Old-Time Conversations by Craig R. Evans

This review is a contribution from our friend, Ted Lehmann, and first appeared on his blog. We thank him for sharing it with our readers.

Craig R. Evans grew up in a solidly mid-western family surrounded by a striving father and a musical mother. Still a teenager, he had belonged to bands while, at the same time going off to attend college and begin a “career” in business. His great awakening came, when, at the age of 50, he was fortunate enough to be fired. It was then, with the good fortune to be able to choose his next direction, he returned to the old-time music that had sustained his musical and personal development when he was younger. 

Since my experience with country music and festivals lies mostly in bluegrass, rather than old-time music, I thought I should listen to and watch some to become more familiar with the genre, not only from its history and personalities, but from the feel and sound of listening to the music. I thank YouTube and Craig Evans’ work of recording and posting a lot of performances. The forward to Old-Time Conversations, by Clare Milliner, served as a welcoming invitation to read further and learn more about this early genre of American music serving as a precursor for bluegrass and other forms. The music has stayed alive for those who revel in the roots of American music, played on porches, in living rooms, and at festivals for a large community of those who value traditional, indigenous American music.

Get in Line Brother – Singleton Street

Craig Evans, the author of Old-Time Conversations, rediscovered old-time music and the community that keeps it alive at the age of fifty, in a deeply personal experience at a difficult time of his life. He quickly equates this soul-saving experience with the community that keeps old-time alive and thriving. He then takes us into his life more deeply in the opening chapters. Evans locates himself as a son of late nineteenth century farming and small town culture by beginning with his own origin story. He also weaves one of the many strands leading to what has become known as old-time music into a musical tradition that provides the base for modern American folk, country, bluegrass, and old-time music. This is a neat trick for a musical tradition as deep and widespread as American music. Evans explores the ways in which community affects groups, especially in the case of the music they treasure. At age 50, Evans, rediscovering the instruments at home under his bed, seemingly untouched during his business career, sought out a teacher and found Dwight Diller, to be the first of his many mentors. Writing in a highly personal style, he draws the reader into the old-time community in the way he, years before, had also discovered it. 

Evans allows himself to be a scholar, a participant, a portrayer (through his videos and documentary films), and a chronicler of his own life as the book continues. A man of almost endless curiosity and energy, he describes the worlds he discovers and the life he enters, while chronicling it in ways that make the old-time world exciting to his readers as well as himself. His writing is filled with energy, enthusiasm, and insight. I found that reading it drove me to explore through the large variety of old-time music to be found on YouTube, which led me towards slower reading and greater insight. “Making the world a better and happier place….” lies as the basis of the builders, performers, and historians introduced in this book. Happily, the book itself accomplishes the same goals, as well as pricking the imagination of readers eager to learn about, and perhaps join, this often discounted world of traditional music. The fact that Evans is an articulate writer as well as an established musician only makes for a richer reading experience.  

After the lengthy, and necessary, introductory session, during which Evans places himself in time, interests, family, education, and the experiences which led him to enter business, and later to decide to become a professional musician, the book is divided into three major sections: Instrument Builders, Performers and Teachers, and Historian and Authors. Using this design, he proposes to develop a route for coming to understand the nature of old-time music as well as its enduring influence and the broader country music world. Portions of these conversations are also available in a series of videos available in DVD format or online as Old Time Conversations. I found that combining reading the book with watching the conversations was interesting, but time-consuming. The written editions appear to be more comprehensive, while the videos provide a good sense the nature of music, the personalities of the subjects, and the participant/observer posture of the author. 

As each interview progresses, Evans delves into themes and approaches that comes to dominate the insight of the particular musician. In a sense, the questions are good enough to force the subject into deep and thoughtful self-discovery. However, each builder has a unique approach to building the instruments, engaging the instrument, the history, and the builder in highly interesting idiosyncratic fashions. The same is true in the Performers and Teachers and Historians and Authors sections.  Many were also people who didn’t easily fit into traditional academic settings, who had to find their way to music, and making, playing, or teaching about music and musical instruments. As I read this book, I turned to YouTube to listen to at least one song of each person included in the book. This helped me to add perspective to the written narrative, leading me to greater appreciation of their styles, sounds, and contributions to old-time music. It also turned “reading” a book into a multi-media experience, each portion serving to enrich the other.

Many of the musicians in this book took old time homemade music, played around the living room or campfire, organizing it to provide a performance quality music for wider consumption. In a sense, they were transitional people from “folk” music to professional performers, while helping create a readiness for wider circulation among festival goers and record buyers. Scholars, like the author Craig R. Evans, or a performer such as Dom Flemons and David Holt with formal musical training, served to accomplish this transition as well as many others. Meanwhile, collectors and performers rescued early recordings, handing down traditional forms and sounds contributing to wider audiences. The most powerful influence, however, remains the music made in homes and at festivals by those who love, support, and perform the music.

Clifftop Highlights Reel 2023

Clifftop is officially known as The Appalachian String Band Music Festival, and is held annually near the New River Gorge in West Virginia. In a sense, the entire book has been heading to this festival, which brings devotees from around the world to make, share, and enjoy old-time music. Thanks to Craig Evans, you can experience a sense of what goes on there from hitting the link above. The link will get you there, or Google Craig’s name and Clifftop to get the list of highlight films, which are among the many joys he’s shared with fans and others interested in gaining a clearer picture of old-time music. Of course, the best way to learn and to become a member of this world-wide community is to find a group near you, pick up an instrument, and join the fun. 

Craig R. Evans is a filmmaker, author, and musician documenting today’s North American traditional music community. He brings a rare combination of fan, performer, researcher, and writer together to weave this fine book about the community that comes together under the rubric of old-time country. It’s available through all the usual sources. I received the book as a complimentary copy for the purposes of writing a review.