Missouri banjo player gets shoutout from Steve Martin, wins national banjo award

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – One musician in Springfield says give everything your best effort because you never know who could be watching.

Alan Munde plays the banjo. Recently, he won the Steve Martin Banjo Prize. Munde spoke with OzarksFirst about his recent accomplishment.

Munde has dedicated more than half his life to the banjo. He is 74 years old and has been playing the instrument for 60 years.


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“I started playing in the late 50s, early 60s,” Munde said. “I got interested because there was a folk music boom on at the time. I started playing guitar originally, but then you hear banjo’s mixed in with it, and it attracted me. So I saved up my money and bought, I think at the time, the cheapest banjo I could find because you’re just a kid, and you don’t have a lot of money.”

He played the banjo through college. After graduating, he got a job in Nashville, Tennessee with a professional, touring bluegrass band. Munde went on to join the Flying Burrito Brothers, and later, The Country Gazette. Touring led to him working with who would eventually be his wife, Kitty Ledbetter, in the late ’70s.

“I was a disc jockey, and I emceed his shows,” Ledbetter said. “I’ve been following him ever since I first met him and before because I played his records. We didn’t meet until 16 years later. We kept in touch through the radio. I’ve watched him his whole career.”

Munde’s ongoing music career has also allowed him to enjoy special moments, like the Deering Banjo Company’s “Steve Martin Banjo Prize 2021” winners announcement on October 6. Martin announced the two winners.

“Our two winners represent the best of five-string bluegrass and four-string tenor banjo traditions,” Martin said in the video. “Both have made a remarkable contribution to the banjo’s legacy through their mastery of the instrument, and both have generously shared their knowledge as dedicated educators. This year’s winners are five-string, bluegrass titan Alan Munde and four-string, creole jazz maestro Don Vappie. Congratulations to you both, and thank you for everything you do for the banjo.”

Munde says he wasn’t able to watch the announcement since he was on his way to a gig that day.

“I was shocked,” Munde said. “When I got the call, I pulled off to the side of the road and was just speechless. I’ve never been that way before, but I don’t know what to think other than just, wow. What a thing. What a dang deal.”

Ledbetter remembers the moment Munde called her to share the news.

“He called me, and he said, ‘I have to tell you something,” Ledbetter recalls. “Then he started blubbering, and I thought that doesn’t sound good. ‘You’re crying. What’s going on?”

She says Munde couldn’t catch his breath.

“He said, ‘I’m going to try to get this out,” Ledbetter said. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh.’ He said, ‘Nobody’s died. I said, ‘Okay…?’ And a little while he said, ‘I won the Steve Martin Banjo Prize. We both just went, ‘AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!’”

Munde says he’ll never forget the happiness he shared with his wife that day.

“Plus, among the banjo world, I’m well enough known that I guess even Steve Martin knows who I am,” Munde said.

A perk of winning the prize, Munde will soon receive $25,000.

“I always like to say I don’t need any money, but those that I owe do,” Munde said. “I’m sure that I’ll find some use for it. I’ve got a daughter, two grandkids, a wife and my life. I may use it to produce an album or two of my own. I don’t know. I may paint the house, or whatever people do with their money. I’ll do that.”

OzarksFirst asked Ledbetter how she would like her husband to spend the money. She gave a fitting answer for someone who’s been married to Munde for 20 years.

“I would like him to spend it whatever way he wants to,” Ledbetter said. “I don’t need the money. I like the guy. I like him just as he is. However he spends the money is okay with me.”

Munde says winning the prize inspires him and makes him want to play the banjo for the rest of his life.

“I always liked Mark Twain,” Munde said. “They would ask him, ‘You’re famous right now. What would you like for people to say about you in 100 years?’ He said, ‘I would like for them to say, ‘Wow, doesn’t he look good for his age?’ So, I plan on doing this until I can’t.”

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