California Report: Old-time neo-traditional roots artist Evie Ladin

Oakland based Evie Ladin has a long list of music credentials, including banjo player, singer, songwriter, percussive-dancer, choreographer, square-dance caller, and educator. Though firmly entrenched in old-time styles, her music extends into African and Celtic styles. She was a 2020 recipient of a Jubilation Foundation grant, awarded to artists with an exceptional talent for bringing joy to people through music and movement. She has deep family musical connections, a very talented band, and a new release, Playing Our Hand, all of which she discusses below.

What are your earliest connections to roots music?

My dad fell in love with folk music after going to a hootenanny at Carnegie Hall in 1958, and my mom was an avid international folk dance instructor – so they were heavily into roots/folk music and dance. By the time my sister and I came along, Pete Seeger had started, I believe, the first “folk” festival, and we grew up with musicians and dancers staying with us while on tour, and being taken to festivals and music parties – as long as I can remember.

What instruments do you play?

I started clogging when I was five. When John Cohen was staying with us, he took us to get my first banjo when I was eight, so percussive dance, banjo, and harmony singing started early. As an adult I started playing guitar, and I started learning fiddle when my son was born, partly because I wanted to get him used to sleeping through anything. I enjoy playing fiddle, but I don’t think I’ll ever call myself a fiddler.


Did your family play as well?

My parents loved to dance but neither of them played music. My dad is an avid music appreciator, especially old-time and related folk music, so there was always music and musicians around, but he said he never had the patience to get good at an instrument. Both my sister and I play, sing, and dance.

What other musical influences did you have?

My dad was always playing records – jug band music, bluegrass, old-time, blues – and then one of his friends moved and gave us all of her Beatles records and more – plus all the live music we heard from musicians who stayed with us or at those early festivals – really a range of folk/roots music styles. The early folk festivals were not so pigeonholed but really had a range from different cultures. So I heard a lot. Then of course, hip-hop was emerging as I was coming into my own, and by then we were living in inner city Baltimore, so a lot of black popular music was pretty heavy in the mix.

When did you know music was your calling?

Percussive dance, and dance in general, was really my first love and career; I spent my 20s in a professional touring group called Rhythm in Shoes. When I came to the Bay Area, I just didn’t find a dance scene I connected with but almost immediately fell in with the gals who became the Stairwell Sisters. I’d always played music – jams and square dances – but it was with the Sisters that the music and writing took priority. That said, music and dance were always so interwoven it seemed more a continuation than a real turning point.

What’s your process for composing, and on what instrument?

Good question. A lot of times lyrical phrases will hit me and I mull it around in my head, singing on my bike, or free associating in writing. I often write lyrics first, and sometimes they arrive complete with a melody. Usually I work things out on guitar unless I know it’s a banjo tune. Because the banjo needs retuning, it’s easier for me to figure things out on guitar, to find the right key and chord changes, and then move it to banjo or body percussion! My bandmate Erik Pearson is fantastic in listening to my raw material and suggesting different chordal approaches that really give the music depth, and then Keith Terry often adjusts the groove and adds some finishing touches.

What is your approach in learning a new song or tune?

For public domain or songs/tunes that are in the tradition already, I do a lot of listening to different sources, scrolling through to see what might strike me. Then I’ll research different versions to see where it’s from and how it evolved over time. Then I might try it in different keys and banjo styles and bring it to the band. I might cobble together my own version or lyrics from the various sources or cover one version completely. When I bring new songs to the band, Erik and Keith always have input on feel, arrangement, or chordal backup that adds detail to my ideas.

What bands have you played in?

I really started my performance career as a dancer with Rhythm In Shoes, and only played music in jams and for square dances. My first real ongoing square dance band was called SPANK, in Bloomington, Indiana. When I moved to the Bay Area in 2000 I didn’t immediately find camaraderie in the wider dance community, but I did fall right in with the old-time scene, and within two months in town the Stairwell Sisters came together. All-gal old-time teardown, we played together for 13 years, released three albums, and toured around the country and the UK. As Rhythm In Shoes was my professional training on the dance stage, the Stairwell Sisters really enabled me to cultivate my musicianship and songwriting. After a decade with the Sisters, I felt emboldened to launch my solo career, leading my own band for the next decade plus. 

I landed in California with the invitation to join Crosspulse, a multicultural performance quintet where everyone’s arts come from the African diaspora, and we collaborate on ensemble works. I represent Appalachian traditional arts, and others bring Afro-Cuban, West African, African-American spiritual, jazz. and other influences. This group brought me full circle back to the study I’d done in and about Africa, and has been an ongoing satisfying outlet for diverse collaboration and education. This group primarily performs in educational settings now, and released a very popular CD for children and their families. 

Tell us about your new release.

