Between 1996 and the fall of 2000, these five folks had occasion to work together as subs for each other's bands but it was in August of 1999 that they had the good fortune of working together on the same show and found the combination to work well. Monroe Crossing was formed in September of 2000 with Brian Fesler on the banjo but by January 2001, Benji was on board.
Since then, Art, Lisa, Matt and Mark have constant members of Monroe Crossing. There have been six banjo players over the years. Brian Fesler was with the band from September through December of 2000. Benji joined in December of 2000 and stayed until October of 2001. Graham Sones was next on the five and played until October of 2004 when Jeff Whitson moved up from Arkansas to take his place. Jeff picked with Monroe Crossing until May of 2006. Jason Ericsson of Pennsylvania filled Jeff shoes and stayed until December of 2006. Jason's departure cleared the way for the return of Benji.
Beginning in October 2004, Monroe Crossing has been playing full-time, a feat few musicians in any genre can claim. With Benji back in the fold, the five original members of Monroe Crossing look forward to entertaining audiences of all sizes from coast to coast and from Canada to the Caribbean. It's hard to believe that these five individuals will celebrating their tenth anniversary with a year long tour beginning September of 2009.
Originally from Nigeria, Lisa learned mandolin from an old Bill Monroe 78rpm record. Though that old record is long gone, its spirit of Bluegrass remains. Mix in her international background, and Lisa's performances are truly a cross-continental and cross-cultural experience! Excelling on all the stringed instruments, she plays fiddle & mandolin with Monroe Crossing. A stellar vocalist, she is also a prolific songwriter, solo performer, studio musician, and educator who has performed with such notables as The Hers, the Outskirts, and the Deadly Nightshade Family Singers. She received the Folk Arts Apprenticeship Grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board to study fiddle with Minnesota legend Bill Hinkley, and was the recipient of the 2000 Female Vocalist of the Year Award (in the Related Music category) from the Minnesota Bluegrass & Old-Time Music Association. Lisa plays with the drive and intensity that defines Bluegrass fiddle, but listen closely and you will hear a world of experience.
Called "a font of creative flatpicking for decades" by Inside Bluegrass magazine, Art brings to the band 30 years of experience and a true love for the roots of Bluegrass music. As band leader of Art & Sandi's Pretty Good Band, Big Skyota, and The Pretty Good Bluegrass Band, Art brought together some of the finest musicians in the region and has entertained thousands across the Midwest. The winner of the Minnesota Bluegrass & Old-Time Music Association’s Bluegrass Guitar Player of the Year Award in 2000, it was his creative persistence that was the genesis of Monroe Crossing. Today, Art’s powerful voice, exquisite flatpicking and thoughtful writing lend a fresh originality to the tradition upon which the band is founded.
After a chance encounter with a Bill Monroe record, a young Matt Thompson instantly fell in love with this incredible sound and proceeded to order Monroe record after Monroe record. Mandolin became Matt's instrument of choice, and Bluegrass a huge part of his life. Within two years his initial group, The Bluegrass Connection, won First Place at the 1982 Minnesota State Fair talent contest. Later bands included River Basin Bluegrass, Inside Track, and Big Skyota with Art Blackburn. In 1997, he co-founded True Blue and performed on Garrison Keillor’s "A Prairie Home Companion" and showcased at the International Bluegrass Music Association convention in Louisville, KY. A superb singer, arranger and the band’s MC, Matt also plays twin fiddle for Monroe Crossing. And he received the Minnesota Bluegrass & Old-Time Music Association's Bluegrass Mandolin Player of the Year Award in 2000. Now that Matt has returned to his traditional roots with Monroe Crossing, you'll hear his heart and soul in every note.
From Minneapolis, the band's youngest and newest member is the returning charter member, Benji Flaming. Benji started playing banjo at age 10, having spent the previous two years composing and playing "new age"/electronic music on his family's electronic keyboard. Two years later, he released his first recording, consisting mainly of Christmas carols arranged for solo banjo. As a former member of Monroe Crossing, he engineered and played on the band's critically-acclaimed debut CD, "Across The Blue Mountains." A multi-instrumentalist, his most recent release (a collection of alternative rock songs reinterpreted as bluegrass music) finds him playing banjo, guitar, dobro, and bass, and showcases his arrangement and engineering skills. He was featured at the International Bluegrass Music Association's annual FanFest, made multiple appearances on their "Masters Workshop" stage, and in 2000, was voted "Banjo Player of the Year" by the Minnesota Bluegrass and Old-Time Music Association. His love for music is obvious by the drive and energy of his unique banjo stylings. Be sure to visit Benji's site for his solo banjo work, solobanjo.com
Mark came to Bluegrass after twenty years of playing bass and drums in a series of "alternative" groups. In 1995, friends suggested he get a string bass and bring his alternative zeal to the Bluegrass community. He quickly realized he’d found a musical home and joined Art Blackburn in Art & Sandi's Pretty Good Band, and later, The Pretty Good Bluegrass Band. Mark has also performed with The Bluegrass Buddies and The Deadly Nightshade Family Singers. Mark is acknowledged as one of the Midwest’s elite Bluegrass bass players. In fact, he was nominated by the Minnesota Bluegrass & Old-Time Music Association as 2000 Bassist of the Year in both the Bluegrass and the Related Music categories! No matter the style or venue, Mark's earthy drive is unmistakably his own and is sure to set the feet tapping.