Dave Evans and the Bluegrass Palace
Photo courtesy of Rebel Records.
In 1980, in Knox, Indiana, the Dew Drop Inn was holding a bluegrass festival out at the fairgrounds. Headlining were Dave Evans and Jimmy Martin, two of the most talented, respected, disrespected, and rowdy bluegrass singers and pickers of their time. Outside the bandstand, past the parking lot and over on the oval dirt racetrack where the Demolition Derbies happened, a tight row of seven junked rally cars waited with ramps on either side of them. At the far end of the track, a tall man was doing donuts on an underpowered motorcycle, kicking up gravel and dust. His teenage daughter sat behind him on the seat, holding on, trying not to fall off.
Dave Evans, all three-hundred-plus pounds of him, stood in the crowd, sipping something from a Mountain Dew can that didn’t smell like Mountain Dew. The motorbike made more noise, the single- cylinder engine struggling. Melvin Goins of the Goins Brothers, an influential group of first-generation pickers, walked up, looked straight ahead at the ramps and the cars and asked, Is he really gonna jump that?
The bands were supposed to sound-check in a few minutes, but everybody was watching the motorcycle. The man took the bike back and forth, up and down the line of spectators, and got some applause going. Jimmy Martin and his band were nowhere to be seen. Melvin Goins was right to be worried. The bike came tearing across the gravel toward the takeoff at full throttle. The father and daughter wore sparkly red helmets and matching jean jackets. The girl’s ponytail blew back horizontally from the underside of her helmet. The bike hit the takeoff. Pockets of people were cheering and whooping now. The bike nosedived immediately into the backside of the landing ramp, and the duo went flying.
The volunteer paramedics swarmed the scene and tried lifting them both off the ground. Wide-eyed and silent, the girl came up easy enough. But the dad made it more difficult, swearing he wasn't hurt and wanting to know where his Kawasaki went. On a stretcher, he tried waving but his arm fell back down at his side. The audience was speechless, except for one guy, Dave Evans.
Now that’s entertainment, he said, in an Appalachian bark. He didn’t look surprised. In fact, he looked like he’d seen the whole episode before, admired its perfection. He drained his soda can and threw it onto the ground.
Guess it’s show time, he said.
My parents’ band, the Johnsons, was opening the show. They were younger than the headliners, and not nearly as much trouble. My dad was on banjo and lead vocal, my mom on upright bass and harmony, my uncle on mandolin, with a close friend, Jeff White, on guitar. The four-piece was an unassumingly polite assembly of up-and-coming hotshots. They’d already done their sound check and were backstage waiting for the two bigger acts to get set up. Dave Evans approached the mic, sang into it for a few seconds, stopped all of a sudden and told the soundman to shut it off.
Just shut it all off, he said. If you don’t, I will.
The soundman did like he was told. Dave Evans walked past the monitors to the edge of the stage. In his wide brim hat and black leather vest he bellowed into the open space, and then nodded his head and turned back to his band. Y’all boys, he said. Quiet down when I'm playing. The band glanced around at one another, indulgently amused, trying to make sense of the order. Why were they on stage, or even in his band, if they were supposed to quiet down when he was playing?
Dave Evans readjusted the Gibson on his belly, took a quick breath through his nose and at breakneck speed pushed the banjo into the rolling turnaround and on into one of his originals. He entered with his raw, emotional singing, his voice in the high tenor range, belting out the words and booming into the empty space.
He cut the song short, turned back to the band. Sounds good, he said. That’s how we’ll do it. We don’t need no PA.
A van pulled up to the backside of the pavilion, the passenger-side door swung open, and a man in a tall Stetson hat with a fan of feathers on the front leaned out. It was Jimmy Martin.
Load it out, he said, swinging his arm in a maniacal circle, and then pointing to the stage Dave and his band had just exited. His group started setting up their own speakers, twice the size of the ones in the house. When they got everything wired to the mixing board, the players climbed onto the stage, grabbed up their instruments and eased into a song at mid-tempo. Jimmy Martin chugged along on his guitar, maybe listening to the levels, maybe not, all the while staring past the crowd. He took his time to start singing. The volume of everything was extreme and surprisingly clear. That is, until Jimmy leaned into the microphone and howled.
Whoa, whoa! the soundman said through the monitors. The band stopped playing. Hold it right there, he said, the mixing board is smoking.
Damn right, Jimmy said.
Nah, said the soundman, I'm talking for real. The gear’s overheating the board. It can’t take it.
You can’t take it, Jimmy said.
After some arguing between the band and the soundman—it turned out that his name was Ray and he was Jimmy Martin’s son—Martin got an idea.
