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Randy Lucas - A South Carolina Banjo Phenomenon

Banjo master Randy Lucas works out with his trio.
Tut Underwood
SC Public Radio
Banjo master Randy Lucas works out with his trio.

For more than 40 years, Lexington County's Randy Lucas has excited music lovers with his virtuoso banjo and guitar skills.

South Carolina music fans have been excited by Lexington County native Randy Lucas’s music for more than 40 years. Lucas is a banjo and guitar virtuoso who first picked up a banjo at 5, though he’s been playing it steadily since the age of 10, adding guitar to his skills a few years later.

Growing up in a musical family, Lucas quickly found influences in legendary pickers like Earl Scruggs, Doug Dillard, Carl Jackson and South Carolina’s Don Reno.

Lucas’s father played guitar with bluegrass pioneer Snuffy Jenkins in his band, the Hired Hands. As a youngster in the 1970s, Randy would tag along and eventually began making regular appearances with the group, he said. “Since my dad was playing with Snuffy already, they started featuring me on their shows. And they would let me come up and play one or two banjo numbers. And Snuffy was so funny, he used to tell people, ‘I didn’t hire Randy, so I couldn’t fire him.’”

His music with the Hired Hands took Lucas across the country for priceless experiences. “We played Carnegie Hall in 1984, and played the World’s Fair in Knoxville in 1982. And one of the first big things I remember playing, we went to Washington, D.C. for the bicentennial celebration. We played on the mall. And there was probably over 200,000 people, and they had music from all over the world in 1976.

“They put us on this one stage and, I don’t know, there might have been 30- or 40,000 people in front of this one stage. I was about 14 years old, I guess.”

His banjo also took Lucas to Winfield, Kansas in 1995, where the national championships of banjo and guitar music were held, and still are. He came in third place and won a banjo for his efforts, but Lucas wasn’t nearly done with Winfield.

On that first trip to Kansas, he met Allen Shadd, a guitarist from Jacksonville, Florida at the Winfield festival. The next year they combined forces and attended the contest together, each coming in second in his category this time, said Lucas. “So we decided ‘let’s go one more time,’ and we went in ’97, and he won the flatpicking championship, and I won the banjo championship that year.”

Lucas had won numerous state and regional contests, and around 2004 he got a call from a musician whose band he’d helped out. “He said ‘there’s a contest in Roanoke, Virginia you may be interested in. The first place prize is $10,000.’ So I said, ‘yeah, I think I might be interested in that.’ Went up there, played solo…and won.

“But the interesting thing about that was, there were eight Winfield winners there.” Having defeated eight other national champions, “I felt really honored,” he said, chuckling. “So that was a nice trip back home.”

Today Lucas leads the Randy Lucas Trio. His fiddle player, Jim Graddick, recalled that the first time he saw Lucas play, he was so good Graddick thought he must have been from outer space. “Yeah, he was an alien. We’d of course been familiar with the work of Flatt & Scruggs and other banjo players like Don Reno and a few others,” Graddick remembered with awe. “But really, when Randy came on the scene, it was like nothing we’d ever heard.”

Graddick believes that what makes Lucas so special is his need to create, “but he doesn’t really have to think about it, it just comes out whether you want it to or not. And it’s such a rare thing for someone to be able to so readily take emotion and condense it into auditory form.

“I think Randy does that, he just purely distills emotion right into music, in a moment’s notice, with any song. That’s pretty amazing to watch.”

Lucas recorded an album when he was 13 years old, and has thought about maybe doing another one, perhaps even re-recording the songs from that first album to see the differences the years and experience have wrought.

Whether the versatile Lucas is playing old-time banjo tunes, gospel, pop songs, gypsy jazz or his own original songs, he said his main goal is to reach people with his music.

“Music is such a wonderful thing that touches people in ways sometimes we don’t realize. It can be very uplifting and take our minds away from other stuff that’s going on.” As far as anything he wants to accomplish in the future, he said, “I do want to continue to do that.”

About the only thing that has eluded him thus far, said Lucas, is one wish. “It would be nice to play the Grand Ole Opry. And it may happen at some point, you never know. It’s incredible some of the things that have happened over the years, you know, the doors that open up.

“You just never know where you’re gonna wind up.”

Tut Underwood is producer of South Carolina Focus, a weekly news feature. A native of Alabama, Tut graduated from Auburn University with a BA in Speech Communication. He worked in radio in his hometown before moving to Columbia where he received a Master of Mass Communications degree from the University of South Carolina, and worked for local radio while pursuing his degree. He also worked in television. He was employed as a public information specialist for USC, and became Director of Public Information and Marketing for the South Carolina State Museum. His hobbies include reading, listening to music in a variety of styles and collecting movies and old time radio programs.