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Friday, 07 July 2017 10:59

Banjoist and McCreary County native Edsel Blevins to receive MMF Lifetime Achievement Award

Edsel Ford Blevins doesn’t believe he’s worthy of the honor of Master Musician. “I just don’t, I’ve been at it too long,” he says. 

But his story belies his humility.

It’s a story of receiving his first banjo as a gift from his parents at the age of 10 and teaching himself to play with the style of legendary country music star Ernest Van “Pop” Stoneman. It’s a story of playing the banjo across Kentucky and Tennessee for more than three decades, from the platform at Big South Fork Scenic Railway to the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.

It’s a story of an only child’s devotion to living with and caring for his parents until their passing. Edsel never married or had children, but as a musician and a school custodian for 27 years with McCreary County Schools developed a community of people who love and care for him. There are many heartfelt posts and memories about Edsel on a Facebook group page created to honor him, including a video shout-out from country music star Vince Gill himself.

It’s a story of comeback, having survived severe illness, surgery and two hospitalizations in 2014. He eventually moved from his home across from Smithtown Elementary School in McCreary County, where he served as custodian, to Crestview Personal Care in Somerset so he could recuperate. It was there — with support from his caregiver, Eugenia Jones, and his friend, Somerset musician Kevin Dalton — that he reluctantly picked up the banjo again. Soon he was singing and picking his favorite tunes, like Hank Williams’s “You Win Again,” for crowds in Somerset and McCreary County.

Edsel will perform on the Master Musicians Festival stage at 4:30 p.m. Saturday with Dalton and Tommy Cate, at which time he will be recognized as the festival’s Master Musician and receive the MMF Lifetime Achievement Award. The award recognizes an individual who has made significant contributions to his or her field and to the arts. Past recipients include former MMF board member Jack Wilhelm, Somerset Community College President Jo Marshall and MMF founder Gabrielle Gray.

“Edsel is a legend in our local music scene,” MMF President Tiffany Bourne said. “When we tell our lifelong festival-goers we are honoring him, it brings them to tears. Nothing rings more true to MMF’s mission than to honor someone like Edsel.”

In July 2014, the McCreary County Museum unveiled an exhibit honoring him, titled “Edsel Blevins and Banjo Culture.” McCreary County government officials also proclaimed an official “Edsel Blevins Week” in 2010, recognizing Edsel for portraying the true meaning of friendship and for his many contributions in the areas of music, education and citizenship.

Edsel will be 80 years old in November. Though thinking of the names of songs doesn’t come easy anymore, once he receives a suggestion the rest comes freely. In between songs he talks proudly about his black banjo, which his friends from Smithtown Elementary had decorated with his name, “Edsel,” in gold lettering.

“To be honest and truthful about the matter, I’m getting almost too old to do it,” he said with a smile. “My memory ain’t what it used to be.”

But he is still playing, often on Wednesday nights at Friends in Somerset on Open Mic Night, and at Pisgah. He expresses his gratitude to Eugenia, who takes him to his gigs and has cared for him for many years. 

“This nice lady here has helped me a lot,” he says, turning to Eugenia. “Took me all these places and everything.”

“It’s been a pleasure,” Eugenia replied, grabbing his hand. 

“I just try to have a good time with people, cheer them up again, and help ‘em along the way,” Blevins said, looking down at his instrument. “But I appreciate you people with all my heart, Lord knows I do.”

 

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