California Report: Bill Evans discusses Banjo in America and life

Bill Evans needs no introduction to banjo players or bluegrass fans. As a performer, teacher, writer, composer, scholar and very passionate banjo enthusiast, he covers all territory, from nineteenth century minstrel to both classic and progressive bluegrass styles. If it’s been played on a banjo, chances are he can teach it and perhaps most importantly, he will make it fun.

You’ve been doing your Banjo in America presentation for quite a while. How has it evolved?

I started touring throughout Kentucky in the 1990s with support from the Kentucky Humanities Council. By that time, I had completed five years of course work in music at UC Berkeley, studying the relationship of music and culture from all over the world, with a concentration on American music history and the influence of African and African-American styles on American music. Friends such as Tony Trischka, Mike Seeger, Bob Carlin, John Hartford, Joe Ayers, and Clarke Buehling inspired me. All of these players were—and still are—way ahead of me in exploring these early banjo styles. They offered me a lot of encouragement, access to the right resources, and actual instruction.

I’ve been calling the show “The Banjo in America” since the mid-1990s and I’ve showcased at IBMA with it twice over the last twenty years. To show how far we’ve all come when it comes to banjo history, I remember reading the anonymous evaluations of my first showcase in the 1990s in Louisville, where a few people wrote things like “We don’t need to hear so much about the African influence.” Today, this influence is celebrated, the complex history is increasingly acknowledged, and it’s wonderful to witness musicians such as Rhiannon Giddens and Otis Taylor recapture the banjo and incorporate it into living and creative African-American musical traditions.

I played a workshop stage set with Otis Taylor at the Strawberry Music Festival over a decade ago, and he said that I was the most African-sounding white player he had ever heard. I don’t know exactly what he meant by that, but I think he meant it as a complement and I’m taking it!

As a performer, I’ve come to realize that this concert isn’t about me just demonstrating the various styles or presenting the history of the banjo. That can be pretty boring, even to folks who love the banjo. It’s about entertaining a general audience. The moment that I discovered that very basic fact a few years ago, I started enjoying performing the show a lot more. I began to shape it to blend stories, music and humor, along with personal stories related to my own career and friendships that I’ve developed now for over forty years. These days, each show is different and I’m enjoying it more than ever.

It’s a concert, not a workshop or demonstration, and there’s a lot of my own music in it. I have a DVD/CD set coming out late this year on Tiki Parlour Recordings featuring 19 cuts and medleys played on eleven different historic banjos. You’ll have to find your DVD player to watch it!

You’ve covered a lot of mileage in the American banjo landscape. If you had unlimited resources, where would you take it?

It’s really difficult to make a living playing music full-time professionally in California, to raise a family, buy a home, put the kids through college and save for retirement—you know, all of those things that normal people are supposed to do. I’ve been lucky in that I had a supportive wife and family and we all worked together to make my own career possible. I also shaped my career in a way that I could be home as much as possible to be with my family and also earn as much money as possible to keep the bills paid.

I gave up on the idea of touring in a band from the West Coast a very long time ago, and I’m not on the scene as much as I’d like to be—I don’t have much free time to hang out with folks or jam very much. But I’m thankful for being given the opportunity to blend performing and touring, teaching, writing, and recording in a way that I’ve been able to make ends meet.

After the death of my wife Kathy from leukemia in 2017, I’m even more thankful for my kids and for being able to do something that I love. I’ve been blessed by the relationships that have been created out of this work. These friendships—with students, fans, fellow musicians, writers, and educators—mean everything to me.

Big changes are ahead for me in the next few months. I am marrying an amazing and very wonderful woman, Babi Pagillo from Ruidoso, New Mexico, and along with my dog Jake, my two cats Zippy and Gizmo, and all of my banjos, we’ll be relocating there in the fall. Babi plays in a trio called the Noisy Water Band and I invite everyone to listen to their new project, Do It Again! She’s a more progressive player than I am in a lot of ways. Check out her cool Steely Dan and Dire Straits covers!

Babi is encouraging me to get back to practicing, composing, researching history, and writing, and I’m ready for a change and starting a new life with this incredible person. With the health challenges faced by my family over the last few years and the economic challenges of living here in the SF Bay Area, I haven’t had much time for any of these things for quite a while. However, I’m ready to reconnect with the joy that I find in this work. I’ll be coming back to California every couple of months for Bangers and Grass shows [at the Kensington Circus Pub in El Cerrito], for the California Banjo Extravaganza, and for a few camps that I’ll be directing.

