Rosemount man travels North America to capture stories of banjo builders

  • Article by: LIALA HELAL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 4, 2013 - 2:47 PM

Craig Evans of Rosemount went on a quest to find the root of his love, the banjo.

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Craig Evans, left, played the banjo with Kurt Olson, Joe Fishbein and other band members at Black Bear Crossings on the Lake at the Como Park Pavilion.

Photo: Photos by Bruce Bisping • bbisping@startribune.com ,

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For a year and a half, roosters interrupted Craig Evans’ most exciting moments.

The Rosemount resident had purchased a video camera from Craigslist and set off across the continent to document builders who crafted the instrument that he says changed his life — the open-back banjo.

“There was an uncanny number of roosters,” Evans, 60, said. “Anytime I was interviewing, they would begin to crow, and they were so loud, I’d have to stop. Roosters, of all things.”

Calling himself the “CNN of banjos,” Evans traveled 12,000 miles across United States and Canada to meet banjo builders. The result would be a nine-hour documentary series. The initial two volumes, “Conversations With North American Banjo Builders,” tells stories of 26 people.

Afterward, he won a $10,000 grant to produce the third volume, “Conversations With Banjo Historians.”

The Smithsonian caught wind of what he was doing and began an Instrument Builders’ Collection, starting with his series. His DVDs will soon be housed in the Smithsonian Folkways Library.

“I kept looking through the camera going, ‘Thanks, God. I can’t believe I’m sitting here listening to this stuff,’ ” he said.

They include the tale of a man who lost his arm and leg and now builds machines that build banjos. And another of a man who used banjo strings to stitch a patient during his time with Doctors Without Borders.

“When I left home to the time I got back, it was like I was three feet off the ground,” Evans said. “It was the most exhilarating thing I’ve ever done.”

Following a dream

Evans was going through an “acrimonious” divorce in 2000 when he had a dream that inspired him to “trust that the banjo would lead me on the journey I would never forget.”

“It sounds crazy, but it wasn’t,” Evans said. “Because I found peace in learning that.”

What began as a quest to document how banjos are built ended up being a more powerful story.

“It ended up being a treatise on human creativity and how people will work to pursue their gifting,” Evans said.

Evans had put away his banjo after high school, and for the next 25 years he focused on his careers in science, business, marketing, communications and later building websites.

When he reconnected with the instrument, “from that point on it seems that if every time I touched a banjo, astonishing things happened,” he said. “I have just found an instrument that is so appealing that I’m literally obsessed with it.”

Taking lessons from a 60-year-old Mennonite minister, he joined two bands at age 50 and has since had his music recorded on five CDs.

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  • Craig Evans played at Black Bear Crossings on the Lake at the Como Park Pavilion on a recent Saturday.

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