Conversations With Old-Time Performers and The Man Who Brought Them, Craig Frailin’ Evans
I grew up in a musical family. Music was all over the place. Early in childhood, before my older siblings matured out of control, we had family sing-alongs. Tunes like “In the Pines, Shenandoah, Cimmarron, You Are My Sunshine”, so many, but mainly, the radio in our house stayed on country. So I was around for Merle Haggard’s first hit and Johnny Cash’s rise to stardom. We watched folk programs like “Hootenanny” and the “Smothers Brothers”. Occasionally a Bill Monroe or Stanley Brother’s, or Blue Sky Boys album would find it’s way to the turntable. Rock and Roll? I’ll be damned to hell in my mother’s eyes, but yes, Dad liked Fat’s Domino and BB King so I did get some rhythm and blues in my soul, underground. I thought bluegrass high tenor vocals were humorous.
It was when I was about age 13 or so, on a visit with my family to see my grandmother Daisy Hill, in the mountains of Virginia that I had a musical life changing experience, an epiphany of sorts. I was sitting on the porch, playing Jim Croce songs on the guitar, when I noticed my cousin, who lived across the road, come out and sit on his porch with a banjo. I really didn’t know him. We lived half a continent away. I waived. He motioned for me to come over. So I got up, walked down the rock steps, across the swinging foot bridge on to the coal specked gravel road and across to Wayne Mullins house. I knew enough chords to back him up. My first jam. In just a short time, folks began to arrive, by foot, by car and truck, even a horse or two, and Wayne’s porch became a live concert with fiddle, guitar, banjo, vocals, mandolin, everything but bass. Eight or nine folks, all jamming on bluegrass and traditional mountain tunes-aka Old Time. I had no idea what was really happening, but I can tell you, that later, my Dad was pretty impressed when we went into the local general store and the old timers knew me by name. Community. I had, through mountain music, been introduced and accepted into a community of like minded folks. Even though I talked funny to them, and held a weird G chord and knew a few “off chords”, I was accepted. Forty five years later, I still appreciate that sense of community, and where I live now, it exists although I’m about fifty miles from anywhere.
So, I could go on with my musical history, and take up a whole lot of space, but this story is not about me, however, it is sort of a continuation of my journey into musical community, particularly Old Time music. I’ve discovered a few very real, very focused endeavors to log and archive, through audio and video, Old Time music of late. David Bragger and Rick Hocutt of the Old Time Tiki Parlour out on the West Coast along with David Bunn and Ben Guzman, Ben Townsend, to name a few, have put countless hours into preservation. It was by chance that I discovered the subject of this article, Craig Frailin’ Evans, and his very comprehensive projects, “The Banjo Builders” and “Conversations With Old-Time Performers”.
photo: Craig Frailin’ Evans with Steve Rosen
I play a little old time fiddle. I feel like there is a clawhammer banjo picker trapped inside too, waiting to emerge. So in pursuit of a better banjo, I encountered a vintage banjo, in terrible shape. I belong to several old time and clawhammer social media groups and I happened to see a post by Craig that gave me the impression that he restored banjos. Wrong. He was quick and nice to point this out and also to point me in the right direction for restoration which I realized was not going to work into my lack of budget. But we did correspond and Craig let me into his world. What a world. Craig is from Minnesota. His background is in communications. His passion is clawhammer banjo. This passion led Craig to study video and audio production. He set out to record, and archive the great banjo builders of America, a wonderful collection of live informative and enlightening interviews with banjo builders. My goal, as a free-lance journalist, is to bring folks like Craig to the public. Craig had already notched his name in Roots Music Preservation history with “The Banjo Builders”, and solidly, now with his newly completed “Conversations With Old-Time Performers”.
In Craig’s words, “The Banjo Builder and Old-Time Performer series we’re done as labors of love (the banjo builders was my 60th birthday present to myself). My intent was never to make money, only to enjoy the adventure. It was a remarkable experience, one I will never regret doing. In the case of “The Banjo Builders”, I even made my money back before I donated it to Smithsonian Folkways. They called me halfway through volume one and asked me for it. I’d planned on being happy selling 50 DVDs or so (to Banjo Hangout friends). Sold over 2,500 units before Smithsonian Folkways picked it up (takes them about 3 years to acquire anything). Now it’s the property of SF… so they can profit from it. The Smithsonian was a huge influence on me when my parents took me there at age 6. I’m delighted to give something back that will keep it running in a small way.”
They actually had to start a new collection called the “Instrument Builder Collection” just to house the series. No one had recorded anything like it before. The Old-Time Performer series is a spinoff of that.
Craig spent his career as a marketer/communications guy. To be successful he had to understand how people think and make the decisions they do. He was fascinated following the artists that build banjos and those that make this music. Clearly they were not in it for the money. “I had to learn more about them. Between the two groups, I discovered their community. And that’s a long story. A fascinating one that I continue to dream about. Traditional music and the people that play, revere and preserve it; their lives are a remarkable gift to all of us. I’m humbled and grateful I had a chance to actually walk that walk and dwell among them.” Craig says.
“Them.” Craig says. Who are “them”? Well, go back to the top of this story and read again, my musical experience. In Craig’s words, “I do love these people! I also love the community we’re a part of and the music we celebrate.”
“Them” is the community that corresponds, performs, and gathers to jam at places like Clifftop Appalachian String Band Gathering held in Fayette Co., West Virginia and many other festivals and gatherings all over the country. Just google Old Time Music if you’re interested in joining in. You’ll be amazed at the welcoming and camaraderie that exists among these folks.