I’m about a third of the way through a new recording and I’d like to finish that in the next year. I also want to begin work on an exercise book for banjo players that could be one of those resources like Patterns for Jazz that musicians could use for many decades to come. And there’s always a pile of historical music to learn!

And after teaching at over 300 camps over the last decades, I’m also interested in directing more of these events. Babi and I already have the New Mexico Banjo Camp up and running, and I’ll be directing a band/ensemble camp over Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley in January 2020. I hope to add another banjo camp in California at some point as well.

No one in life is given unlimited resources of time and money to do everything that they want to do. The price of being a world-famous touring musician is high. Traveling, marketing, band leading, management concerns, etc. consumes their schedules. I’m certainly not that, by any means. I’ve made the conscious attempt to stay grounded, close to home near to loved ones, and make the most out of the resources that are there and the time that’s been given to me. That’s more of a gift and blessing to me, really. Keep it simple. Focus on the love of what you do and love for those around you, stay positive, and everything else will take care of itself.

How many camps do you teach at in a typical year and do they all have the same basic format?

I teach at eight to ten camps each year, and I’m directing two or three a year of my own now. I’m especially glad to see new models of camps emerging over the last few years that match my own vision for what a music camp should be. I enjoy most those events that honor and respect teachers, offer a more relaxed schedule and are of a smaller size, allowing teachers to reach individual students more effectively, and for adult students to more effectively put to use what they’ve learned.

Camps do indeed vary in format. Some camps last just over a weekend while others run up to five days. Many camps are instrument specific and these can be good for getting to know a wider variety of teachers and banjo styles. However, the jamming isn’t so great unless you like a session with just 15 or 20 banjo players! Many camps are big enough to offer instruction on all of the instruments, and that allows for students to have a band experience and better jamming, but there could be a wide variety of ability levels in your instrument class. That can be a distraction unless the teacher is really good at keeping all ability levels occupied at once. Some of the larger camps have the best of both worlds, with more than one class on each instrument, but there’s not time or space for much one-on-one interaction at the larger camps.

Opening up time for students to practice on site what they’ve just learned is really important. It’s also important to pay the teachers well, house them comfortably and provide a more relaxed schedule to allow for more one-on-one interaction with students. This is what I’m trying to do with my own events and it seems to be working. Our New Mexico camp was sold out last April and we’re almost full already for the April 2020 camp.

How many instruments do you have, and how do you transport them to camps and workshops?

I do have a banjo acquisition problem but I always use the excuse that my solo show is all about hearing and seeing as many banjos as possible! There are personal connections with many of my most favorite instruments: my Granada came from Sonny Osborne; I’m friends with Jim Hartel, the maker of my minstrel banjo replicas; I purchased my Vega Whyte Laydie from Stan Werbin at Elderly instruments, who is also a good friend; my Cammeyer zither banjo belonged to Jody Stecher, one of the most powerful mentors that I’ve ever known; Riley Baugus, who I dearly love, made the banjo that I’m trying to learn to play clawhammer with; and I’m honored to own a banjo from the Jim Rollins collection. Jim was a close friend to many of us in the banjo community who died in a tragic auto accident close to two years ago. I guess I probably have too many banjos by anyone’s measurement, but each one reminds me of a time or a place or a special person or even a family experience or memory, and that can be as important as the instrument itself.

I’ve flown across the country with up to five banjos. It’s a challenge but it can be done! The most difficult part is getting from baggage to the rental car center with that many instruments when I’m traveling by myself. When I flew into Raleigh a few years ago for IBMA, arriving very late at night, I had to leave three banjos on the curb while I walked over to the rental car center. I drove back to pick them up and fortunately they were all still there (and no one had left me another one!).

When I’m driving, which I do more frequently now, I can carry up to ten or eleven instruments but I can’t really perform on many more than eight or nine in a single concert anyway. Wow! I know that sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? But I enjoy letting audiences hear the different sounds of each of these instruments and I try and choose material that’s historically appropriate for each instrument in the best way.

Tell us about your Peghead Nation classes.

