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Gruff Rhys

Inside Out

Apr 26, 2015 Gruff Rhys Bookmark and Share

In the late 1700s, John Evans, Gruff Rhys’ great-great-something traveled from Wales to America. His goal was to find evidence of Prince Madoc, a Welsh explorer of dubious authenticity that legend claims discovered America before Columbus in the early 1100s. It was rumored that Madoc also introduced Welsh into a Native American dialect.

Madoc, never existed, and Evans never did find the legendary tribe of Welsh speakers. He did, however, walk from Arkansas to the Canadian boarder, mapping out previously uncharted portions of the Missouri river along the way. During his six-year journey, he faced Malaria, imprisonment, and all matter of natural obstacles before eventually passing away at the age of 29 in New Orleans. His seemingly fruitless quest had a lasting effect on American history, however, as later, Lewis and Clark would use his map on their famous expedition.

Fast-forward to 2012. Looking to understand to better understand his family member, now relegated to a historical footnote, Rhys decided to get in touch with his family tree by doing what he does best — performing shows.

“I went to see my American booking agent, Eddie, with a map of America,” he recalls. “I asked him how feasible it would be to plot a tour following the path Evans took between 1792 and 1799. I thought, ‘Wow, maybe I can combine these two things and find out more about him and tell other people on the tour.’ I think it’s a story worth sharing. Only by doing that did I realize how extreme his journey really was, and how crazy the distances really were. I found that it’s a story that doesn’t need dramatizing in any way.”

Although booked as a traditional concert tour, the guitar-wielding troubadour was determined to tell audiences about John Evans, and source local experts to help him fill in the blanks. For company, he brought (what else?) a three-foot tall felt replication of Evans, so that he could introduce the people he interviewed and the audiences to his relative. However, this method of exploration presented a unique challenge — Rhys could only explain the history up to whatever town he was performing to on any given night. To fill in the blanks he brought along photos of both his and Evans’ homes in Wales.

“The first few shows on the tour were really weird,” Rhys recalls with a laugh. “People were like, ‘What the fuck is he talking about?’ By the time I finished the tour in New Orleans it was almost a cohesive story. Now I know it really well. I can give people the full lowdown of the life of this unusual guy.”

That tour spawned three different American Interior-themed projects — an album of folk songs aimed at celebrating the more colorful aspects of Evans’ adventure, a book to set the record straight, and a film documenting Rhys’ tour and discoveries. Later, when Rhys and his collaborator Catryn Ramasut realized there was an excess of material, an app was added to the mix.

Even though the tour is two years in the past, Rhys says he can’t help but continue seeing parallels between Evan’s life and his own. Maybe, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

“John Evans’ life was not dissimilar to someone in a band through their twenties,” he muses. “When you join a band when you’re young, it’s a very romantic idea. It’s delusional, but that’s what beautiful about it. It’s a delusion of what can be achieved through will power. John Evans was in a similar mindset. He was completely naïve, but it’s pretty incredible what he managed to achieve. It’s beautiful and a very sad story.”



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