For the Banjo Builders series, Craig logged over 20,000 miles and interviewed 38 of today’s leading open-back banjo builders.
The resulting series documents the influences, techniques and lifestyles of current “instrument builders”… an integral part of the old-time music community. The 4-volume, 12 DVD series is now at Smithsonian Folkways. Learn more at: www.northamericanbanjobuilders.com
In 2014, Craig completed the Banjo Builder Series. Having spent 3 years in the field meeting these incredible folks, he was not prepared for the let-down of finally being finished. So after a year of reflection, “I decided to crank up the cameras for another round. But this time, I would focus my interest on another creative group that loves the history of traditional Americana music – the old-time performers.
As I was preparing, I started wondering if this group of creatives would be similar to the Banjo Builders in their reasons for choosing their careers. For instance, why would anybody pursue a career that paid so little? Beyond the reward of performing, it must be something about the community or the history of the music…
So, early in 2015, I set out to find answers. I knew they would reside in the personal stories of these amazing people.” Craig says.
As with the Banjo Builders, Craig witnessed a much deeper significance than one would expect. “Once again, I’m learning about the pursuit of one’s gifting, sacrifice and endurance. I’m learning about timeless connections… what we share as human beings across smiles, miles and generations. And once again I’m seeing and experiencing something beyond simple happiness. Indeed, herein lies satisfaction… and joy. Wow.”
Over 15,000 miles, 44 interviews in four volumes of DVD sets, the Interviews With Old Time Performers is complete. This story is not a release effort. Craig released each DVD as he completed it.
Musicians included in the Old-time Performer series are considered full-time performing professionals. The percentage that musical portion contributes to their overall yearly income varies quite a bit. When I asked how Craig selected theses particular old-time performers, he mentioned that there were many more out there than he had time and resources to interview. “I settled in on those that would be considered the old-timers 20 years from now. Today we look back on Tommy Jarrell, Hobart Smith, Fred Cockerham and such and call them the greats. As with “The Banjo Builders”, it’s difficult to choose who to include in such a work. It’s important to me for folks to know I just couldn’t record them all (too many of them, too few of me). So I focused on those active folks out there now, sharing the music and history. Clearly, there are many, MANY more talented OT performers. Anyone that plays and enjoys sharing this music is a hero of mine. :)In the not-too-distant future, the people I’ve included in this series will be the greats to future generations of traditional music lovers.”
Craig Evans is a natural at getting to the fruit of the nut. For one, he is an accomplished musician, an excellent frailer. He knows the craft and he knows the tools of the trade. He also contributes regularly to such Social Media sites as Banjo Hangout, Clawhammer Banjo, just to mention a few of many. Craig is naturally curious, sincere, driven by a passion to preserve. He also truly loves the music and he will tell you, he got to know and love the people. Thanks to his passion and drive, the viewer gets to know these wonderful creative folks in a very stripped down, very real way. I’ve watched several episodes more than once. With each viewing, I discover something I missed the first time, just like unravelling the layers of an old time fiddle tune.
Craig did so much more than interview and film. He covered all the basics and embellished his effort with tasteful extras within the content. For instance, when an interviewee mentions an article such as a songbook or particular instrument, Craig masterfully edits in a quick frame of the object. From the beginning menu, menu choices, the selection process and credits, each level with it’s own unique background music, Craig takes you on a wonderful odyssey into the lives, habitats and music of these performing musicians, again, over forty in all. He and his Performers, answered every question I’ve ever had about what draws other folks like myself, to Old Time.
I asked Craig about his videographer background.
“I am a late in life filmmaker. I spent my career in communications. I used to hire film and video professionals to come in and do this work. I was always intrigued by the process but never got a chance to do it firsthand. When I decided to document the banjo builders I took some courses. I then purchased used equipment from eBay and Craigslist to demonstrate to others (people my age) that anyone could begin documentary work! I love pursuing my passion and sharing it with others along the way.”
In addition to being picked up by Smithsonian Folkways, the Banjo Builder series won a $10,000 grant from the state of Minnesota. When Craig decided to start this second series, “The Old-time Performers”, he invested these funds in better camera equipment while seeking out additional video professionals to learn more about the documentary trade. Craig works alone.
“I love the intimacy of just me and the performer. By the time I’m finished with their show I’m so well acquainted with them: I understand their sentence structure, their pauses, I understand their familiar and comfortable words. I can sense when they’re stressed in recalling a past memory and I completely celebrate their spontaneous joy in talking about their life’s stories. It’s a most amazing way to meet people you really want to understand.”
Each episode uses two stationary cameras, one focused on Craig, the other mounted on a tripod. Craig is very slick, moving back and forth from subject to himself as the interview progresses. I asked Craig about editing.
“Editing is laborious. It’s also great fun. At times I find myself laughing out loud in witnessing the recorded conversation between me and a performer. At other times I’m overtaken by tears. I love these precious artists and their stories.”
For every minute of video you see on screen it takes almost an hour in edit.
These videos are masterfully produced, video and audio. Completely informative in a very down home way, and perfectly entertaining. I will watch these videos over and over and over. Even though I am fifty miles from anywhere, as far as musical community goes, I am connected through these videos, to the taproot of Roots Music, this Old Time Music. This community that Craig Frailin’ Evans has painstakingly and lovingly unravelled and presented to us, is accessible, mostly through Social Media. I’ve become “friends” with many of these folks. You can be, too.
“These memories will be with me forever. I would not trade this experience for $1 million.” Craig Frailin’ Evans