Photograph by Frank and Marty Godbey. Courtesy of Rebel Records
Nine years old and Dave Evans was picking a banjo. A few years into double digits and he had made a name for himself around Columbus, Ohio, sneaking into clubs like the Astro Inn to listen to bands, maybe even playing a song or two before getting kicked out. After high school, in 1968, Dave flew to Yakima, Washington, and became one of Earl Taylor’s Stoney Mountain Boys. He continued to perform with many of the best-known bluegrass artists of the time—Melvin Goins, the Boys from Indiana, the Kentucky Gentlemen, Lillie Mae and the Dixie Gospelaires, Larry Sparks. On his twenty-seventh birthday he started his own group, River Bend, and in seven years (1979–1985) they released seven records. He released another five albums with various bands between ’97 and ’06, after spending the larger part of a decade in prison for dubious charges of gunplay.
I was lucky enough to meet Dave a few years back—an experience that I wrote about in “Will You Carry On,” which appears in the Oxford American’s Fall 2013 issue—and during that time, I witnessed him pay the price for living as an iconoclast. He had ensured his obscurity. And yet his music warrants his immortality.
When the Oxford American asked me to put together a playlist of Dave’s songs, I wanted to construct a sequence that conveys the significance of his life story. I traced the path he had already beaten, listening to his albums in chronological order, gathering songs as I went. Here is a compilation of what I believe to be Dave’s best work. About half are Dave’s definitive versions of classic bluegrass tunes, while the others are his original compositions. These songs bear witness to the life of one of the greatest living bluegrass musicians.
“Highway 52” (The Best of the Vetco Years, 2008)
Written by Dave when he was thirteen years old.
“99 Years Is Almost for Life” (The Best of the Vetco Years, 2008)
In this version of the song, written by Flatt and Scruggs, Dave establishes himself as a voice to be reckoned with.
“Barbara Allen” (The Best of the Vetco Years, 2008)
Dave reaches back into musical antiquity and makes this song his own. By replacing the standard fiddle with a bluesy harmonica, he gives new meaning to this centuries-old piece.
“White House Blues” (The Best of the Vetco Years, 2008)
Hold on to your cowboy hat.
“Pastures of Plenty” (Classic Bluegrass, 1994)
Here again Dave confronts and departs from the Flatt and Scruggs version, recording the song with his banjo and nothing else. This is Dave’s first release with Rebel Records, and according to him it started as a joke (he’s impersonating Ralph Stanley while covering Woody Guthrie). But the feeling it conveys is serious and haunting.
“Be Proud of the Gray in Your Hair” (Classic Bluegrass, 1994)
Written for Dave’s father. The chorus contains the line “Einstein could very well be right / that man’s greatest victory is dying.” What other bluegrass artist sings about Einstein?
“One Loaf of Bread” (Classic Bluegrass, 1994)
This autobiographical song, a tour de force of singing and story telling, is about the difficulty of trying to help the children of addicted parents.
“My Bluegrass Memories” (Bluegrass Memories, 1997)
Dave’s tribute to his lineage.
“Pure Gallo Wine” (High Waters, 2003)
This love song, from his second post-prison release on Neon Records in ’98, shows Dave at the height of his skill as a songwriter.
“C.O. Come and Get Me” (Bad Moon Shining, 2000)
The rendering of a gruesome prison scene involving a mentally ill boy and a hard truth that the narrator is forced to realize.
“Last Public Hanging in West Virginia” (Bad Moon Shining, 2000)
A Tom T. Hall song that Flatt and Scruggs were fond of playing. Dave made two recordings of this piece—one before prison, and one after. This is the one he made after.
“The Line in Between” (Hang Out a Light for Me, 2002)
An underappreciated original about the time we spend on Earth and what we leave behind.
"Should I Go, Should I Stay" (Pretty Green Hills, 2006)
Just Dave and his guitar expressing the lasting pain of a broken relationship.
“Pretty Green Hills” (Pretty Green Hills, 2006)
Written by Tom T. Hall, this is the title track of Dave’s last album, released in 2006.
Read the author's article on Dave Evans here.