Go get a block of dry ice and a fan, he said. We need a block of dry ice and a fan.
Later on, my dad’s band played a fast, flawless set. Dave Evans held to his guns, ignoring the house’s system. Even unamplified, his voice could rise above the instruments and fill each ear in the place with soulful bluegrass. Jimmy and Ray Martin somehow, somewhere, ended up finding a huge chunk of ice and a fan. They hauled it all back to the pavilion and set the ice next to the makeshift sound booth. The fan would blow cold air from the ice onto the mixing board.
During the show, the contrast was absolute—two of the greatest entertainers in bluegrass history commanding an audience in such different ways. One acoustic, the other completely electric. Yet there was something alike in the extremity of it all—two different sides of the same, strange coin. Like the motorcycle wreck out on the racetrack, the performance was humorous and dead serious at the same time. This was bluegrass.
I grew up listening to my father and uncle tell stories like that. I learned to revere the older generation of pickers as a breed almost extinct. It was a time and culture that my parents had watched vanish—they had seen dinosaurs—and I never expected to come in direct contact with it.
I left my home in Tennessee when I was eighteen, toured the country with a rock band, followed a girl up north for college, and then returned south to Charlottesville, Virginia, where I befriended a country musician named Pete Winne. Not long after we met, he asked if I wanted to go with him to East Kentucky for Dave Evans’s sixtieth birthday party. I didn’t recognize the name at first, but from what Pete told me about the man, it sounded like it would be a great opportunity to play music and really learn from a master. For the past few years, Pete had been working at Rebel Records, Dave's longtime label, and had met the man a few times. He hoped to convince him to record some more of the songs he wrote while in prison.
Dave is passionate and protective of his music, Pete warned. He’s been through a lot, from people stealing his songs when he was just a kid to spending years in the pen for defending his son’s life. Dave had a lot of songs he had never recorded. Pete thought he might be able to get him into the studio. That night I called my father, and he told me a story I’d heard before but had forgotten, about that show in Knox, Indiana. I had no choice now. There was a family connection.
The next day, Pete and I drove to East Kentucky in search of Dave Evans. We rolled through West Virginia and on into the Bluegrass State, listening to his music. Highway 15 twisted into dynamited hillsides blown apart to make way for mills, mining, and a new interstate. Out here, it was clear the government and the coal companies had no problem with moving mountains in order to get a job done. The road seemed to have been chiseled into the land by an enormous hand.
During the seven-hour drive we listened to a CD of early Evans recordings, made in the ’70s for a label called Vetco. In these songs, Dave’s voice seemed to emanate from a time and place I recognized but could not directly locate. The banjo playing reminded me so much of my dad’s—the rolling combinations of three-finger picking patterns, the hard-driving sound of the thin metal strings being pushed toward their breaking point— that I could almost smell the leather strap my dad used to wear over his shoulder while he played.
Like many of the pioneer performers of the music—Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers—Dave can reach far back into musical antiquity, take songs, and make them his own. He is an uncommon cross between mountain music and a more modern Nashville singing style, a bona fide heir to Ralph Stanley and George Jones. His recording of “Barbara Allen,” included on the Vetco collection, is an example of this extraordinary ability. The song is a traditional ballad dating back nearly four centuries, yet when he performs it he's not trying to resurrect an ancient novelty. He’s expressing shared human experiences, revealing the depth of his roots, and testifying that he’s not afraid to reinvent the old. It’s the only song on the Vetco album that replaces the standard fiddle with a harmonica. And what happens is striking: with high, metallic notes, the harp cuts through the fabric of the song and gives it new meaning. Dave’s version takes a familiar story steeped for so long in Anglo-American heritage and infuses it with a strain of the blues that seems, somehow, both ancient and immediate, a sound that is unmistakably contemporary, urgent, and strange.
The trajectory of the Vetco collection includes high-octane shit kickers as well as the slower, harder swinging tunes. No matter how low you set the volume on songs like “Highway 52” or “White House Blues,” Dave’s aggressive voice explodes from the speakers like a bull out of a pen, while the speed of the picking is equally uncontainable. Songs like “Dark as the Night” and “99 Years Is Almost for Life” slow things down, making room for his darker, more personal broodings over love and loss, life and imprisonment. As for the other players on the tracks, they're solid and passionate, but not top-notch. It seems like the band as a whole has trouble supporting Dave's virtuosity. He's just too heavy. At times, the sheer speed of his banjo playing threatens to leave the rest of the group behind. Around thirty seconds into “White House Blues” Dave rips a solo, combining unexpected pull-offs and hammer-ons to double the flurry of notes that his right hand is already playing, and leaves everybody in the dust. You can almost hear the band yelling after him, calling for him to come back. I can’t help but think of someone like Charlie Parker blowing the roof off a jazz standard with rapidly passing chord progressions and disorienting gales of notes. Dave pours everything he has into three simple chords, and then lets it overflow. Like many great musicians, he struggles to break free from the form he’s working within, and the volume of his singing is the celebration of that struggle. His performance is so full of emotional urgency that the other players on the recordings sound tame and light.
