This article is a contribution from Rick Greene, bluegrass enthusiast, former newspaper editor, and one of the founders of the popular Sam Jam Bluegrass Festival in Piketon, OH. It had appeared previously in Southern Ohio Today, and Rick suggested that our readers might enjoy reading it as well. We heartily agree.
Sitting behind his desk in the Pike County Courthouse, Tracy Evans proudly points to a badge and other items that once belonged to his grandfather – Stephen A. McDonald, who was a member of the Columbus Police force for 27 years.
Evans, an investigator for Pike County Prosecutor Rob Junk, will not have his job for much longer. That’s because Pike County voters decided earlier this month that he was the man to take over the beleaguered Pike County Sheriff’s Office as the new sheriff.
And while law enforcement runs through his veins, it’s not the only thing. So too do the sounds of a ringing banjo, a driving mandolin, a lonesome fiddle, and other sounds that make up the heart and soul of bluegrass music.
He comes by both of his passions honestly, one through the family history of law enforcement, the other being the son of a bona fide bluegrass legend.
Evans’ path to the top post in the Pike County Sheriff’s Office is one filled with irony, struggle, perseverance, and tragedy.
This is his story.
Dave Evans was like that
From the time Evans’ father – Dave Evans – was young, he was known for his speed on the five-string banjo. He later became known for his songwriting and a deep, lonesome tenor voice that was soulful and easily distinguishable.
He became a member of bluegrass Hall of Famer Larry Sparks’ Lonesome Ramblers in 1972, and later started his own band in 1978, Dave Evans and River Bend. He recorded five albums with the respected Rebel Records in the 1970s and 1980s.
He has a laundry list of iconic bluegrass songs that are covered by today’s artists at bluegrass festivals. Among them are One Loaf of Bread, 99 Years, Pastures of Plenty, Gray in Your Hair, and Highway 52.
Following his death in 2017, Evans’ collection of music was remembered with respect throughout bluegrass music.
But there was one particular tribute that stood out among all the praise. It came from none other than 27-time Grammy Award winner Alison Krauss, who said Evans has had a profound impact on her legendary career.
Krauss first saw Evans as a teenager. Following his death, she recalled how Evans was one of the artists who made her set her sights higher.
“You have things tied to your memories. I remember watching Larry Sparks and Ralph Stanley and the Goins Brothers and the Osborne Brothers when I first went to the Bean Blossom Festival (in Indiana). It was the first place where I saw Del McCoury play,” Krauss said shortly after Evans’ death. “It is the first time that you get to witness something from another world. It never leaves you, you know? It makes a mark on you, and then you can never be the same afterwards. It suddenly lifts all of your standards, and what you thought was great, to a whole other level. And, Dave Evans was like that.”
As his father continued his climb through the industry, Tracy Evans and his brother Todd enjoyed childhoods that included some of the best musicians and artists in the world.
From the time Tracy Evans was born in 1974, bluegrass was going to inevitably leave a mark on him. And it started on the day he was born.
“Larry Sparks actually paid the hospital bill from when I was born. I asked him years later if dad ever paid him back,” Evans said with a laugh. “He said that he did.”
Evans’ childhood was filled with encounters with a who’s who of bluegrass music – Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Jimmy Martin, Del McCoury, J.D. Crowe, Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley, Jim McReynolds, and Jesse McReynolds, just to name a few.
“I got to shake hands with a lot of interesting people,” he said.
Evans and his brother Todd sometimes perform at regional bluegrass festivals. They are often invited on stage by some of today’s leading acts to play and sing songs made famous by their father. Tracy Evans said he was honored in September to perform on stage with Sparks, his father’s former bandmate, who is one of his musical idols.
A Different Breed
As Dave Evans was in the process of taking his place among the genre’s greats, a conflict with a neighbor of one of Tracy Evans’ friends changed the lives of the family.
