• An Interview with Bill Evans

    When it comes to all things banjo, Bill Evans is the consummate triple threat. The guy plays, teaches, and is a historian of the banjo. He continues to maintain a busy touring schedule these days with the likes of such luminaries as flatpicking legend Dan Crary and banjo master Alan Munde. And in addition to his frequent workshop teaching gigs across the country as well as giving private lessons (not to mention being the bluegrass banjo instructor for Peghead Nation), Bill literally wrote the book for budding new banjo players wondering how to unsort it all: his immensely popular Banjo for Dummies, followed by the equally well-acclaimed Bluegrass Banjo for Dummies. As an ambassador of the banjo, few people are equal to Bill Evans.

    Given his broad-based experience as an musician, teacher, and historian, we couldn't think of a better person to chat with about how the rich history of the banjo can be integrated into the learning process for today's banjo players. We were lucky enough to get Bill to give us some time to share his insights with us.

    You've become an enthusiastic advocate of the banjo and its African roots. There's a great video you made for Fretboard Journal a few years ago we want to share. How did you get interested in exploring the history of banjo?

    From 1987 to 1992, I studied ethnomusicology as a graduate student at University of California, Berkeley. My areas of concentration were African-American and Anglo-America music and the music of Japan. It was a natural thing for me to begin to take a wider view of banjo history as a result of the work I was doing at Berkeley. During these years, I attended one of the Tennessee Banjo Institute gatherings and this brought to life the academic research that I had been doing. This event brought together a staggering variety of players and I got the chance to hear African musicians as well as folks like Clarke Buehling from Arkansas, who is an outstanding minstrel and classic player. If you're listening closely, you can hear the history come alive in these various styles: African, minstrel, classic to modern approaches. My solo concert The Banjo In America is basically the dissertation that never got written.

    Do you think people just starting to learn about the banjo today can benefit from knowing something about its history when they're first starting out?

    People tend to get interested by hearing the banjo in a specific musical setting and then they can't get it out of their heads. For many of us way back when, it might have been the sound of Pete Seeger or Earl Scruggs. For me, it was Roy Clark playing "Cripple Creek" on Hee Haw. These days, folks are inspired from a vast array of possible sources, which is a great thing. I'm not sure that anyone needs to know very much about banjo history when they are first starting out but it certainly will deepen their experience and appreciation for the banjo when they begin to examine that history. For so long, the banjo was a symbol of Southern white culture - those Deliverance and Beverly Hillbillies stereotypes run deep in our collective psyche. While the artistry of musicians like Béla Fleck and Rhiannon Giddens have collectively done a great deal to transcend these stereotypes, the study of banjo history can also do the same thing – it blows apart what you thought you knew about the instrument.

    Related to that question, you've started holding workshops on minstrel and classic banjo styles. What do you think banjo players of the contemporary styles such as bluegrass can gain from learning something about those early banjo styles from the 19th century?

    There are some pretty virtuosic pieces in the classic repertoire and three-finger banjo technique, with or without picks, works well for these pieces. Your fingers already know what to do. In concert, I'll frequently perform Frank B. Converse's 1871 arrangement of "Home Sweet Home." Converse arranged this piece based on a set of piano variations by the Swiss piano virtuoso Sigismond Thalberg and it's as challenging a piece to play now as it was back in the 1870's.

    I recommend that bluegrass banjo players who are interested to check out the Classic-Banjo.ning website for an impressive collection of classic-era sheet music and recordings, all in one place. Classic banjo provides a great way to gently get used to reading conventional music notation and the pieces themselves are models of good composition, featuring contrasting sections with modulations and very unique chord progressions, at least compared to some bluegrass. Much of the historic classic repertoire was composed during the ragtime era and many pieces reflect this relationship. Scott Joplin's mother played the five-string banjo, by the way.

    Being selected as author of Banjo for Dummies was quite an honor, and of course, a lot of work. I'd imagine being known as the author has opened doors. Has the book changed your career in measurable ways?

    No, not really. When folks come to the merchandise table, they'll often take a look at it and still not realize that I've written it. A few still don't believe it after I show them my name on the cover. You can interpret this in a number of ways, but let's move on!

    I've had to frequently challenge the stereotype of the For Dummies imprint that these are books for the mentally challenged, or something like that. I went out of my way with both books, Banjo For Dummies and the newer Bluegrass Banjo For Dummies, to include information for all levels of players. By default, the books take a new player from their very first steps but in the new book for instance, I have pretty extensive chapters on melodic and single-string styles as well as learning the fingerboard and both down and up-the-neck backup. In Banjo For Dummies, I went out of my way to discuss the history of the banjo and I presented examples of African and 19th century banjo. I was sneaky about introducing material for even advanced players in both books.

    It's well known in the publishing industry that Wiley Publishing (For Dummies books) won't ask an author follow-up with a second book unless their first has been particularly successful. How did that come about?

