That old-time folk revival 

County Commissioner Barbara Evans lures Randy Sparks and the Minstrels to the Wilma

Exiting the Kingston Trio’s Missoula concert last September, Missoula County Commissioner Barbara Evans bumped into UM President George Dennison.

“I said to George that the only thing that would have been better than the Kingston Trio would be the New Christy Minstrels,” says Evans. “And he replied, ‘You know Barbara, you’re right.’”

Seeing the Kingston Trio rekindled the torch she once carried for her favorite musical artists, Randy Sparks and his New Christy Minstrels. Surfing the Web, she came across rediscovermusic.com—a Web site reconnecting folk music fans and their music. She was trying to track down the nearly forgotten Sparks’ tune “These Thousand Hills,” and hoped some fan might eventually stumble across her query and help her out.

The New Christy Minstrels were once the most popular folk group in America. From their ranks rose such folk-rock-country icons as Barry McGuire, the Byrds’ Gene Clark and Kenny Rogers. But it had been almost four decades since Randy Sparks’ brainchild charted with “Green, Green” and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” It didn’t look like Evans would have much luck tracking down such an obscure song. But Evans got a reply—and it was from Sparks himself.

“C’mon now, Barbara, I know at least a hundred songs better than that one,” he replied. “I may have a copy around here, but it’s buried beneath at least a hundred better songs. I will make an effort to find it, and if I do, maybe I can copy it onto a CD. No promises, but I’ll make an effort.”

Evans was amazed that Sparks had responded in person. Not wanting to let the opportunity to get to know her favorite musician pass by, Evans began e-mailing Sparks regularly.

“Wow!!! I can’t believe I got an e-mail from you,” she wrote. “I love your music and have raised my kids on the Christy Minstrels. Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without your Christmas album.”

Back and forth, the two forged a friendship based on the oddest of connections: Sparks played his first paid gig at UM when John Datsopoulos was student body president, and Evans and Datsopoulos had grown up on the same block. Evans is one of the Missoula Carousel’s biggest supporters, and Sparks pays the rent for a wood carver who’s carving him a carousel chicken.

Eventually, Evans broached the subject of Sparks playing a Missoula show. Sparks told Evans that if she found a him a theater, he’d play. For the past 24 years, Evans has concentrated on one thing: running the county with the other county commissioners. She knew nothing about how a concert worked, yet she was committed to bringing Sparks to Missoula.

“I think anybody that could bring their favorite artist and hear them at a concert they put on would get a great satisfaction,” says Evans. “So I got to work.”

Evans first tried to cajole the folks at the University into letting her put the show on there, but they wanted $20,000. Not being in the concert promotion business, Evans didn’t know how to come up with that kind of investment. She realized that if she was going to do this, she needed help.

“If I had it at the University, there’s nobody there to help me,” she says. “But if I had it downtown, there’s the Downtown Association and the Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Wilma.”

Using almost three decades’ worth of contacts, Evans found a few dozen sponsors and a gaggle of friends to help out. She managed to whittle down the price for the Wilma to only a grand.

Then came posters and press releases and even a saloon backdrop from The Missoula Children’s Theater production of Crazy for You. And of course more e-mails to Sparks.

One might suspect that Evans’ husband would be jealous of his wife’s attempt to court Sparks into a show, but Evans’ husband knows his wife and her crazy endeavors.

“He’s always been very supportive of whatever I want to do,” she says. “One time I was into ponds and wanted frogs in my ponds. Well, there are hardly any frogs around here, so I sent off for some from Pennsylvania and had 100 Pennsylvania bullfrogs sent here. I ended up having about 20 full-sized bullfrogs in an aquarium in my house during the winter, and I had worms flown in every week so they could eat. That’s an example of how supportive he is of all the crazy things I do.”

With all the work she’s put into the show, Evans doesn’t worry about failure. The bond that she’s formed with Sparks led him to decide to debut a song—“Last Go Round on the Merry-Go-Round”—at the Wilma show.

It seems Evans and her newfound talent fills a void in the Missoula music scene. With her Web surfing and booking of the Wilma, it seems possible the Missoula could become the epicenter of a folk revival. Who’s next? Peter, Paul & Mary? Judy Collins? Bob Dylan acoustic? But Evans says this is it. She won’t promote another show—unless of course her “very favorite” artist decides to return to town.

“I told Randy that I’d help him out however I can,” she says. “If he needs help with other concerts in other places, I’d do it. But only for him.”

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