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Frank Fairfield: A One-Man Folk Revival
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Frank Fairfield: A One-Man Folk Revival
Frank Fairfield: A One-Man Folk Revival
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DON GONYEA, host:

We may be well into 2010, but the music of our next guest brings to mind a much earlier time.

(Soundbite of banjo music)

GONYEA: With BrylCreem in his neatly parted hair, wearing a vintage suit jacket and high-waisted pants, Frank Fairfield plays old-style American folk with mesmerizing intensity.

(Soundbite of a music)

Mr. FRANK FAIRFIELD (Musician): (Singing) (unintelligible) not my home. I'm gonna leave old tumbling (unintelligible).

GONYEA: Fairfield is just 24 years old and from California's Central Valley, not Appalachia. He'd wander the state playing his fiddle, banjo and guitar for an extra buck.

Mr. FAIRFIELD: I like playing in the street, 'cause that's where everybody is. You're playing for everybody. You're playing for the old man and the little kids and the people walking out of the liquor store and the people getting out of church.

GONYEA: The street is where he was discovered performing at a farmer's market in Hollywood. Frank Fairfield's debut album came out last fall. Now he's touring the U.S. and Europe. He joined us from our New York studio.

Let me ask you about the banjo as an instrument. You mention the banjo to people, and they love it or they hate it, before they even hear a note. What is it about the instrument that prompts such strong reaction?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FAIRFIELD: I don't know. I hate to say it, but I think it's been driven into muck. Now they've got plastic heads on them and people playing with all these metal picks on their fingers, and all you hear is tiki-tiki-tiki-tiki-tiki-tiki. And, you know, twang-twang-twing-twang. Of course people don't like it. You know, I think the banjo can be such sweet, warm instrument.

GONYEA: I'm assuming you have your banjo there.

Mr. FAIRFIELD: Yes, sir.

GONYEA: Can you give us maybe just kind of a little sense of your sound?

Mr. FAIRFIELD: You want me to play the banjo for a little bit?

GONYEA: Yeah.

Mr. FAIRFIELD: Oh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of banjo music)

GONYEA: All right. What is that?

Mr. FAIRFIELD: Oh, many old things, I guess.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FAIRFIELD: I was just banging on the banjo a little bit.

GONYEA: You have a single CD out called "Frank Fairfield." The first song is what is often credited to be a Merle Travis song. Let's hear Merle Travis first.

(Soundbite of song, "Nine Pound Hammer")

Mr. MERLE TRAVIS (Country and Western Singer-Songwriter): (Singing) This nine pound of hammer is a little too heavy for my size - honey, for my size. I'm going...

GONYEA: Let's hear some of your version of it here.

(Soundbite of song, "Nine Pound Hammer")

Mr. FAIRFIELD: (Singing) Nine pound hammer just a little too heavy for, for my size, baby, for my size.

GONYEA: It sounds very old. It sounds, actually, more ancient than the Merle Travis version that we just heard.

Mr. FAIRFIELD: I had never heard that version before, never heard Merle Travis. Various forms of the song called "Nine Pound Hammer" was written probably when Merle Travis was whatever - 13 years old or 10 years old.

All the songs on that first record are just standards, just the ones that everybody knows. They're real common songs. There's no curve balls in there at all.

GONYEA: There's a pretty one that reminds of a Jimmy Rogers song. I don't know if it is or not...

Mr. FAIRFIELD: Which one?

GONYEA: "The Train That Took My Girl from Town."

Mr. FAIRFIELD: Yeah, I guess he did sing a lot about trains. I find myself singing a lot about trains. I don't know why. I guess it's just something kind of romantic about, you know, getting away. And I certainly have spent a lot of time with that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GONYEA: Well, let's hear a little bit of it.

(Soundbite of song, "The Train That Took My Girl from Town")

Mr. FAIRFIELD: (Singing) Tennessee (unintelligible). If the needed me(ph), gonna move from town. Hey (unintelligible) that passing train that carried my girl from town. Well, where were you when the train left town? Gonna stand on the corner with (unintelligible). Hey (unintelligible) that passing train that carried my girl from town.

I think that one gets mostly credited to Frank Hutchinson. I hate giving credit to any of this, 'cause, you know, nothing really comes from anywhere. I - you know, and if Frank Hutchinson wasn't out there smoking a cigarette, wearing a beret, you know, making up, you know, writing this fine poetry out and taking himself all seriously, if he even was, you know, these are just things that have been floating around forever and he just, you know, had song to sing and he put it on a record.

GONYEA: And do you write songs on your own?

Mr. FAIRFIELD: I don't know if I'd call it that. But, you know, maybe I piece together a thing or two or mash up one thing with another, or kind of make something up. But I wouldn't call it songwriting. Ira Gershwin was a songwriter. I'm just a kid that sings songs.

GONYEA: Can we get you to play one of your own mash ups?

Mr. FAIRFIELD: Okay. It does have some train references.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of a music)

Mr. FAIRFIELD: (Singing) Oh, chickee(ph), I done sees a train(ph), uh-huh. Oh, chickee, that whistle, and I sees a train, uh-huh. Don't believe by believing(ph), and count the days I'm gone.

GONYEA: Some people might hear your music and think it's kind of this nostalgic trip back to a certain time, to a certain place. Are they getting the wrong impression, if that's their take on it?

Mr. FAIRFIELD: Well, even it was, I don't - you know, people have been nostalgic every since it ever has been. I mean, a lot of the songs in the American repertoire was written by people in the 1870s that were nostalgic for the good old days, and that's why they wrote songs about the Sweet Sunny South and Dixie and Suwannee River.

You know, to me it's all the same. I don't - you know, people talking about the past, it's all the same stuff right here all the time. Nothing goes anywhere. You know, I want to continue playing the music that people used to play before it got cast aside. And this is the most natural place to go from. This is about where things left off, and I'm just picking up where it left off, and just keep playing and see what happens from there.

GONYEA: Frank Fairfield, thanks for joining us today.

Mr. FAIRFIELD: Oh, certainly.

GONYEA: Frank Fairfield is currently on tour. He recently released a compilation album of 78s from all over the world, called the "Unheard Ofs and Forgotten Abouts." You can hear more of what Frank Fairfield played for us at nprmusic.org.

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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