    It's important to know that while there is only one Space Exploration For Dummies book, there are indeed two banjo books. This shows you how much there is to learning to play the banjo, doesn't it? While there has always been an audio component to the music titles in the For Dummies series, a few years ago Wiley wanted to add a video component to some titles. We first assembled a second edition of Banjo For Dummies two years ago, shooting 37 short video pieces that match the book content. Soon after this, they asked if I would write Bluegrass Banjo For Dummies. I jumped at the chance, as it gave me the opportunity to include a lot of the things that I've been presenting in private lessons and workshops for many years. However, you have to realize that when you undertake a project like this, the rest of your life basically just stops for six months! You don't have time to do much else and it can get very stressful meeting the strict deadlines that a big publisher imposes. Our family had just brought home a Border Collie puppy right around the time that I started work on the book, so I immediately fell behind. I spent many afternoons throwing balls across the yard for Jake while writing at my laptop! But these kinds of projects feel really good when they're done.

    Bill Evans: "In Good Company"

    The rise of the banjo's popularity in recent years has brought with it increasing numbers of people interested in learning the banjo. And one common thing I encounter with these newcomers is that they don't really know what style or genre they might be interested in learning—they just love the sound of the banjo and want to learn how to play it. Have you noticed this? Given your broad ranging interest in the banjo and the different styles that can be played, what advice would you give them? Do they even have to decide this before they start learning?

    I'm trying to be more open minded in this regard in my teaching. I think the most important thing that I can do as a teacher or mentor is to keep folks inspired to play whatever they want to play and to help them reach their individual goals. In the long run, I think the best thing that I can do is to assist them in their discovery of their own inner music, whatever that might be.

    Having said this, there's a logic to Scruggs style banjo that can't be matched by anything else that I know of on the instrument. I've heard Alan Munde say that the masters of bluegrass banjo, with all that they've developed and contributed, have created this huge toolbox, that's open and available for any player to explore. Why ignore that? Also, bluegrass banjo is part of a tradition – a long running tradition at this point. I think that a player should respect that tradition by learning to play at least to some degree in that style. You owe it to those who came before you. You are paying respect to the elders, the holders of knowledge. This would be the case if you're playing jazz or classical music or any kind of world music, short of a drum circle. It's incredibly rewarding psychologically and spiritually to find your own voice through exploring what others have done while continuing a long-standing tradition by finding your own unique place within that tradition. It's good to be part of a community and a part of the ongoing story.

    Another question I hear from people who are new to the banjo is: where do I go to learn how to play the instrument? Even though the age of the Internet has brought about a lot more resources for learning to play the banjo or anything other instrument for that matter, I get the sense that people may be overwhelmed by all these resources. What would you say to someone who's just starting out and may be feeling frustrated with where to start?

    I'm coming to believe that the Internet is leading to the degrading of our cultural resources and of our ability to discover and absorb knowledge because there are no filters. You can’t easily determine what's good and what's not so good. I've encountered a few players who have tried to learn primarily by watching YouTube videos and their playing is often scattered and their technique is sometimes not very together. They come to me because they've realized that the Internet by itself can't take them from Point A to Point B with the instrument – at least not yet. Effortless Mastery by Kenny Werner is a book that many master musicians reference when talking about resources that have aided in their musical development. Kenny is a piano player and a good part of this book is about adopting a tough love attitude and achieving your goals through incremental, small steps. This is really the only way to make it happen and a good teacher of course can be of great help because they've walked the path before.

    I practice this tough love with my own more advanced students. I encourage them to make a clear-eyed appraisal of where they currently are in their playing, I ask them to formulate a set of short-, medium- and long-term goals and then we set about getting to those goals in a step-by-step manner.

    For beginners, especially adult learners, I think it's important to stay inspired and a great way to do that is to learn how to make a few standard chords and a few roll patterns, and start playing in slow jams. This will use that part of your brain that you need to play music with others, which seems to be a different way of musical thinking than memorizing a tab. Playing with others will also bring you to your local community of players.

    If you don't have a good teacher in your area, most camps have a beginners' track with expert teachers. There's nothing like that one-on-one contact, even in today's world. Tony Trischka's ArtistWorks online lessons are another great way to go and I offer a beginners' track as well as a more advanced bluegrass banjo lesson track at Peghead Nation (www.pegheadnation.com).

    With the amount of teaching that you do, you probably see a lot of common issues that are holding people back. What are some of the most frequent problems that you see, and do you have any general wisdom to impart to players who are trying to improve their chops?

    Overall, it's important to play from a state of relaxation. As part of this, you need to have your technique together, finding a comfortable playing position with both the picking and fretting hands. Fitting the fingerpicks on and finding a good picking hand position is perhaps the most difficult thing for a new player to figure out.

    Spend time on these details as this will speed your progress later on. Then, take things step by step. Don’t jump to the most difficult things you find on YouTube if you don't have your roll patterns down first, for example. Also, be patient developing your ability to play fast – this just takes time. Always practice at a tempo where it sounds good and you're playing in time, with clear and pleasing tone. You can use a metronome to then gradually increase the tempo of what you play. But be patient! This can take a lot of time! For most folks who are starting from scratch as adults, it can take two and a half to four years to feel comfortable in a medium speed jam. Bluegrass banjo playing is just as demanding as jazz saxophone or baroque violin. If you were trying to play one of these other instruments, you'd give it a few years to gain even a basic competency. The banjo is just as deep. If you spend time with your banjo, it will reward you many times over, as Bill Keith once said.

