The muse of traditional country music came early to Marc Pruett ’74. The Grammy Award-winning banjo master and Haywood County native remembers when he was a young boy riding in a car with his father and listening to the radio. A song came on that was “saturated with the emotions of a troubled life,” Pruett related to a WCU commencement audience in May as he was awarded an honorary doctor of arts degree.
“The significance of that moment for me lives in the comment my dad made when he saw I was moved by the message in that song,” Pruett said. “He asked me if I liked what I heard. Too overcome to speak, I simply nodded my head affirmatively. Then he said, ‘Son, that’s country music.’ He made that statement with a pride that told me, ‘We are country people, and it’s OK to feel those emotions.’ Our lives are sprinkled with a few defining moments, and I felt at that moment that whatever country music was would be a part of my life.”
Pruett found more musical inspiration listening to bluegrass greats on radio station WHCC-AM in Waynesville, and he already was a semiprofessional banjo player when he enrolled at WCU in 1969. While still in Cullowhee, Pruett began performing with James Monroe, son of bluegrass originator Bill Monroe, and that association led to an opportunity to play his banjo on Nashville’s top stage, the Grand Ole Opry.
Over the next four decades, Pruett’s talent and fame grew as he performed with bluegrass music’s elite in the recording studio and at such classic venues as New York’s Lincoln Center. Pruett joined the band of his friend Ricky Skaggs in 1995 and earned the Grammy for his work on the Skaggs’ album “Bluegrass Rules.” Since 2007, Pruett has performed with Balsam Range, which includes four other Haywood County natives. He has been a regular performer at Mountain Heritage Day, WCU’s annual fall festival, since the first one in 1975.
“Your musical accomplishments alone are exemplary and worthy of great acclaim,” Chancellor John W. Bardo said to Pruett during the degree presentation, reading from the honorary doctorate citation. “But let it be noted that during your musical career you truly have been an ambassador with a banjo as you have traveled the world, representing your university, your mountains and your people with outstanding humor, warmth and personality. You have carved your own niche as one of Western North Carolina’s great cultural icons and as a beloved son of the mountains.”
In accepting the honorary doctorate, Pruett harkened back to his own graduation day 36 years ago. “Within me were dreams that I hoped to use in cultivating a life filled with purpose, a life meeting challenges, and a life rising to the highest positive potential I could envision for myself,” he said. “The preparation I received here was invaluable toward shaping me as a person, in guiding me through my life’s work, and in helping me find many of those goals I envisioned in my youth.”