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Young banjo players compete at Folk Festival

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RICHMOND, Va. — Six young contestants are coming to the Richmond Folk Festival this weekend to compete in a national banjo competition.

JAMinc, a local nonprofit focusing on providing music education to a wider demographic, is hosting its third annual Scott Street Five String Finals at the festival. The competition begins on Saturday at 4 p.m. on the CarMax Family Stage and will have two divisions: bluegrass and clawhammer.

“One of our board members was named Scott Street and he died of cancer,” said organizer Tim Timberlake. To honor Street for his work as a lawyer and bluegrass musician as well as for his involvement with the nonprofit, Timberlake worked with the Virginia Folklife Program to start the Finals.

The competition, while only in its third year, has grown. Twenty-one entries were submitted this year and while only six were able to make the final cut, all of the contestants under the age of 18 are full of enthusiasm.

“I started playing banjo at age 9 when my uncle gave me his old banjo as a present,” 15-year-old artist G Rockwell, who is competing in the bluegrass division, said in an email interview.  “Since then, the banjo has been the center of my life. I travel to music festivals and have opportunities to play with many great musicians. It has allowed me to become a part of the bluegrass community and make friends.”

Rockwell is one of the contestants travelling a long way from home in Connecticut.

Also making a journey is 16-year-old Christiana Joneikis, a clawhammer contestant. After the competition, Joneikis will have the roadtrip back to her hometown in Ohio to look forward to. But to get to the competition, she is coming all the way from the Celtic Colours International Festival in Cape Breton Island Nova Scotia in Canada which she is attending with family.

Despite all the time she’ll be spending in the car, Joneikis said she is excited to meet “fellow pickers that have the same goal.”

15-year-old Johnny White, in the bluegrass division, is coming to the competition for the second year in a row.

“I’m very excited to be in the finals for a second time,” said White in an email. “Last year, the audience was very enthusiastic during each finalist’s performance, which made the event even more enjoyable.”

Taylor Parks, a 13-year-old bluegrass musician, is also making an appearance in the competition for a second time. Parks has been playing since he was six years old, while some, like Joneikis, started playing only three years ago. Since she has only been playing for a few years, Joneikis wants people to know “never think you’re too old or too young to start something new.”

Of the competitors, 17-year-old Alanna Brewer clawhammer player is the oldest. On the other end of the spectrum, Henry Coatney playing clawhammer, 13, is one of the two youngest. This competition encompasses a range of talented youth, but only one can be named the winner in the end. The first place prize is $1000, a crystal trophy and a demo recording session. The second place winner will receive $600 and third place $400.

By Emma Sue Sims (Special to

EDITOR’S NOTE: has partnered with the “iPadJournos” mobile and social media journalism project at VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. A student from the project reported this story.