Banjo picking for scholarships at CCC


Banjo Billy Smith uses his gig on Grand Canyon Railway to fund a scholarship at CCC for underserved Native Americans.



FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - It started off as a project to meet the requests of fans of his performances on the train.


It ended up as a labor of love to help underserved Native Americans attend college.


Banjo Billy Smith, a regular performer on the Grand Canyon Railway before the COVID-19 outbreak, has started the Banjo Billy Scholarship for Underserved Native Americans at Coconino Community College.


“My hope is that I help people in need of help pursue their education,” Smith said.


The scholarship, administered by the CCC Foundation, awards $1,000 to at least one Native American student a year. The 2020-21 school year will be the first year a student has received funding from the Banjo Billy scholarship. To qualify for the scholarship, a student must be an enrolled tribal member and must show need for the scholarship.


Smith spent 33 years as Music and Theatre faculty at community colleges in Wyoming and Texas before retiring. He also directed numerous theatre and musical theatre productions in that time.


The germinating seed for the scholarship started with his banjo-picking performances on the train, Smith said.


“People were asking if I had a CD they could buy,” Smith said, laughing. “Embarrassed, I said I didn’t.”


So, he started figuring out what it would take to put one together, which meant he had to find out how royalties and fees worked for songs that he didn’t write.


At about the same time, Smith said his wife, Dr. Colleen Smith, president of CCC, had a conversation with Coconino County Attorney Bill Ring, and Ring had mentioned the story of a young Native American student who overcame amazing odds to complete high school. Ring talked about how a scholarship for that student to attend CCC would make a big difference in the young man’s life.


“I’ve always felt an indebtedness to the Native American culture,” Smith said. “And I wanted to give others that chance.”


Why not have the CD of music support a scholarship at CCC?


He squared away the royalties and went about recording 14 songs – playing all instruments, singing, mixing and arranging – in two weeks in his kitchen “studio.” Two of the songs are his, and another three belong to fellow musicians from the train. The songs are a mix of folk, western, country, bluegrass and Americana – all with the Banjo Billy flare.


“It’s not the greatest in the world, but I think it does the job,” Smith said.


The plan was to sell the CD or a USB drive of the songs to patrons of the train for $10. All profits (about $5 from each sale) would go toward the scholarship. In a matter of months, the scholarship was funded sufficiently to make its first award.


The big dream is to get the fund up to $25,000, which would allow it to be “endowed” and be awarded in perpetuity, Smith said.


In addition to the Banjo Billy Scholarship for Underserved Native Americans, the CCC Foundation has several scholarships for students to choose from, depending on their ability to meet scholarship requirements. For more information about scholarships available at the CCC Foundation and their requirements, visit


For more information about the Banjo Billy CD that supports the Banjo Billy Scholarship for Underserved Native Americans, visit



Tuesday, 2nd June 2020

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  • Tuesday, 2nd June 2020