Coming from traditional old-time music, an album of cover songs sounds pretty redundant – after all, the whole stream of tradition involves reworking music that has been passed down through generations. Yet I’ve always collaborated with diverse musicians who listen across genres, exploring the fluid boundary between old and new. This EP is a natural follow-up to our two 2019 releases – the fully original Caught On A Wire, and the fully traditional Riding the Rooster

As with all artists, a full 2020 tour schedule came to a screeching halt. Playing Our Hand was poised to support those spring and summer tours, including festivals like Crossover in the UK, Strawberry in California, Wheatland in Michigan, and music camps across the US. With the rise of Black Lives Matter, we wanted to leave space for more marginalized voices, and so we postponed the release to the fall. 

How did you choose the material?

As for the choice of songs, songs that move us or seem to translate in an interesting way to the banjo, or seem topically relevant, rose to the forefront. Of course the traditional tunes and the Carter Family are well within our usual range, though the band takes its eclectic approach to arrangement as usual. I’ve been a big fan of Paul Simon’s songwriting for decades, and I was actually a Deadhead for a good while. For me, following the Dead for several years was a rock-and-roll extension of the old-time music community I grew up with and loved. Everybody danced! The first time I came to California, in a shag-carpet van with my college boyfriend, we were following the Dead, selling beaded jewelry. I’ve been living in Oakland for many years now, and it took me a while to find a Dead song I wanted to cover, but in Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo I found one that translates well to the banjo.

Finally, I grew up partly in inner-city Baltimore during the birth of hip hop, and anyone who knows me knows how much I integrate the African and African-American roots back into banjo music. Both Gotta Be and Tightrope fall well in that category, here mashed-up with old-time instrumentals.

How can people purchase it?

Direct from my web site, digitally from evieladin.bandcamp.com, or by download from wherever you stream music.

Talk about your wonderfully talented band.

I moved to California to be with Keith Terry, who plays bass, percussion, sings, and does body music in the Evie Laden Band, and this year we celebrate our 18th wedding anniversary. Keith works with me in the Americana/folk world, and I work with him in the international body music scene, where he is best known. Keith was trained as a jazz drummer, and in working with tap dancers he pioneered a contemporary style of body music that has proliferated globally. He’s a Guggenheim Fellow and has a long and illustrious career mostly unknown in the acoustic music world. It’s a varied and rich artistic life that we share, and we’re close collaborators even as we operate in quite different music and dance worlds. 

Erik Pearson (guitars, vocals) is a musician’s musician. He’s deeply skilled in traditional styles, while being educated in composition at Oberlin. He’s equally at home playing old-time banjo, classical flute, or the role of Pete Townsend in a cover band. He’s a long-time member of the Crooked Jades, San Francisco avant-garde old-time band, and sideman for famed storyteller Dianne Ferlatte.

What interests you when you’re not playing music?

Gardening is my meditation and also feeds my family. It still blows my mind that you can grow food year-round in California. I exercise like an athlete, and love being with family and out in nature.

Are you an instructor, and what do you think are the best qualities of a teacher?

I’ve always taught throughout my career, and have discovered my ideal balance is one-third performance, one-third teaching, and one-third administration of the business/production. If this gets out of balance, so do I. I’ve gotten loads of wonderful feedback about my teaching, which I attribute in part to growing up seeing my mom lead dance groups, and part to the fact that I learned music more through oral tradition than rote education. I have a deep understanding that there are vastly different ways of learning, and I truly enjoy finding the various points of access for different students. I strongly believe every human can play, sing, and dance – it’s the most human thing – and modern audiences really need help reconnecting with these skills at any level.

Of course COVID has been very disruptive to schedules. What are you doing to connect with audiences?

I was one week into a six-week series of teaching at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley when everything went online – so I quickly scrambled to understand the new platforms and update our technology. Those group classes, plus my ongoing clawhammer banjo subscription at Peghead Nation, has really helped me stay connected. We did seven Sunday salon concerts, touring around the house, until we realized this shutdown was going to go on for a long time and paused that series, though we did no repeated songs for all those shows! I’ve had the good fortune to participate in a number of camps and festivals online, as well as offering different kinds of workshops along the way – Carter Family singalongs, clawhammer banjo, body music, clogging, etc. It’s a blessing to be able to connect with people and continue facilitating their learning and engagement with the arts. The gratitude is palpable. Performing online is welcome, but it’s just not as much fun as the cellular connection you get with the audience when performing live. We miss real people a lot.

Tell us about your instruments. Do you still have your first one?

I don’t have my very first banjo, but the one I’ve played consistently for 25 years now I got when I was pretty young. It’s a mutt instrument I bought off my brother-in-law for $150, thinking I’d get a better instrument when I was ready. It’s a Slingerland pot that Mike DeFosche made a neck for probably in the 1980s. There’s a good story of how I discovered who made the parts, I’ll save for another time!

Thanks much Evie. One last silly question, are you Stones or Beatles?

Paul Simon, Prince 🙂

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.