There's an inexplicably prophetic quality to these early songs. Take “Highway 52,” the first track on the album, an Evans original, and possibly one of the most profound and underappreciated bluegrass songs ever recorded. Starting with the pleading of the wayward narrator’s mother, the song spins a fast-paced narrative of a boy escaping home and hitting the road:
Well, mama said, Son, before you leave me
There’s something I want you to do
Promise me that you won't go wrong
While you travel down Highway 52
I'm sitting on the banks of the Ohio River
Sunlight kisses the dew
Foxhounds run, and the steamboats roll
I’m sitting there on Highway 52
The song follows the boy’s entire roving life, from the natural and industrial sights of the big river to the cities he visits and plays, and then, finally, to a hearse carrying his dead body down the highway:
Yeah, when it comes time for me to go
I'll be hanging up my walking shoes
For my last go-round in that big black car
As it hauls me down Highway 52
At the end of the second line of each verse and chorus, the melody flares up over the dark F# minor into which the band has fallen, intensifying the words and illuminating the futility of the mother’s pleading. The banjo works as a counterpoint to this emotional story, sparkling and snaking around and flowing underneath it all, seemingly unaffected, not unlike the big river itself. Dave Evans wrote this song when he was thirteen years old.
It’s hard to imagine most bluegrass singers hitting Evans’s high notes. It’s as if he sings each song like it’s “The Star-Spangled Banner.” For example, in “99 Years Is Almost for Life” he moves through two octaves with ease. Not many men can go from a low A to a high A without going falsetto, while maintaining that level of volume and intensity. Using his chest voice, he can hit operatically towering notes, as in “White House Blues” when he actually reaches up to a high C. That’s why you won’t hear Evans songs at even some of the hottest bluegrass jams: they make amateurs out of professionals.
The sun was sinking low when we hit Breathitt County. Darkness rose from the steep hollows and a full moon cast its light from above as we pulled into the parking lot of the Watts Volunteer Fire Department. The lot was a leveled, rutted gravel area, a few cars and rusted trucks parked near the building’s entrance. Out by the road rested a white van with a trailer hitched up. On the side was a logo, DAVE EVANS AND RIVER BEND, blocky letters painted in sharp colors. The building was a one-story rectangular box made from sheet metal, painted red. A taller garage area sheltered the fire truck. Beyond the parking lot and the building, fog hugged the mountainside, drifting through the trees.
My hands were shaking when I turned away from the RIVERBEND logo on the van's trailer and grabbed my bass out of the bed of Pete’s pickup. Since college I'd been playing and touring with all kinds of bands—rock, country, and jazz—and I generally didn't get nervous about playing music in public, much less at an informal jam session. But this time was different. This time I felt like I was at the heart of something historic. As we walked toward the building I turned to Pete. This is really where Dave Evans lives? Pete just pointed to an arrow-shaped sign next to the road, all the bulbs framing it blown. In black magnetic letters it read BLUEGRASS PALACE: JAMS EVERY SUNDAY AND TUESDAY. We paused to read the warning sign screwed into the metal entrance door forbidding profanity, alcohol, smoking, firearms. You first, Pete said.
I stepped into a long, brightly lit fluorescent room with a low drop ceiling. Cigarette smoke hung as thick as the fog outside. Couches lined the walls. Half a dozen foldout tables were covered in platters of food and ashtrays. A homemade stage fit against the middle of the front wall, crowded with show lights and microphones. Photographs of Evans and some of the heroes—Bill Monroe, Larry Sparks, Keith Whitley, Ralph Stanley—were placed alongside old festival flyers from the ’70s. Snapshots of Evans when he was still in high school, practicing with his band in a barn. In the back right of the room was a kind of concession stand selling pickled eggs and bologna. On the counter was an inexpensive Bean Blossom guitar, one of the old festival models known for its inability to stay in tune, from which a sign dangled: BLUE RIDGE GUITAR FOR SALE, STRINGS INCLUDED. There was a circle of pickers to our left—men in dusty work clothes sitting around strumming guitars and mandolins.
