It’s difficult to imagine Frank Fairfield living in an apartment, let alone using e-mail or a cell phone. It’s much easier to picture him supine in the back of a boxcar, plucking his battered banjo while shuttling across a black Southern sky. Or camped by the bank of some slow-moving tributary, fiddling forgotten Appalachian murder ballads, surrounded by hobos chomping cold beans. Or stepping out of a Faulkner novel, all gun smoke, ancestral ghosts and gee-tar.
This much we know about Fairfield: He was born 23 years ago in the San Joaquin Valley, where his grandfather, an itinerant musician/fruit picker settled down and found that old-time religion. During the ensuing two decades, he bounced back and forth across the state of California, occasionally attending high school, and toiling at odd jobs, including dish washing and factory work. Rumor has it that somewhere along the way there were stints in Texas and Guatemala, but no one will go on the record to admit it, and frankly, it doesn’t matter to me. Or to Fairfield.
“I don’t care too much for thinking about the past,” he says in the one-bedroom apartment he shares with his wife, across from the Gold Line train tracks in the gray zone between Highland and Cypress Park. “The truth is just another story. You can remember it any way you want; it’s never gonna’ be the same twice.”
Fairfield mumbles this with a low, flat drawl that belies his baby face and stone-washed blue eyes. Somehow, he found himself in Oakland, where he endured, cryptically, some “pretty wild times and pretty strong experiences.” In need of help, he wandered down to L.A., where he had family willing to support him in his time of duress.
Discovering that he could eke out an existence busking on street corners, Fairfield took to the asphalt. He didn’t have a driver’s license, so he biked, lugging a fiddle, guitar, banjo and, occasionally, a stack of 78s and a gramophone. Then one Sunday two springs ago, Matt Popieluch, the lead singer of the Secretly Canadian–signed band Foreign Born, stumbled upon the then-21-year-old playing the banjo with trancelike intensity at the Hollywood Farmers’ Market, ostensibly oblivious to the avocado hawkers, Ravi Shanker sitar strummers, and the matted hair and yoga-mat crowd.
“I was mesmerized. Eventually, I gave him a dollar and walked away, but I had to go back to talk to him,” says Popieluch, a long-time fan of Bessie Smith, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and sundry country and hillbilly blues. Eventually, the Foreign Born frontman asked Fairfield to open up for John Webster Johns, who was playing a show that week. “He showed up for sound check, and everyone in the room was speechless. It’s definitely the most authentic translation of music I’ve ever seen.”
Assuming managerial duties for Fairfield, Popieluch soon landed him a spot opening for the Fleet Foxes at the Echoplex. The same mesmerism occurred. At sound check, the Seattle folk five-piece became spellbound by Fairfield’s baleful prewar blues ballads. Soon enough, their lead singer, Robin Pecknold, invited Fairfield to tour with them and gushed to Rolling Stone that Fairfield “sounds just like Mississippi John Hurt ... born out of time ... with an amazing voice.”
Shortly thereafter, Popieluch contacted New York–based Tompkins Square, the nation’s preeminent imprint for archival folk and traditional music, as well as contemporary material that fits into the label’s moonshine-and-moonlight aesthetic, including British acoustic 12-string guitar prodigy James Blackshaw.
According to the label’s founder, Josh Rosenthal, Fairfield’s music was the rare submission that elicited his interest. “In Brooklyn, there’s a very active scene of young people playing old-time music,” says Rosenthal, whose small label has received four Grammy nominations in the last two years. “A lot of that music is very enjoyable, but I don’t see anyone like Frank. He’s not just connected to the music — his entire life is steeped in it. He proves that you don’t have to be a hillbilly, or born on a cotton field, to do it convincingly.”
The initial 7-inch release of Fairfield’s music drew such a wild response that the label offered him the opportunity to record a full-length of covers. No less than the celebrated music writer Mr. Old, Weird America himself, Greil Marcus, described the eccentric Angeleno transplant as “a young Californian who sings and plays as someone who’s crawled out of the Virginia mountains carrying familiar songs that in his hands sound forgotten: broken lines, a dissonant drone, the fiddle or the banjo all percussion, every rising moment louder than the one before it.”
Of course, carping cynics could claim that Fairfield is some sort of gimmicky hipster with a fetish for unremembered nostalgia and a penchant for high-waisted pants. But any doubts are abrogated upon a visit to Fairfield’s apartment — a sparsely decorated shrine to long-dead and largely forgotten voices, a place reminiscent of Steve Buscemi’s record room in Ghost World: bookshelves filled with perfectly ordered 78s, some made of fragile shellac compounds, a manufacturing technology predating vinyl; Ukranian bagpipe music from the 1930s; hillbilly ballads from West Virginia; and Delta death blues; arcane field recordings from the Sudan, China, North Africa and French Guinea. Fairfield typically speaks in terse, gnomic bursts, but when you inquire of his records, he opens up with encyclopedic detail, offering an abyssal knowledge that can’t be found on any Wikipedia page.
In another corner, a worn-out collection of 8mm films stacks up modestly, waiting for Fairfield to buy a new projector (his old one burned out). An archaic analog television dating to the Green Acres era rests against a wall on a tiny stand. I ask Fairfield if he watches it much. “Oh no,” he replies with a laugh that sounds like he learned it from Laurel and Hardy. “You know, just to watch the occasional VHS tape.” If this is an act, the guy deserves an Oscar.
Any lingering doubts could be immediately quelled upon watching Fairfield perform. The effect is like a sepiatone still stepping out of 8 Men Out — his hair Brylcreemed to the side with a razor-blaze neatness, his features full of All-American angularity, shirt buttoned up his Adam’s apple, so tight that it seems if he as much as loosens his collar, a torrent of secrets will spill out. Then there’s that voice, that spellbinding voice, full of existential anguish, his face frozen in a fever grip as if each song were an unalloyed alchemy of psychic grievance.
Maybe Fairfield is some Billy Pilgrim case unstuck from his time, but I suspect that he’s mostly a response to it. With technology’s noose tightening via Twitter feeds and Facebook pages, MySpace and Blackberry Messenger, 1,000 cable channels and hundreds of thousands of blogs, Fairfield’s music feels like a water from a cold, clean river. This isn’t some watery Woodstock warble about “returning to the garden.” This is a solitary, spectral lament.
The question lingers: Why should you listen to an ostensibly callow kid whose junior high school years paralleled the boy-band era, when each year, the amount of high-quality archival music multiplies exponentially — to say nothing of the treasures Alan Lomax unearthed. Hell, even Fairfield himself can’t figure it out: “Why would anyone listen to me when you can hear Uncle Dave Macon or Wilmer Watts?”
But not only is he sustaining a tradition that’s long teetered on the verge of extinction, Fairfield also helps us to remember something atavistic in the marrow of our bones, some whisper from vanished prewar, pre-interstate days, when regionalism reigned, and personal communication, gestures, movements, and music were restricted to the limitations of our eyes. But it’s about more than that: It’s about doing what feels right. Frank Fairfield’s music feels right.
Frank Fairfield performs at Joe’s Great American Bar & Grill with the Dave & Deke Combo on Saturday, October 17, and at the Redwood Bar & Grill with Blind Boy Paxton on Monday, October 19.