Mac Benford


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Mac with the Woodshed AllStars at the Philly Folk Fest in 1992


Mac Benford has been a leading figure in the preservation and performance of traditional Appalachian stringband music for more than forty years. He began playing clawhammer banjo in 1960, while a student at Williams College. His interest in the authentic mountain styles of playing the 5-string led him to the greatest living masters of the time - players like Wade Ward, Kyle Creed, Tom Ashley, and Roscoe Holcomb who would provide life-long inspiration and models in the formation of his own style.

Moving to California’s Bay Area in 1967, Mac began his professional performing career with the much-beloved Dr. Humbead’s New Tranquility Stringband and Medicine Show.This group specialized in the re-creation of the old-time music captured on 78 rpm records from the 1920s, most especially that of Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers. The band played festvals (rock and folk), clubs, coffeehouses up and down the West Coast, before it disbanded in 1970.

In that year, Mac began playing with Walt Koken and Bob Potts as the Fat City Stringband. Honing their skills on the street corners of San Francisco and old-time fiddler’s conventions in Virginia and North Carolina, the three finally settled in New York State’s Finger Lakes area, and there became the nucleus of the now-legendary Highwoods Stringband. Their innovative sound, combining authentic renditions of the tunes and songs from bygone days with the driving power of the competition-oriented string music of the '70s, knocked the old-time world on its ear and provided a brand new model for the stringband revival.It was written that “more than any other band of their time, they were responsible for drawing a legion of new,young fans into old-time music by the force of their musicianship and the fact that they were having such a good time at it.”

Between 1972 and 1979, the Highwoods played most of the major American traditional music festivals - the Smithsonian, the National, Kent State, Philadelphia, Fox Hollow, Walnut Valley, Down Home, New Orleans Jazz Fest, San Diego, Bluegrass Festival of the U.S., Brandywine, etc. In 1974, they were part of a six-week State Department tour through Latin America and in 1976, they toured Western Europe. They joined the New Lost City Ramblers for a performance at Carnegie Hall in 1978. A recording of this concert was later nominated for a Grammy.

Following the Highwoods’ demise, Mac formed the Backwoods Band and continued performing on the same circuit with continuing success. This band featured virtuoso singing and playing and added elements of blues, bluegrass, Cajun, and western swing to their old-time sound. The mid-'80s saw Mac reduce his extensive touring to devote more time to his new family and their Mecklenburg, NY, farmstead. His occasional appearances were with local groups or with a band called the Uncles, which he founded with Rick Good to perform the wonderful music of Uncle Dave Macon and to accompany Sharon Leahy’s dance group, The Footnotes.

In 1990, Mac returned to recording and the festival circuit with the highly acclaimed Woodshed Allstars, which the NY Post called “the finest stringband in America”. This talent loaded ensemble performed their tightly crafted arrangements of old-time country music and Marie Burns’ originals at concerts and festivals across North America for seven years before they disbanded. The band recorded a cassette on Marimac and a CD for Rounder. Selections from these recordings have been featured on several major compilations.

Recently, Mac often performed with John Hoffmann and Paula Bradley in The Haywire Gang This powerful, prize-winning trio  delighted concert and festival audiences with their wide range of instrumental and vocal selections. He also played with UpSouth, a rocking dance band,which featured older Southern fiddle tunes with piano back-up. These days, Mac is primarily appearing as a solo performer, entertaining audiences across the country with the skill and charm developed in over forty years of performances. As a member of the last generation to have had personal contact with the great traditional artists of the past, Mac is carrying on the tradition in his own inimitable style.

Mac has long been known for his solid mastery of a variety of traditional banjo styles. His highly evolved clawhammer style, showcased on his recent releases, Kentucky Favorites and Half Past Four, have recently made him a much sought-after instructor at banjo camps across the country. He has been a staff member at Ashoken, Augusta Heritage, Fiddle Tunes, Banjo Camp North, Suwannee Banjo Camp, American Banjo Camp, Midwest Banjo Camp, and Mars Hill Old Time Week, to name only a few.