And there was Dave Evans, picking his banjo quietly in the circle, sitting straight up on a sinking couch with a burned-up cigarette hanging out the side of his mouth. He wore a black wide-brim hat and a dark mustache. His belly pushed out the lap of his dress pants but to me he looked better than he did in some of his early album photos.
The jam was relaxed, competent pickers having fun, but it was not as hot as I had expected. Dave looked bored. And that was when I realized what the problem was with the other players on his albums. Evans wasn’t a bad bandleader, just a caring person who took in musicians whether or not they were up to snuff, pickers who were still learning, friends who needed teaching. The human being in Dave Evans had sandbagged the artist. He preferred playing with good people, not necessarily great musicians.
After the group finished a fiddle tune, Dave told everybody to be quiet, and then began singing “Choices,” a George Jones song, with his two sons on either side of him. They were both large in voice and in body, just like their dad. The three men singing together dwarfed the other musicians completely. The notes Dave hit surpassed Jones's in volume and range, and he used the intricate melody as a basic structure from which to improvise higher and lower flourishes, accents, and unexpected harmonies as his sons joined in. But what hit me the hardest was the feeling, the honesty of hearing this song sung in the place it was being sung.
The song ended and nobody talked or moved. Then Dave turned to the son at his left, said, “Tracy, damn it, you're stepping on me. If I go up in the chorus, you make that decision quick. Go on down to that lead or climb on up higher if you can. Don't go a’hangin’ round stepping on me."
“Well, let’s try it again, Dad,” said Tracy.
“Ain’t no time to practice,” Dave said. He waved his hands in the air dismissingly. “Y’all sounded fine," he said. “Y'all sounded fine, for what you're doing. But you ain’t made the decision, see. Tell everybody what you do, Tracy.”
“I’m a police officer,” Tracy said.
“Pfff. Cain’t be no singing cop.”
Sue, Dave's girlfriend, took Pete and me by our sleeves and told us to help ourselves to the feast Dave had prepared for the party. I loaded a plate full of biscuits, pork, beans, stuffed peppers, garden-fresh tomatoes, and laid a long green chive on top. I had hardly begun to dig in when Dave told Pete to pull out the harp and me to bring out the bass I'd carried in.
Dave set down his banjo, picked up a guitar, and started playing it with his finger picks. It was a soulful song with a swinging beat. He gave Pete a solo after the first verse, told him to make it scream. Higher, he said, higher! The intensity of the attention he paid to the music was palpable. I became unusually aware of each note I played, as if I were hearing myself pluck the bass for the first time. I kept it safe, though, made sure I didn't overdo anything, stuck to the ones and fives of each chord. After a couple more verses, I loosened up and added some walking runs, some percussive slaps. I was unsure at first whether this kind of playing was allowed in this circle of bluegrassers. Sometimes if a lick is too jazzy or too much like rock & roll, especially when it's coming from a bass, it can upset the formal restrictions that make the music so special. It's the bassist's job to provide a solid foundation for the lead players to build on. I didn't want to complicate or suggest anything except the G, C, and D upon which everything rested. But Dave noticed my embellishments right away and nodded. He even let me take a solo.
Seven men were playing music now, and two, a father and son, stood outside the circle in oil-stained overalls, silently mouthing along the lyrics to the gospel standards. The father had a sunken face and bluish-gray eyes, the color of storm scud. His son was a smaller version of him with spiked hair and a black t-shirt with golden gothic letters spelling out the name of a band. After a couple more songs, the father pulled out a tall mason jar full of cloudy corn liquor. “Sue, honey,” said Dave, “fetch me an alkyzeltzer.”
While she was gone, the jar got passed around. When it reached Dave, he let everybody know he wasn't supposed to be drinking. “Diabetes,” he said, as if the word was a dare, and then turned the jar up to his mouth and poured down a few deep swallows. “Whew, Christ almighty,” he said. He held out the jar, waiting for somebody to take it from him. Nobody did. With his free hand, he drew a line from his mouth down to his stomach. "Burns all the way," he said. Sue returned with his Alka-Seltzer, and Tracy grabbed the jar and hid it from her.
“Dave,” said Sue, putting a hand on my shoulder, “this here’s Lee. He’s new.”
Dave didn't look at me. “New, huh?” he said. Then he started in on a story about his early days of picking and traveling. He was born in Portsmouth, Ohio, and grew up in Columbus—a bluegrass-music hotbed during the ’60s and ’70s—slipping into places he was too young to be in and absorbing the music of Sid Campbell, Landon Rowe, and Ralph “Robbie” Robinson, local giants of limited renown. From what I could tell, he became known around that area as a banjo-picking prodigy. In his early teens, he'd started picking publicly and writing songs. One of the songs he claims to have written was “Rocky Top Tennessee.” He said he'd shown it to a Nashville talent “finder” at the age of fifteen. Dave made the quotation marks with the forefinger and pinkie of each hand, like horns. When he was seventeen he visited Nashville for the first time and heard the words and music he’d written coming out of the jukebox at Tootsie’s, sung by the Osborne Brothers, the title slimmed down to the less-specific “Rocky Top.”
