A review for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
By Henry Koretzky
If some wag were to insist that banjo players really did live up (or down) to the dim, drooling stereotypes perpetuated by hundreds of banjo jokes, Bill Evans would be an ideal rebuttal. A doctoral candidate in ethnomusicology (focusing on the African-American roots of the banjo) and, until recently, an active and articulate spokesman for the International Bluegrass Music Museum as its Assistant Director, Evans has immersed himself in the traditional aspects of bluegrass and old-time music. Also, witness his work with the Dry Branch Fire Squad.
In NATIVE AND FINE, Bill Evans produces a wide-ranging statement of his musical influences. Evans shows both his respect for his musical roots and his ability to synthesize the old and the new in his compositions. It pays tribute to two banjo inspirations, Ralph Stanley and Don Reno, with fiery covers of "Fling Ding" and "Choking the Strings." Yet with five original compositions among the dozen tracks here, Evans shows that modern influences haven't diminished the soulfulness of his music. "Scotland Yard," with its twisted harmonic progression, could become a convoluted classic of the genre on a par with "Crazy Creek," while "Jump Jesse" combines drive and bounce throughout its four-section structure.
NATIVE AND FINE also gives ample showcase to some of Evans' musical cohorts. He is supported by a superb cast of players, including David Grier on guitar, Mike Compton on mandolin, fiddlers Stuart Duncan and Jason Carter, and former bandmate (in the group Cloud Valley) Missy Raines on bass. DBFS partner Suzanne Thomas shines on a haunting rendition of the shape note hymn "Wondrous Love," accompanied only by lightly fingerpicked banjo. Dry Branch leader Ron Thomason sings the mournful "Omie Wise" and contributes an instrumental entitled "Saalo's Joy" in an intimate mandolin/banjo setting. While Evans' accompanists are top-notch, Grier's breaks are very much "in the pocket" of this album's traditional theme. Grier manages to be innovative and transcendent at the same time, while Compton's Monroe- influenced mandolin stylings run through the music like a backbone. Evans matches Grier and Compton note for note with his own proficiency on the five-string.
Jon Hartley Fox's excellent liner notes do a fine job of placing NATIVE AND FINE within the wide spectrum of bluegrass music, as well as in the context of Evans' life. Fox writes, "The journey towards NATIVE AND FINE has taken twenty years..." I can only hope that we won't have to wait twenty more years for another fine release from Bill Evans.