Scott Nygaard, Teja Gerken, and Dan Gabel created Peghead Nation a few years ago as a video subscription lesson service, and I believe that there are now over thirty separate courses available. I host a beginning banjo course and a bluegrass banjo course, and there are over 120 lessons up and running now with a new lesson added each month. I’ve been putting a lot of energy into this project these last few years. On the bluegrass course there are lessons on just about every aspect of playing, from Scruggs to melodic and single-string, back-up, improvisation, working up solos, jam etiquette, and more. Lessons are geared to ability level, so you’ll find something for every experience level. For total newbies, we direct folks to the beginning banjo course.

I try to create arrangements that the typical intermediate student can learn without too much effort, but I also try to make each assignment sound great—to make it sound like a legitimate and cool sounding professional banjo solo. Students pay $20 per month for one course or $30 for two, and there are discounts for full year subscriptions. Use the coupon code “BillE” to check out an entire course for a free month. Each lesson has my tab with it too, so there’s video, tab, and visual learning methods for each lesson. There are quite a few advanced lessons up and running in melodic and single-string style, along with transcriptions of playing from Earl Scruggs, J.D. Crowe, Sonny Osborne, and Bill Keith, among others. Check it out at www.pegheadnation.com. The commercial is now over! 

What about Earl Scruggs’ playing made him the first to popularize the three-finger style?

Much of the classic banjo material from the late 19th and early 20th centuries is played mostly with three fingers, and the old-time North Carolina banjo player Charlie Poole played with three fingers as well. This way of playing seemed to be in the air around the North and South Carolina Piedmont, and Earl has cited players such as Smith Hammett and Mack Woolbright as influences. I’m not sure if Don Reno was already playing with three fingers when he met Earl but I think this was the case. Snuffy Jenkins was in the area and he was slightly older than Earl, so there’s another potential influence.

But to paraphrase John Hartford, we wouldn’t be caring about where this style might have come from if it wasn’t for what Earl Scruggs did with it. I’ve been studying and playing his music now for over forty-five years and it continues to convey new revelations to me all of the time. For me, this is a level of musical genius on the same plane as Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Chuck Berry, Bill Monroe, or even Mozart. Five strings, three fingers in 4/4 time (well, most of the time)! In Earl’s fingers, this was an inexhaustible source of musical inspiration.

It’s relatively easy to grasp the essentials of Earl’s style—the rolls, the left-hand embellishments, the basic ideas of accompaniment. But you can spend a lifetime chasing every nuance and subtlety of Earl’s playing. This accessibility makes it all the more genius.

Earl created a complete vocabulary of lead and accompaniment playing that provided the technical foundation subsequent generations have used to effectively play note-for-note fiddle tunes, classical music, jazz, and everything else. It seems like none of these more recent innovations would have been possible without Earl. Or let’s put it this way: they certainly wouldn’t have been as good without Earl having been there first. His logic as applied to this instrument is astonishing to me. He used all five strings well and tastefully, conveying melody and perfectly accompanying others. You can’t beat that!

How and when did the high short string on the banjo evolve?

I discuss in concert how the highest pitched fifth string is what makes the banjo unique. This is most definitely an African trait. Early banjos might not have had five strings, but that highest-pitched string that’s closest in position to being played by the right-hand thumb has been present in most African banjo-type instruments for centuries. The New World banjo probably arrived at five strings sometime in the mid-19th century with the addition of the lowest pitched fourth string.

Which is more important especially for a beginner, the picking or fingering hand?

In my own experience, the right hand is the most important, not only for new players but for more experienced players as well. I’ve spent time with modern players such as Chris Pandolfi, Wes Corbett, Jayme Stone, Greg Liszt, and Catherine Bowness, and in all of those situations we worked mostly on the right hand. The right hand is your musical personality and power and expression. There’s a wide variety of ways to get a great sound from the picking hand. I try to find what works for each student based on relaxation. 

Is there someone who you haven’t worked with but would really like to? What would you explore with them?

I would have liked to have spent time with jazz guitarist Jim Hall. I love his music and was able to have a short conversation with him after a show about the challenges of playing jazz on the banjo. Jim’s approach was elegant and beautiful. Singing and soaring. And swinging.

I spent one afternoon with composer Terry Riley at his house outside of Nevada City. He was finishing up a very large work for orchestra and he had written a banjo part into the piece. I was visiting to see if it could be played on a five-string. (It couldn’t, by the way!) Just seeing such a massive score open up before us, hearing the power and majesty of such a large scale work for full orchestra, and knowing that the guy next to you created it…well, that was really humbling, inspirational, and musically overwhelming. I’d love to have spent more time with him, absorbing ideas about successful long-form composition and big orchestration.

