This month, to celebrate my 50th column, I exercise one of the prerogatives of a columnist: focusing on the music of two particular favorites of mine-the late banjoist and singer/songwriter Dave Evans, and mandolinist and singer/songwriter Dick Staber. Perhaps their names are not familiar to you, in which case I have the pleasure of introducing you to some fine music. Evans began his career as a sideman with Larry Sparks and others before leading his own band, River Bend. Staber played for many years with Del McCoury, and later with Bob Paisley and Don Stover. He briefly led his own band, Yonder City, and continues to perform today. Both Evans and Staber have also written many fine songs.
Dave Evans was born in Ohio in 1950 to a musical family. He was singing and playing banjo from an early age. A student of midwest banjo virtuoso John Hickman, Evans joined his first “name” band, Earl Taylor’s Stony Mountain Boys, at 18. After stints with Larry Sparks and the Boys From Indiana, among others, Evans formed River Bend. With this group, during the 1980s, he made a series of recordings that secured his reputation as one of the most soulful singers in bluegrass. Legal troubles during the 1990s landed him in jail for several years, after which he returned to music. He retired from performing in 2010 and died in 2017.
I first heard Dave Evans on the radio in the early 1980s when I was living in Washington, D.C., then a hotbed of bluegrass. I was struck by both his deeply personal and passionate singing style and his idiosyncratic banjo playing. In his notes to the Rebel CD compilation “Dave Evans-Classic Bluegrass,” John Wright, author of the book Traveling The High Way Home about Ralph Stanley, another singer with a highly personal style, distinguishes Evans’ singing style from the Stanleys’ style. Wright contrasts Evans’ versions of “Another Night” and the traditional “Wild Bill Jones” with the Stanleys’ more traditional treatment of those songs. According to Wright, the Stanleys’ versions convey the pain and anger of the lyric, but those emotions “are kept on a very tight rein. The ‘facts’ of each song, rather than the personalities of the narrators, are paramount.” In contrast, Wright says, Evans “wears his heart on his sleeve.” It is the narrator’s anger and pain “that strike us as the most important facets of his versions of the songs.” You can hear what Wright means-here are both versions of each song.
Evans was also a gifted songwriter, and his songs deserve to be played as long as jammers are still singing around campfires at bluegrass festivals. Perhaps his best known composition is “Be Proud Of The Gray In Your Hair.” In this moving song, the singer tells his ailing father not to “give up without a fight.” The song is unique among bluegrass songs in my experience in that it quotes Albert Einstein to the effect that “man’s greatest victory is dying.” I haven’t been able to track down the quote but it sounds like something Einstein might have said. The song has remained in circulation, being covered recently by the No Joke Jimmy’s in a version that owes a lot to the Evans recording.
“When The Snow Falls On My Foggy Mountain Home” and “Just To Hear Her Sweet Voice” sound like they could have been written by Bill Monroe or Carter Stanley. Evans’ song “One Loaf Of Bread,” tells a harrowing story of alcohol-fueled parental neglect. “If I Ever Get Back To Old Kentucky” is his take on the “singer wants to be back home” genre, notable for its lack of the usual cliches. “You’ll Never Walk The Streets Of Gold” is an uptempo gospel song set to the melody of “John Henry.” Finally, “Play Me A Song, Little Blind Boy” celebrates the healing power of music. Don’t be put off by the title; it really is a good song.
Through the force of his singing and his vivid songwriting, Dave Evans helped the listener share what he saw and felt. I can think of no higher praise for a singer and songwriter.
Dick Staber shares with Dave Evans the gifts of vivid imagery and emotionally powerful songwriting. Like Evans, Dick is also an instrumental virtuoso with a distinct style. Dick’s primary instrument is the mandolin, although he plays banjo, guitar, and several other instruments as well. Dick was born in New Jersey in 1941. Music was a part of his life from childhood. In the early 60s, he attended college and graduate school in central New York, and while at Syracuse, he began playing bluegrass. His music career was interrupted by the war. After service in Vietnam, Dick joined Del McCoury and The Dixie Pals (as Del’s band was then known) in 1968.
