Josh Rutner

saxophonist, editor, indexer, etc.

Episode 31: Frank Fairfield (Frank Fairfield, 2009)

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It was June 2015, and Frank Fairfield was calling it quits. At long last, the anachronistic singer, guitarist, banjoist, and fiddler was officially done with the music racket. “I don’t feel I have a thing to offer,” he wrote in a Facebook post, of all places. “There are a few scattered dates already booked throughout the year which I’m obliged to see through. Hopefully after that I won’t have to play another damn note of music.”

It had only been seven years that Fairfield was enmeshed in that racket—which is to say, known outside of those within earshot of his street busking. In 2008, he was spotted on the street by Matt Popieluch—the former frontman for the band Foreign Born—who quickly came to manage Fairfield’s music career, and hooked him up with those darlings of the new-folk scene, The Fleet Foxes, for whom Fairfield would spend a season as the opening act. Soon thereafter, Fairfield was connected with Tompkins Square records—a label dedicated to old-timey music, both archival and newly-hewn—which would release this, his self-titled first full-length.

The album, released in 2009, is a collection of what might be broadly referred to as “traditional” tunes, though Fairfield sees them more as popular tunes, intended for everyone to sing. They’re not old songs, they’re now songs. He pooh-poohs the concept of owning a song—and even that of covering a song—dismissing them as modern corporate inventions. “You don’t ‘cover’ a Chris Smith song,” Fairfield explains. “You just sing it… These guys didn’t write these songs to own them, they wrote these songs to put into sheet music so they could be sung across the whole country.”

Fairfield is careful to respect the style while not resorting to treating it as some fragile egg, not least by digging into and finding his own way through the songs. On the opening track, called “Nine Pound Hammer,” the percussive plucking and strumming on the banjo is frantic and unyielding—chasing its tail, yipping and yapping—but always right there, dogging the ankles of his calmly strutting, melismatic vocal.

On the track, “Call Me a Dog When I’m Gone”—a tale of a groused-about gamblin’ man who just knows people will change their tune when he shows back up with a ten-dollar bill—we get to hear Fairfield’s mastery of the fingerstyle guitar. His style is full and driving—with a rhythmic pop reminiscent the great blind Reverend Gary Davis.

Fairfield is no mere cosplayer of the bygone; he embodies the aesthetic in everything from his high-waisted pants and buttoned-up button-downs to his sparsely-decorated apartment where gramophone grooves trump television channels. Born in southeast Texas, the son of a Mennonite minister, Fairfield had worked many odd jobs to stay afloat, but he came to find busking—playing on the street for whomever passes by—a more satisfying way to make a living. He shrugs off the overly romantic view, so often lobbed his way, that he is born of the wrong era—a man out of time. “I just think everything is as it should be and everything is just fine,” he says. His way of moving through life relies on letting what comes come—not forcing anything. He speaks softly in a gentle tenor mumble and sings with a quiver in the voice—a tremble in the tone that you don’t hear much nowadays. 

On track five, we’re treated to a stark and powerful interpretation of “The Dying Cowboy”—a song that might be better known to most as “The Streets of Laredo,” notably performed by Johnny Cash. Fairfield’s version is accompanied by his doleful fiddle—perched down in the armpit rather than up under the chin—with a single ornamented melodic line, dancing around a single open string, droning throughout.

One of my favorites on the record is the banjo-backed English ballad called “Margaret and Sweet William.” In the song, Sweet William remembers his long-lost love Margaret, who, whereupon having spied William and his new bride from a high window, tosses herself out that very window to her death. In Fairfield’s version, Margaret appears to William at the foot of his bridal bed that night as an apparition, spurring him to return to her home, only to find her cold corpse, which he then proceeds to kiss—hand, cheek, and lips. He falls asleep in her arms. In some versions of the song, William at this point dies of grief. Talking about the natural urge to sing heavy lonesome ballads, Fairfield notes, “We hear the owl hoot, and it just sounds so lonely. Everything mourns. The wolf howls. It’s perfectly natural to make a mournful sound, just as well as making a real chipper one.”

It’s tough to say whether Fairfield will fall back, or get dragged back into the music racket anytime soon, but rest assured that, in the meantime, he’ll abide, calmly making mournful and chipper sounds both, on the streets of some city, drawing smiles out of anyone smart enough to listen.  

If nothing else, take from Fairfield his outlook on finding the far-out in the everyday: “You're as far out as you're ever going to be anywhere you are. There's nowhere to go. Everything is wild and exciting.”

I’m Josh Rutner, and that’s your album of the week.