Terry is also known as the one of the creators of minimalism. He gave me permission to perform his path-breaking work In C on banjos, changing the title to In G! Way to go, Terry! I’m going to do this someday!

I love guitarist Bill Frisell’s sense of musical exploration and his harmonic sense. He’s so prolific as well! I’d love to help him on a project someday. And I would love to have played with Bruce Springsteen but Greg Liszt landed that gig a few years ago!  

What is your take on the current country rap hit Old Town Road?

I love it! It’s amazing as a piece of music but even more amazing as a worldwide cultural phenomenon. I don’t think that there’s a real banjo on the track, but there’s definitely a computer banjo sound there that’s somewhat sinister. I love that it came out of left field from a musician who was not well known, and it’s been interesting to follow the music industry’s reaction to a piece that’s both country and hip hop. You can read the piece on different levels. Is the singer making fun of country or loving it? Who’s the intended audience? It’s a song that’s making us look at our preconceptions and our prejudices. That’s very powerful when it’s essentially something that’s whimsical at heart.

Babi and I attended her dad’s family reunion in Florida recently, and every single young person there knew the Old Town Road song by heart. Babi and I worked up the song and played it at the reunion, getting the kids up to sing and rap it after some persuasion. The girls knew the hand motions and I had to go onto YouTube to get introduced to that aspect of this phenomenon—the way the song has been used (do we call it memed?) by millions of people.

Many of us older folks had never heard it before. Finally, a whole bunch of family looked up the lyrics on their phones and started to sing along. We all burst out laughing, young and old alike, when we had to sing the word “boobies.”

I’ve just started playing it in concert as an instrumental, out of curiosity to see who recognizes it. I could see this being performed as kind of an abstract, atonal modern jazz kind of thing but also as a mournful old-time piece. There are lots of possibilities here! 

Your humor is effective but different than more traditional banjo humor. Might one say you have a progressive humor style?

Wow, thanks…I think. I played with Ron Thomason in the band Dry Branch Fire Squad from 1992 to 1996. Ron is a master storyteller. His on-stage persona is true to who he is in some ways but not others. I learned a lot from listening to him onstage for those four years. He has the ability to keep thousands riveted to his every word and he can then turn them quickly from laughter to tears as he talks about his real life experiences, such as burying a beloved horse. I’m nowhere near as masterful as he is, but he’s certainly a good role model in how to relate to an audience and attempt to reach deeply and make people think and feel.

I really do care that people enjoy themselves. I try to make eye contact and keep that communication going back and forth throughout a show. The audience is the most important part of the performance, really. Next to the banjos!

Do you have any upcoming shows you want to mention?

I hope to return to the San Francisco Bay Area to continue the Bangers and Grass performances every two to three months. We have shows scheduled in August and September. We all love playing traditional bluegrass in this pub setting and we’ve enjoyed full houses for over eight years. A community of people has formed around these shows and I want to keep that going. Kudos to Jim Nunally, Chad Manning, Tom Bekeny, and Steve Pottier for hanging in there with me all of these years with this project. These are my most favorite people in the world to play this music with!

I’ll also continue to do the California Banjo Extravaganza tour every November. This year our co-headliners are Gina Furtado and Leroy Troy, with concerts in Paradise (a benefit show for the arts center there), Winters, Berkeley, Sebastopol, and Los Gatos from November 7–11. John Reischman, Chad Manning and Sharon Gilchrist are joining us once again as our all-star back-up band, and we’ll also be joined this year by Oregon’s Dale Adkins on guitar. He’s a masterful player and singer and I’m excited to introduce him to California audiences.

Thank you, Bill, for your work and insights.

Thank you! I really enjoyed thinking about these questions.

Notes

Portions of this interview were also published in the California Bluegrass Association Breakdown. Copy editing by Jeanie Poling.

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About the Author

Dave Berry

Dave Berry is an avid mandolin picker, singer and songwriter who writes an interview column for the monthly California Bluegrass Association (CBA) members publication featuring California regional and national artists who tour California. He grew up in bluegrass country on the Ohio River right between where the Big Sandy and Big Scioto Rivers dump into the Ohio. The columns are also featured on the CBA website at www.cbaweb.org.