    You've recently been touring and teaching some workshops with Alan Munde. How did that collaboration come about and can we expect to see more of you two working together in the future?

    Alan has been one of my primary mentors since the early 1980's and we teach at many camps together. We're good friends and it just feels like a natural thing to tour together. It's a huge thrill for me every time we play together. Alan is a master not only at bluegrass and fiddle tunes, but also with sophisticated ballads and jazz playing. Our duet concerts allow the concertgoer to hear all that he can do – I love sitting next to him to hear what he has to play every night. He's also a very inspirational teacher and we have similar approaches to presenting materials in workshops. I'm always learning from him in this regard too.

    We toured and taught throughout the Northwest and a bit in the Midwest in 2015 and we're just getting ready to tour and teach up and down California. I hope that we can continue to do this a couple of weeks each year in a different part of the country. Most folks come away from the concert saying that it wasn't anything like what they expected, so I'm hoping that this is a good thing. We are probably the only banjo act touring today that includes a polka medley in every show.

    Alan Munde & Bill Evans

    You've got a new CD just out, "Songs That Are Mostly Older Than Us," that you did with Fletcher Bright. It follows up on your that great CD you did a few years back with Fletcher, and this time Norman and Nancy Blake are sitting in. How did that come about?

    I have been so lucky to be able to play music and to be influenced by so many wonderful musicians. Fletcher Bright is a living legend – he's been playing bluegrass fiddle since the late 1940's. Think about that for a moment! He first played with Norman Blake in a band called the Dixie Land Drifters in 1951 when Norman was just in high school. As a follow up to our first fiddle and banjo duet project Fine Times At Fletcher's House, we wanted to present a different side of things with this follow up recording. I saw a Facebook picture of Fletcher and Norman jamming last year at a fiddler's convention, so I casually asked Fletcher if he thought that Norman and Nancy might want to be involved. I was keeping both fingers crossed and the next thing I knew, I was sitting in Fletcher's den in Lookout Mountain, Tennessee and we were recording. Fletcher picked out most of the tunes and we worked up arrangements quickly, recording the songs as we went along. I had to learn quite a few things very quickly. As most banjo players know, it's not all that easy to work up melodic solos. I was working hard those few days, playing late into the night, preparing for what we might record the next day.


    Blackjack Grove, from Fine Times at Fletcher's House

    Somewhere in the deep recesses of our music collection is a well-worn Cloud Valley LP we purchased in 1985 or possibly earlier at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas. It was you on banjo, Missy Raines on bass, Steve Smith on mandolin! A great band of on the edge of what was happening in progressive bluegrass at the time! Anything in the works with any of those folks?

    There's nothing quite like the musical connections and communication that occurs with the folks you make music with in your first professional band. I still feel a deep connection to everyone in Cloud Valley. We keep in touch and I tour frequently with mandolin player Steve Smith, who leads the Hard Road Trio out of New Mexico these days. Missy and Steve both play on my projects and I've contributed to their recordings. The guitar player, who now goes by the name Frets Halligan, lives in Maine and is active in the East Coast uke community. Our 1985 performance at Winfield was the last show we played. We were about to break big and then we broke up! I’m just kidding – we weren't about to break big. But we did part ways at that point as band members were getting married and moving into new phases of our lives.

    Speaking of Winfield, these days I’ve been performing and touring with guitarist Dan Crary and bass player/singer-songwriter Steve Spurgin. We played Winfield in 2015 and we'll be there again in 2016. I love playing with both of these guys. We hope to have a new recording available either late this year or early in 2017.

    A more personal question. You recently took off an extended amount of time from touring to care for your wife who has had bone marrow transplant operation. Your daughter who is a prominent touring drummer in a punk band also took time to assist you. We think of you often and your entire family is in our thoughts. How's she doing?

    Thanks for asking. I haven't talked much about this in a public setting. I'm really proud of how my family has pulled together to help my wife Kathy through her treatment and recovery. My wife's first transplant attempt last fall didn't "take" and we'll be trying again with a second transplant attempt in a few weeks. Recovery can take a year or more, so you have to look at this over the long term – taking one or more years.

    I wake up every morning more thankful than ever for all of the things we have and that she's receiving the best medical treatment in the world at Stanford Medical Center. I’m thankful that as a schoolteacher, my wife has good health insurance that has covered the medical side of the costs of her treatment and I'm thankful for all of the friends who keep us in their thoughts and who have offered help. I'm especially proud of Corey, who essentially gave up international touring with two rock bands out of Olympia, Washington and has moved home to help with caregiving right now.

    This allows me to keep working as much as I can but I’m hoping that she can get back out on the road soon. However, she wouldn’t have it any other way right now – she needs to be here with Mom. We're expecting a cure and many years of good health to come. Let's check in again on this in a few months and I'll share the good news with you!

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