It was with Del McCoury that Dick wrote what are likely his two best known songs: “Call Collect On Christmas” and “Bluest Man In Town” (the latter co-written with Bill Monroe). Dick told me how “Bluest man In Town” came to be written. The story appears in Tom Ewing’s biography of Bill Monroe. In August 1969, Bill Monroe and Del were both performing at a bluegrass festival in Pennsylvania. McCoury, a former Blue Grass Boy, stopped by Bill’s bus, where Monroe sang him the chorus of “Bluest Man In Town,” which lacked verses. Later, McCoury sang the chorus for Dick, who wrote two verses for it in Del’s Cadillac while they were riding back home. Dick’s verses explain in simple and compelling terms exactly why the singer is the bluest man in town. Del learned the verses and began performing the song. Del and the Dixie Pals first recorded “Bluest Man In Town” in 1971; Bill Monroe himself recorded it with Del in 1985. Monroe never gave Dick credit as a co-author of the song.
Dick wrote “Call Collect On Christmas” all by himself without Monroe’s help, and Del recorded it in the mid-70s shortly after Dick left the band. This song also tells a simple story very much in the tradition of great bluegrass songs like Carter Stanley’s “The Fields Have Turned Brown.” Here, the singer leaves home to make his way in the world. His mother’s only request is that the boy call collect so she can hear his voice every Christmas Day. Each year he calls to tell her he will soon be home, although it’s implied he never makes it. One year, he calls and there’s no answer….
Del recorded two other Staber compositions on his 1972 LP “High On A Mountain”: “How Could I Explain” and “Now She’s Gone.” Dick was the mandolinist on the album and that sounds like his voice singing with Del on those tracks. Both are sad songs, especially “How Could I Explain,” but, as with Dave Evans, Dick’s words and melodies put the listener right there in the room with the singer whose world is falling apart.
Kathy Kaplan’s liner notes on the “High On A Mountain” LP summarize Dick’s mandolin style very well: “Dick Staber plays as tasteful and solid a mandolin as can be heard. Each note has a place; there is nothing superfluous.” She means that Dick always plays what is appropriate to the material; there is no showing off, no flash for the sake of flash, and no stylistic excess. Dick’s playing is exceptionally smooth, especially on tremolo passages. (Tremolo is the rapid up and down picking of one or more mandolin strings to emulate the continuous flow of music that fiddlers get with long sustained bow strokes.) Dick’s mandolin music seems to be a part of him, with a flow as natural as water from a spring.
After leaving Del, Dick fronted Yonder City and also played and recorded with Bob Paisley and the Southern Grass and New Lost City Ramblers fiddler Tracy Schwarz. He also performed with banjoist and former Blue Grass Boy Don Stover. In the mid-70s, Dick recorded the “Pickin’ Around The Cookstove” LP for Rounder. This instrumental recording included two Staber original mandolin pieces, the title track and “Queen Atlantic” (named for the brand of Dick’s wood stove pictured on the album cover), as well as Dick’s bluegrass mandolin version of “The Muffin Man.” It’s unfortunate that these tracks don’t seem to be on You Tube, but they are definitely worth hearing if you can find them. Here are live recordings of Dick with the Paisley band singing his song “Molly’s Gone” and picking Bill Monroe’s arrangement of “Dusty Miller.”
Around 1980, Dick recorded two solo albums, “Of Graves And Epitaphs” and “Listen To My Song.” The first of these can be heard in full on You Tube. It contains a variety of traditional and original material, including a great mandolin instrumental, “Kittatiny Ridge,” which starts at about 12:30 in the video below, and a wonderful song “Buzzard’s Glory,” which shows off Dick’s fine singing (starting at 17:45 below). “Listen To My Song” contains one of Dick’s most haunting compositions, “Daddy Sing Me A Song About Mama.” I couldn’t find Dick’s solo version on line; the version included below is a beautiful recent recording that Dick made with his partner Judith Chasnoff. If this song doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, you’re made of stern stuff indeed.
For many years Dick made his home in upstate New York, where I met him in the late 1980s. At that time he worked often as a solo act. Since the 90s, Dick has been recording and performing in a duet with Judith. Both are excellent singers, and their work includes much fine original material. A few of their recordings are included below. Dick’s old F5 mandolin gets a shout out in “I’m Just An Old Mandolin.” Keeping with the that theme, “The Old Man With The Old Mandolin” tells about an early morning festival encounter with a man who might just be Bill Monroe. Dick has written many songs about the places near and dear to him. The “Mary Powell Waltz,” and “Champlain Valley Home” are two of the finest. Thanks Dick for all the wonderful music and for that mandolin lesson all those years ago.