Craig Duncan & Friends
Based in the “bluegrass country” region around Nashville, Tennessee, Craig Duncan & Friends present an entertaining program of traditional Tennessee and authentic bluegrass music for audiences of all ages. The group, which features Duncan on fiddle and mandolin, Billy Smith and Kris Ballinger on guitars, Mark Barnett on banjo and Dale Ballinger on bass, is based on years of friendship and making music together in a variety of overlapping configurations.
Bandleader Craig Duncan, a member of the North American Fiddler’s Hall of Fame and Who’s Who in Music & Musicians, has been the featured instrumentalist on more than 70 albums with sales in excess of $5 million. His music has been heard on television shows like Malcolm in the Middle and The Oprah Winfrey Show, as well as on A&E, Biography, BET, PBS, History and other cable networks. Recognized internationally as the author of instructional books for Mel Bay Publications, Craig has produced numerous recordings for the gift shop market in various musical styles.
Duncan’s credits are impressive, but you really need to experience him in a live performance to get to know the real Craig Duncan. This high-energy lead vocalist and fiddler is an Entertainer with a capital “E.” Craig doesn’t just play a song; he energetically delivers the heart and soul of bluegrass music in all its hard-driving glory to spellbound audiences with unique flair and pizzazz.
Originally from Burlington, North Carolina with a Masters Degree in Music Education, Craig moved Nashville in 1976 where he performed at Opryland and with Grand Ole Opry star Wilma Lee Cooper’s band. In addition to the books and a successful series of hammer dulcimer-based instrumental recordings, Craig now fronts bluegrass, country, jazz, Celtic and classical ensembles for a variety of events—locally and abroad.
Singer/guitarist Billy Smith carries the repertoire of most of the first generation bluegrass music pioneers around in his head and heart—the natural result of growing up onstage and performing with artists like the Father of Bluegrass Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt and Jimmy Martin. Billy’s mother, Hazel Smith is a well-known country music journalist and television cooking show host and his brother, Terry plays bass in the IBMA Entertainer of the Year band, The Grascals, but Billy himself is most known as an award-winning songwriter.
Smith’s compositions have been recorded by Bill Monroe, The Del McCoury Band, Dan Tyminski, The Osborne Brothers, The Lonesome River Band, IIIrd Tyme Out and The Lewis Family, among others—more than 80 cuts so far. The hit song, “Hobo Blues,” recorded by The Lonesome River Band on their Carrying the Tradition album (named Bluegrass Album of the Year in 2001), was Smith’s first major cut.
Billy grew up near Reidsville, North Carolina, playing music with his dad, Pat Smith, a popular old-time fiddler. When he sings, Billy brings to mind soulful classic vocalists like Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley and Del McCoury with a twist uniquely his own. Like Craig, he has a natural ability to connect with an audience and a free-wheeling sense of humor that translates well at different venues—everywhere from large concert halls and social events to clubs, musical programs at a local shelter for the homeless and special music at his church, where he is a deacon.
Banjo player Mark Barnett has been a regular part of the Nashville music scene since 1974, and he’s been performing in various bands with Billy Smith and Craig Duncan for nearly as long. Mark played 23 seasons at Opryland USA—most of the time leading his own show. He has recorded a number of albums and is currently featured on two recordings on the Benson label.
Another seasoned musician who seems to innately know how to deliver a song and entertain a crowd, Mark has played music all over the United States, including a performance at the White House in Washington, D.C. Overseas tours have taken Barnett’s music to fans in Canada, Europe and the Soviet Union.
Most fans will agree that a hard-driving five string banjo is the heartbeat of bluegrass music, and Mark Barnett knows how to deliver the complexly syncopated, breath-taking instrumental sound that epitomizes the genre. You’ve got to have a banjo to play traditional bluegrass, and Mark Barnett is one of the best. He’s also a gifted singer.
Kris and Dale Ballinger are a husband and wife team well known in the Nashville music community as members of The Cluster Pluckers, a band formed by chance in 1980 at a local picking party. They soon joined forces with world champion old-time fiddler, Frazier Moss, who taught them the spirit in which traditional music should be played and enjoyed. Kris and Dale’s years with the legendary fiddler, now deceased, have made them one of the tightest rhythm sections in bluegrass music. They are fine singers (they could probably sing harmony to a fence post!), and they also carry Frazier’s fiddle tune repertoire in their collective memory, passing the music down to future generations.
The Cluster Pluckers’ credits include gigs at the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee; the American Folk Roots Concert Series at Carnegie Hall; television appearances with fiddler/hillbilly jazz king Vassar Clements and appearances with legendary guitar stylist Chet Atkins, in addition to a string of critically acclaimed albums. The band played a 10-day, eight city tour in Japan—selling out every show, and they also shared their music with fans in The Netherlands and Norway during a 2001 tour.
Music lovers couldn’t ask for a better representation of bluegrass music than what Craig Duncan & Friends deliver. Their experience and expertise, combined with a genuine love for the type of traditional music they play, brings audiences to their feet with rousing waves of applause.
–Nancy Cardwell; Nashville, Tenn.
Special Projects Director, International Bluegrass Music Association
Freelance writer/columnist, Bluegrass Unlimited & Bluegrass Now