Some people find this “Rocky Top” claim a little steep. Others, usually the ones who have heard Dave tell it in person, trust him with their hearts. I am one of them. There in the Palace that night, I believed him in the same way I believe any great storyteller. Another contentious claim he made that night was that he wrote “Rock of Ages.” True enough, the lyrics are much closer to Dave Evans's style—stark, spanning many years, revelatory. But there are very old versions of this song, and it’s possible that what he did was take one of those older versions and reinvent it. After telling us about how his songs were stolen, he said, “I’ll never show my songs to nobody again.”
I asked him how many songs he was holding onto. “Oh, I got a few,” he said, taking the last drag of a Marlboro Red and snuffing it out. “Problem is,” he said, pointing at Jay, his mandolin player, “my band's a bunch of peckernecks.” Jay laughed it off, played a competent lick, put the mandolin down and walked away to avoid a talking-to he’d probably heard many times. “Just a fart in a whirlwind,” Dave said. Then he looked at Pete. “I’m tired, boys.”
“What if we got something together for you?” Pete offered.
“That’d be fine, boys.” He smiled. “But by the time y’all get it together I’ll be dead.”
He motioned for the jar, lifted it, slugged it, washed it down with the fizzing glass of Alka-Seltzer. He let out a hiss and shook his head. “See, boys, I made the family.” He pointed around at the pictures hanging on the walls. “That's all I wanted in this life— to throw my hat in that ring and not have them throw it back out at me. I’m in that bluegrass family now. A family forever. And the Palace is my payback."
In 2009, when Dave came across the abandoned fire station that was now the Palace, it was in bad shape. He and Sue, with the last of their savings, bought dining booths, tables, signs, various supplies at auctions and secondhand sales. They painted the walls, put in stoves and refrigerators, worked for weeks on so many meticulous details and decorations, and eventually turned the unkempt and forgotten room into a respectable venue. They transformed the old deserted fire station mess hall into a place of entertainment. Now it served as a hangout spot for many people in the community, musicians and non-musicians alike. It was a kind of do-it-yourself museum for the area’s musical achievements, past and present, proof that even in a town where life is defined by sawmills, truck driving, coal mining, and mountaintop removal, music can still endure.
While everyone else got ready for bed, Pete found the moonshine. Dave and I shared it. The room was littered with family and friends on couches and the floor, some smoking, others snoring. I laid my bass down on its case and listened to Dave kick around old songs. After each one, he told a story about his life.
Back in the early ’70s he was hauling wide loads around the country, carrying materials for Knights Inn. One day, coming back from a nine-hour-long haul, his boss called him into his office and told him he wasn’t working hard enough. He warned Dave that they could do without him. Is that right? Dave said. Well sir, I don't have to deal with this trash no more. I got other options. He dumped his black coffee on the boss’s new carpet and told him, You live with your words and I'll live with mine. He got into his car feeling somewhat uncertain about the decision he'd just made, when Larry Sparks came singing through the radio, and at that moment he knew his direction. He pulled out of the parking lot and punched the gas. That was his twenty-seventh birthday, and it marked the beginning of his career. It was an act of defiance—a man making do with what he had, all the while hoping to have more. After that day, he and his family lived on bluegrass music alone.
He told us another story, one about his relationship with Roy Lee Centers. Roy Lee was Ralph Stanley's favorite lead singer and rhythm guitar player after his brother, Carter Stanley, passed away. Dave and Roy Lee were living in the same area of Kentucky in the mid-’70s, before Ralph gained international fame, and Dave was going strong with his own music. He and Roy Lee had conspired many times about joining forces and starting a project of their own. But according to Dave, a week after Roy Lee decided he was going to break the news to Ralph that he was teaming up with Dave, something terrible happened.
Roy Lee took his little boy with him to a party. He got drunk, and a man he'd had some disagreements with in the past offered to drive him and his son home. On the way, the man driving took an unexpected turn, and when Roy Lee asked where he was taking them, the man said he was taking him up the road to kill him. When they got out of the car, the man said, I’m gonna silence that beautiful voice forever. The boy took off into the woods and hid, just far enough away to witness his father, Roy Lee, get shot in the mouth and then beat to pieces with the butt of the gun.
