News & Events
Bascom Lamar Lunsford Award Presented to George Banks
“Smilin’ Georgie Banks” plays the banjo on his porch in Asheville.
For his 39 years as the banjo picker for the Stoney Creek Boys, and for a lifetime commitment to preserving the traditional music of the southern Appalachians, George Banks has been named the 2013 recipient of the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Award. The award was presented at the Bascom Lamar Lunsford “Minstrel of Appalachia” Festival in Moore Auditorium, on the campus of Mars Hill University, October 5.
According to Hannah Furgiuele, director of the festival, the Lunsford Award is given annually to an accomplished musician who demonstrates leadership, commitment, and dedication to keeping mountain music alive. Banks, sometimes known as “Smilin’ Georgie Banks,” was an obvious choice for this year’s award, she said.
“This award goes to the most celebrated traditional musicians in our region, and it was without any hesitation that we presented this award to ‘Smilin’ Georgie Banks’ for the 2013 Festival,” Furgiuele said.
Banks has made his mark by picking a banjo, but it was a guitar that first sparked his love of traditional music when he was only a small child. His early memories include gathering with his family after work was over for the day, and passing around a single old Stella guitar.
“We had the guitar, and I guess that’s how we entertained one another, picking and listening,” Banks said. He believes that modern families who are distracted by television and a frantic modern pace can easily miss out on the closeness that can grow out of that kind of home grown entertainment.
It wasn’t until the 1960s, when Banks was a young man, that he became interested in the banjo. Ironically, it was the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, founded by Bascom Lamar Lunsford, that provided his inspiration.
“Used to, after the (Mountain Dance and Folk) Festival uptown, they had a picking in the Westgate (shopping center) parking lot. That was a great time,” Banks said. “All the musicians would come to the Westgate parking lot and they’d jam all night. And that’s how I got really inspired with the banjo.”
Banks, like many traditional musicians, plays “by ear.” He learned to play the banjo by watching other people and by listening to records by famed bluegrass musicians Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. This way of learning and passing on music means that everyone has his or her own individual style of playing, Banks said.
“I started learning to read music one time, but I decided it wasn’t for me,” he said. “I think you get a whole lot more just playing from your heart; it seems like you get more of a feel for it.”
Once he gained proficiency on the banjo, Banks played with several bands, including the Roan Mountain Boys, and then the Carolina Boys, a gospel bluegrass band. By the late 60s, he started hanging out with and listening to some friends who had formed a band called the Stoney Creek Boys. It was a few years later, in 1975, when Banks joined the band himself. And now, nearly 40 years later, it is clear that Banks has found his musical home.
The Stoney Creek Boys have become well-known in the region, and have served as the “house band” for the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, Shindig on the Green, and the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Festival for many years. Today, all the members of the band are legendary on their respective instruments. In addition to Banks, the members of the band are Arvil Freeman on fiddle, Leonard Hollifield on guitar, and Boyd Black on bass.
Each member of the band has also received the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Award. “They’re a good bunch of guys, and they’re super musicians,” Banks said of his fellow band members.
Though the Stoney Creek Boys are well-known all over the region, they have generally stayed away from bluegrass competitions.
“We have always just played for the fun of it,” Banks said. “And I think that’s the best part of it.”
According to 2012 Lunsford Award recipient Boyd Black, Banks was an excellent choice for the award. He is not only a good musician, but also an excellent human being, Black said.
“He plays a good banjo. Plus, he treats people well; he’s friendly; he smiles all the time; he’s as honest as anybody you’ll ever meet and he always wants to do the right thing,” Black said.
“I just give him a triple-A rating, and that’s all I can say.”
Banks lives in Asheville with his wife Barbara. The Banks’ have three children, two grandsons, and one granddaughter, who is currently learning the banjo from her grandfather.