Tracy Evans was in a group of boys riding motor bikes and the neighbor believed they were on his property, although Tracy Evans didn’t believe they were. The neighbor approached the boys as Dave Evans lurked nearby, not knowing the neighbor had a gun.
Tracy Evans said the neighbor made a remark about “blowing (my) head off” before a shot was fired into the air. The elder Evans intervened and what followed was a conflicting story that did result in Dave Evans getting a weapon and firing shots into the neighbor’s home.
Felonious assault charges followed and the resulting conviction in Pike County led to a six-and-a-half-year prison sentence from 1990-1996.
“My dad going to prison affected me mentally in some ways. I thought people would look down on me, but that wasn’t the case at all,” Evans said. “People didn’t understand that my dad was a different breed. He grew up in an environment where there are things you just don’t do to another man’s family. That was just the old way.”
Tracy Evans is a person who is quick to flash a smile and share a laugh. But when he talks about that fateful day, he becomes somber and tears occasionally well in his eyes.
“Dad took the law in his own hands, and while he knew it was wrong, he often said he couldn’t say he would have done things any differently,” Evans said. “He accepted it and always said he paid his debt to society.”
Next, Evans pauses and gathers himself as he tries to hold back the emotion and the tears.
“He did it because he loved me and he loved his family,” he said. “For that reason, it’s still part of the reason I loved him. It’s just who he was.”
A family of ironies
In late 1941, Stephen A. McDonald – Tracy Evans’ grandfather – was supposed to go to Hawaii for his duty in the service. An administrative error regarding his last name (McDonald versus MacDonald) resulted in a delay in his arrival.
Without the delay, McDonald would have been at Pearl Harbor during the Japanese attack on Dec. 7.
Tracy Evans said without that delay, the family story could have been much different, or non-existent.
Evans graduated from Western High School and later became a certified electrician after studying at the Vern Riffe Joint Vocational School. His entry into law enforcement came in 1999 with the Waverly Police Department.
After making his way through the ranks there, he received an offer in 2009 from then-Pike County Sheriff Rich Henderson to come work at the county level.
He took the offer and began work for the county on December 7, the 68th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The other irony that isn’t lost on Tracy Evans is that in January he will become the sheriff in a county where his father was convicted 30 years ago. When asked about that juxtaposition, he said it is a lesson that a person’s past or a family’s past does not have to dictate someone’s future.
“I think that says that what your parents have done should not stop a person from following their own passions,” he said. “Things that happened in the past won’t stop people from respecting you or liking you for who you are.”
Evans’ current boss, Junk, said there are plenty of people who like Tracy Evans.
“All of the good upstanding officers are tickled to death to see him as sheriff,” Junk said. “(Former sheriffs) Rich Henderson and Jim Dixon, (longtime Waverly Fire Chief) Randy Armbruster, (Pike County Major Crimes Task Force member) Allen Smith. That is the caliber of people who support him.”
A good hometown sheriff
Evans is taking over a sheriff’s office that has had its share of controversy in recent years.
In September, former sheriff Charles Reader pled guilty to four felony counts for theft in office and tampering with records, and a misdemeanor charge of conflict of interest. He is expected to go on trial next year for other charges he faces.
Evans said the public’s confidence in the sheriff’s office is shaken, and his priority is to regain credibility.
“The sheriff’s office has suffered a great deal. The people – from my perspective in talking to them during the campaign – want a sheriff they can trust, is honest and fair,” Evans said. “We need to get the office’s integrity back, the way it was when Rich Henderson was sheriff.”
Evans said the parallels are not identical, but he likes the idea of a sheriff portrayed in The Andy Griffith Show, an approachable sheriff who is trusted and might occasionally be seen with a guitar in his hands.
“I’ve always tried to help people, whether it be with what I know, what I can do, or a song,” he said. “I want to be a good hometown sheriff that people can admire and have trust in.”
Dave Evans (center) with his sons, Tracy and Todd