People say that the man who shot Roy Lee turned out to have strong legal connections in the area. He was sentenced to ten years in jail, but ended up serving only a few months. This kind of injustice, according to Dave, was rampant in Breathitt County and in the surrounding areas.
After that story, I asked Dave if he would talk about his time in prison. He said that one night, after his son was almost killed by a teenager with a shotgun, he went and found the boy and brandished a gun at him. Dave says the boy’s father had powerful friends; he ended up spending the larger part of a decade in jail.
“Good thing I didn’t shoot that kid,” he said. “I’d still be in there.”
Then Dave put down his banjo, stood up, and sang the last song of the night, “Old and in the Way.” As I listened, I looked around the room and considered everything in it: the framed photos, faded and cracked; Dave’s banjo, lying across a table on its back; a couch with its cushions thrown on the floor for bedding. This was his life. Certain lines of the song, when he sang them, gave me the chills:
His aged form is bent
In his pocket not a cent
And for shelter he knows
Not where to go.
The truth of the words, the images and their predictions, came into focus for me. I could see Dave in the song he was singing. He continued, “Don't laugh while they’re old and gray/just remember while you’re young that for you the time will come.” He sang the entire song with his eyes closed, taking long pauses between verses and bringing himself to tears. When he finished, I almost felt him return to the room, back to the comfort of kin. He looked around at his sleeping sons, their wives and children. Then he looked at me. “And you remember,” he said. “One day, you’ll be like me. Old and in the way. I ain’t had a nice birthday like this since my fiftieth. Thank you, boys. One day, you’ll be just like me.”
He turned to Pete. “I could show you the river,” he said, squinting, sticking out his jaw, and staring across the room, “but then you’d have to cross it. And believe me,” he said, “I crossed it.” He walked to the back wall, opened a door I hadn’t noticed, and disappeared.
I made my bed on the stage and lay down. I couldn’t sleep. I wasn’t tired. I looked out the window. The moon was a white marble. I watched it leave the frame.
Around noon the next day Dave made fried bologna and scrambled eggs for breakfast. “I don't mess with leftovers,” he explained, standing behind the concession stand in boxer shorts and an unbuttoned dress shirt, lighting a cigarette off the stove’s burner.
Before leaving we offered to help him put up an old plastic Coca-Cola sign on the front of the building. The sign had a few lightbulbs behind it, and across the top Dave had drawn musical notes around the Palace’s logo in black Sharpie. The sign was lying flat on one of the tables, and Dave admitted he’d been meaning to put it up for more than a month now. He grabbed a power drill, handsaw, tape measure.
A couple hours later, we were standing around in the parking lot, sweating, smoking cigarettes, and the sign still wasn’t up. The screws it was supposed to hang from were in the wall, but Dave said he’d measured the holes in the sign wrong. “Half-assed carpenter and warshed-up musician, boys,” he said. When he went inside to take a break from the heat, Pete and I grabbed the sign, flipped it over, re-measured the holes and placed the screws back in the wall accordingly. By the time Dave came back out, we had the sign up, the extension cord plugged in, and it looked great.
“Now that's what they call flashing your joint,” he said. “See, when people drive by now, they’ll ask who lives there. Santy Claus? Nope. Dave Evans.” He stood back and admired our work. “Damn, boys,” he said. “Thing’s crooked.”
A month later, Dave found a pizza oven for sale in the paper. Pete and I drove down for a few days to play music and help him with the oven. It was across the river in Ohio, about two hundred miles away. Dave hooked up a trailer to the back of his jeep and told Sue we’d be back soon. “Shouldn’t take more’n a few minutes,” he said. The drive was beautiful. Tobacco farms and Mail Pouch barns. Even the blown-up hillsides were generous to the eye. Dave slowed to show us the veins of coal in the rock, how deep and far they ran through this part of the land. He made an unexpected stop in front of a two-story brick house with a green, manicured lawn, pointed at the house and said, “There lives the man who killed Roy Lee. And I cain’t do nothing about it.”
Finally, we hit Highway 52. It carried us into the town where Dave was born. The pizza oven was in a storage unit. Dave paid a lady for it while Pete and I threw it on the trailer without any straps.
“This'll change the whole business,” Dave said. “Be cooking the whole county pizzas pretty soon.”
On the way back, as it was getting dark, a loud crash shook the floorboard and a shower of sparks sprayed out from under the jeep and across the road. We pulled off into a church parking lot, and I climbed under to see what'd happened. The rusty tailpipe had broken loose from the muffler. Luckily, all we needed was something to hold it up for the next few hours. Pete found a piece of wire in the parking lot and I tied it on. Pulling back out onto the road Dave mentioned that it wasn't just a coincidence we ended up at a church. “The way it works,” he said. “There’s a plan. And if you’d just look out you might catch on."
