplanes.
However, those diversions do not keep him away from his favorite thing to do.
“I have four banjos. I had Gold Tone build me a signature banjo according to my specs. It’s my favorite banjo to play,” said the man whose first name is Banjo.