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Frailin's Flix: North American Banjo Builders Documentary

Earlier this summer Craig "Frailin" Evans embarked on a tour of the eastern portion of North America to interview banjo builders as part of a project to document this "golden era" of artisans. He also spoke to a number of musicians and retailers to gain their perspective about our favorite instrument and these craftsmen.

Next year, Evans will tour the western part of the continent. The result will be The North American Banjo Builder Series, which he plans to make available by DVD and as pay-per-view online episodes. He recently established a website for the project at www.northamericanbanjobuilders.com.

The seeds of the banjo builder project can be seen in a series of webinars Evans conducted and posted at the Banjo Hangout. To get a glimpse of how the banjo builder series will look, he produced a video about Minnesota mandolin and guitar builder Lloyd LaPlant. You can also check out this introductory video where Frailin explains why he's doing this project:



Choosing which banjo builders to interview was difficult, Evans says, as there are so many great builders producing instruments today. He simply doesn't have the time or resources to visit them all, so he had to establish a set of guidelines to narrow down the field.

"I'm a pretty active buyer," Evans says. "Basically, I want to see what's out there. If I hear of a new builder, I'll call them up and introduce myself and usually end up buying a banjo from them. So I first knew these builders as a customer. I knew if I was going to get serious about interviewing them, I had to come up with a list of objective criteria to decide who made the cut. Well, that's impossible. So I came up with these subjective guidelines."

First, Evans chose builders who built banjos as a primary source of income to distinguish them from hobbyists. Second, he wanted builders who have been in the business for five or more years. And third, he picked those who build 20 or more banjos per year. However, these were not hard and fast rules. The result was a list of about 27 builders.

"This had to be a non-biased approach," Evans says. "I wanted to capture these people and their influences, inspiration and motivation. For the most part, these people got into building banjos knowing it's not a moneymaking business. ... It's a great study of the creative mind."

Although Evans' journey is only half complete, he says he has gained "a deeper reverence for the creative abilities of this group of people."

"I'm in awe," he says. The people he met felt like "new, old friends," as if he'd known them all his life.

The first volume of the North American Banjo Builder Series will be released on DVD in the fall, with the second volume being released in the fall of 2012. You can follow the development of the project at the Banjo Hangout forum, where he posts updates about his progress editing the videos and his attempts to gain grant funding.

Evans says he feels hopeful that he will win a grant. He is currently hustling to finish six shows to submit to the Smithsonian Folkways. Despite not seeking donations, some people have sent Evans money unsolicited to help support his project.

"I'm overwhelmed with the generosity," he says. "This has been so rewarding for me. I feel a little like how Alan Lomax must have felt."

In the coming weeks, completed episodes will be available to watch through the project's website. Be sure to look for free viewings, as Evans plans to make each video available on a rotating basis.

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