Almost back to the Palace, Dave pulled over to a beer joint and sent Pete in for a six-pack of Clamato Bud Light. He remembered liking that tomato beer. Back on the road after a few sips, Dave got bad heartburn from the beer and passed the can to Pete. Pete passed it to me, and I continued drinking until we saw police lights flashing up ahead.
“Check point,” Dave said. He stopped and told us to roll down the windows. “Throw all the beer.”
And there we were, about fifty yards away from highway patrol cars, parked in the middle of the highway, no other cars around, chucking Clamato beer cans out the windows of Dave's jeep. Once the cans were gone, Dave drove forward, telling us to hold our breaths and let him do the talking. “Don't worry,” he assured us. “I got a plan now.”
The jeep was roaring like a dragster from the busted tailpipe when we pulled up to the state troopers. The cop wanted to know what we were doing stopped on the road back there. Dave answered that he was just getting his ID together. “Well, where is it?” asked the cop. “Just a minute,” Dave said, leaning over and reaching for the glove box, pulling out papers and napkins, cursing and reaching under his seat through empty packs of cigarettes and old McDonald's milk shake cups, into his pockets, turning around and asking me if I could check under my seat back here. Somehow, we made it through.
On my way home from Charlottesville to Nashville for Thanksgiving, my father met me halfway at the Bluegrass Palace. It was a Tuesday night, cold and raining, and the parking lot was already packed for the jam. It was an amazing feeling, getting to walk him through the Palace and show him all the old photos and flyers, reliquaries of that time and those people he had known and loved so much. When I introduced Dave to my dad, Dave said, “Howdy, son. How we doin’? I hope you'll stay and pick a while.”
I couldn’t tell if Dave recognized my father or not. I asked him if he remembered the festival they had played together. “The one with the motorcycle wreck,” my dad said.
“I played a lot of circuses.”
We were picking with a few other regulars, with Dave and Sue back behind the concession stand serving chili, when all the lights in the place went out. Surprisingly, nobody missed a beat. We continued playing, finished the song, and jumped into another one. Dave and Sue placed candles around the room. It became a much nicer atmosphere without the fluorescent lights. But I could tell something was wrong. The rest of the night Dave didn’t play any music or sing or say much at all to anybody. Eventually, he disappeared through that door in the back wall.
As my father and I got ready to leave, Sue told us we should go say goodbye to Dave. He won't mind, she said, pointing to the door. We stepped into the room, a small linoleum-floored kitchen meeting a carpeted bedroom to the left. Dave sat in a chair near his bed, talking with someone in the corner. He must have noticed us, but he didn't look up. “It's just like that Roy Lee crap,” he was saying, “or me serving time, or it’s all ’cause of jealousy."
The man across from him nodded in agreement.
“I remember sitting in that cell,” Dave said. “I was in my bunk and staring at the wall. I fell asleep like that a lot. I remember seeing the word Tortz. It was red. T-O-R-T-Z. I fell asleep with it in my head. I remember how perfect my name, Evans, fit right under it. How you describe that?"
"Symmetrical," said the man.
“Symmetry,” Dave said. “It fit right above my name, Evans. And then Tortz started bleeding down onto my name and colored my name blood red.” He looked up at me. “Y’all leaving?"
“We got a long drive ahead,” I said.
“I'm glad y’all stopped by. This might be the last of it.” He paused, looked over at the man sitting across from him, lit a cigarette. “I’m tired, sick of fighting. Since that dream I saw my name colored like that, I had a feeling the town was against me. It was rigged and it was a setup.”
A week later Pete called to say that Dave was being evicted from the Palace for not paying his electric bill. There was no signed contract, but according to Dave he had made a verbal agreement with the fire department that he would cover the rent if they paid the electric bills. He said they shook hands on it. Dave tried to work things out with the fire department. It didn’t happen. Now it was winter and he was broke and he had a week to get out.
I called Dave a few days later but couldn't reach him. The phone was already disconnected. I wished I could talk with him, tell him how great a teacher he’d been to me. I wanted to let him know how much his life and music meant to me, how I heard my father in his lightning-fast banjo rolls, how I saw my parents, when they were young, in his lyrics. I felt his music in my blood. I wanted to send him a letter. But I couldn’t. I didn’t know where he was or if I would see him again. No one else seemed to know either. His son Tracy figured he might have been staying somewhere with Sue, but she was from Harlan County and even harder to find. He explained that when Dave went missing, you couldn't go looking for him. You had to wait. He’d come find you.
One night I decided to listen to Dave's albums and focus on his lesser-known songs. I was looking for clues to help make meaning of my time with him. I found a tune called “The Line in Between,” the fourth track on an album I’d ignored, partially because of the cover—Dave in front of a church in a black suit holding out a lantern, ready to save your soul. In three-four with a medium tempo, the song lacked the vocal volume found on other tracks. Yet it told a story I needed to hear. After a few listens, I understood that when it came down to it, what mattered most was the music he had left behind for us, how we as listeners and musicians choose to receive it and sustain it:
I believe I was born
To deliver this song.
So if I should go first
Will you carry on?
I felt ready to sustain it. But I knew this wasn’t the end. There were still songs to be delivered. I started writing about my time with Dave, and within a few months I heard from his label and some other musicians that he was drifting from house to house, staying with whoever would open a door. One of the greatest living bluegrass artists was homeless. I heard from Pete that he was staying with his sons, but it was always a matter of time before his welcome wore out. Dave was a difficult person to have sleeping in your living room. Besides rumors, I didn’t have much to go on. Eventually, I heard that Dave had a gig at an Ohio festival and he was looking for a bassist, wanted to know if I’d play. But I couldn’t. Life was in the way, and I had bills to pay. A year later I heard that Dave had flatlined while undergoing quintuple bypass surgery, but he came back to life. He called Rebel Records to let them know he was still kicking. One night, after hearing about Dave’s most recent bout with illness, double pneumonia this time, I sat outside a bar in my car, my cell phone plugged into the cigarette lighter. I had a new phone number for him, though I wasn’t sure if it was any good.
It began to rain. I closed my cell phone and turned off the car. The sound of rain pounding the metal roof got louder, until I could barely hear myself think. Rain became hail and roared like bullets falling from above. Though it was winter, I saw a bolt of lightning crack open the sky. The storm didn’t last long but I felt so agitated that I went into the bar and ordered a bourbon. I sipped it and studied the number I had scratched onto my notepad. When I walked outside, the air had become balmy, like winter had never happened.
I got in my car, rolled down the windows, and called him.
Two rings and he answered. “Where’d you go?” he asked.
“Me?” I asked.
“That was my nurse. Who’s this?”
He was at a medical center in Ashland, Kentucky, called King’s Daughter. I cringed. I knew Dave hated hospitals, but I could not imagine what he thought about hospitals with mythical names.
“Had the chills bad last night,” he said. “Today I sweated a storm. I think it broke on me. I'll be ready to go home soon.” He sounded ninety-nine years old. We spoke for a long time, about music and friends, and then he asked, “What’s your name again, son?”
I reminded him and then explained that I was writing about him, about the time we had spent together.
“You a bass player and a writer?” he asked.
“That’s right,” I said and swallowed. I had waited for this conversation, and now I was afraid of what he’d say about me having written about him. I didn’t want him to see me as the next Rocky Top thief.
“Ain't many can do both,” he warned. “Is the story out yet?”
The generous nature of his words struck me. I’d been certain he was going to give me the all-or-nothing talk. But he didn’t. He sounded interested, gentle, grandfatherly. I told him I was still writing the last section. Finally, I asked him if he would ever record again. Not for me. Not for Rebel. Not for any outside profit. For posterity, I said. I told him I had talked with friends in Nashville, that there were producers and musicians who wanted to help him record again, contemporary luminaries who had grown up loving Evans and still turned any mention of his name into Old Testament genealogy. They were willing to do whatever it took—sing, pick, produce—anything. Or we could keep it casual, I said. Just you and a guitar.
“My innards won’t allow it,” he said. “I couldn’t handle the stress.”
He went on to explain how he was satisfied with what he’d done. “Maybe I was a little selfish at times,” he said. “But I did it my way. Thirty-three years of making music. Sure, I gotta lot of songs ain’t nobody heard. But I’m ill. I can’t do it. I like to hear young boys pick. I make it out when I can. Tell everybody I said thank you. And I’m sorry if I was selfish. I was able to do it my way. And I’m thankful for that. I have a satisfied mind.”
After the call, I sat in my car and considered the warm winter breeze. Some band had started up in the bar. I could hear electric bass banging around beneath the metallic notes of a miked mandolin. How was it so warm out? And that lightning—just one flash. Sometimes things happen that you can’t explain or do anything about. Just be glad you were there. And then someone tapped on my door. It was the bartender. “You still got a tab open,” he said.
Check out the author's playlist of definitive Dave Evans songs.