Listen Here - Frank Wakefield
By Glenn Weiser
Metroland, November 11
, 2010

Picked for Greatness
The long journey of mandolin master Frank Wakefield

Backstage at a 1960 Bill Monroe concert in Washington, D.C., the father of bluegrass listened to the playing of a young Tennessean who on demand could play any of Monroe’s groundbreaking mandolin solos. An impressed Monroe told him, “Boy, now you play my own style about as good as me. Now what you got to do is play your own style.

”Frank Wakefield took heed, and in a quantum leap, the student David Grisman famously hailed as having “split the bluegrass atom” brought the instrument into new musical terrain. Wakefield’s story is the odyssey of a once-illiterate Appalachian folk picker who found his musical voice and went on to successes as diverse as playing with the Stanley Brothers, touring with Jerry Garcia, and performing with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.

Assessing Wakefield’s place in the high and lonesome pantheon, Dan Hays, executive director of the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA), says of Wakefield that “his stage persona, style of playing, and repertoire made him one of the pioneers who cut a broad trail for the music.”

Lou Martin, an Albany-based mandolinist who is an expert on the music of Bill Monroe, agrees, saying Wakefield “holds a Rock of Gibraltar position in the history of bluegrass and the history of the mandolin.”

Sitting at his kitchen table in his Saratoga Springs home on a recent afternoon, the 75-year-old Wakefield, clad in a plaid shirt and black jeans with his sandy blond hair uncombed, spoke in a drawl sprinkled with Southern colloquialisms about his beginnings, his six decades of playing music, and his newest CD. Snowflakes swirled outside his window; nearby, the refrigerator door was covered with pictures of him with famous musicians including Monroe, Jesse McReynolds, blues mandolin player Yank Rachell, and his musical partner Red Allen.

One of 12 children, Franklin Delano Wakefield was born on June 26, 1934, in Emory Gap in rural eastern Tennessee. His paternal grandmother was a full-blooded Cherokee, who according to Wakefield was “raised up in a teepee” and spoke of “how nice the Union soldiers were when they came through” the area during the Civil War. His father Sam Roy was a mechanic for the Tennessee Central Railroad, and although he stayed employed during the Depression, his work left him little time at home.

When Frank was 6 or 7, his mother moved out, turning over the care of the three remaining young children to their 28-year-old sister Evelyn. Although Evelyn held the family together, Frank’s schooling, which had only reached the second grade, stopped, leaving him functionally illiterate (at 22, he went to night school and completed an eighth-grade equivalency). But, inspired by the singing he heard in the Regular Baptist Church, he had already taken up guitar and harmonica. Music, rather than the fear of fire and brimstone, would prove to be his salvation.

By 1950, his sister Anna had moved to Dayton, Ohio, and married, and Wakefield went to live with her when he was 15. Soon thereafter, his brother-in-law, Otis Shear, presented him with a mandolin. “He showed me how to play a G chord, and played ‘Flies in the Buttermilk’ (“Skip to My Lou”) for me.” After that, Wakefield said, “Nobody taught me one thing.”

He soaked up plenty from records, though, starting with a 78 by the Blue Sky Boys that a preacher gave him. The artists were the famous duo of Bill and Earl Bolick, one of the many 1930s “country brother” guitar-mandolin acts that became the cornerstone of bluegrass. With his ear honed from singing in church, Wakefield learned many of Bill Bolick’s mandolin parts. “When I got that down,” he said, “I heard Bill Monroe and took a likin’ to that best of all.” He then studied Monroe’s breaks, and mastered Big Mon’s style so well that he would later be described as “Monroe’s most influential follower of the second generation.”

One day in 1952, Wakefield was practicing on his front porch when Red Allen, a singer and guitarist in his early 20s from Pigeon Roost, Ky., walked by with his guitar. Allen stopped and asked him his name, Wakefield invited him onto his porch, and the two played for the rest of the afternoon. That night Wakefield sat in with Allen at a local bar gig, and one of the great teams in bluegrass was born.

At about this time he also started playing in gospel-oriented duo with his brother Ralph on guitar as the Wakefield Brothers, and from there graduated to gigs with Jimmy Martin and also the Stanley Brothers.

Following his pivotal meeting with Monore, Wakefield, now living in Washington, D.C., helped found the trio the Greenbriar Boys with guitarist John Herald and Bob Yellin on banjo, both of New York City. The band were the first of the “citygrass” groups formed outside of the Upper South. Another milestone was his 1964 Folkways album with Red Allen, which won him the attention of the folk music world. During the 1960s he also performed classical pieces by ear with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic and Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops.

What brought him to Saratoga Springs was a Greenbriar Boys gig at the legendary Greenwich Village coffeehouse the Gaslight at which Bob Dylan and Lena Spencer of Caffé Lena showed up. Wakefield recalled that just after he had exited the venue, “Lena seen me walkin’ down the street. She ran up behind me, took me by the arm, an’ said ‘You’re really great.’” Spencer subsequently persuaded Wakefield to move to the Spa City, which he did in 1970.

He then began a solo career that included a tour with Jerry Garcia and an appearance on the album Bluegrass Revival, a project conceived of by David Nelson of New Riders of the Purple Sage. More than a half-dozen records later, Wakefield is still musically active (he’ll be at the Parting Glass on May 15).

Asked to explain precisely how his playing was an advance from that of Bill Monroe, Wakefield, who does not read music, could only demonstrate his trademark licks and techniques. As it turned out, these included picking parallel harmonies on non-adjacent strings by using the pick and his right-hand ring finger together, four-part chord-melody passages reminiscent of Dixieland tenor banjo, using minor modes over major chords, and even borrowings from Middle Eastern scales such as the flatted second scale tone.

Many of these sounds show up on his latest CD, the all-instrumental Ownself Blues. With backing by a group of Boston-area musicians, the disc features Wakefield playing 11 original tunes that range from the bouncy title track to the fiddle tune-like “Saratoga Ride” to a fresh take of “New Camptown Races,” to compositions by Bach and Beethoven. (In a touch typical of his backwards-reverse- opposite brand of stage humor, my copy is inscribed, “To Glenn Weiser from Frank Wakefield, Your Enemy.”)

Wakefield had a coronary bypass operation in 2007, but his drive is undiminished. Now, 50 years after meeting Bill Monroe, he says his next CD will be tribute to the bluegrass patriarch.

And he’ll continue to gig as well. “I never get tired of performing,” Wakefield says. “If I was to retire, I’d get old. And I can’t let myself get old. So it’s such a pleasure to be a musician and to do what you love doin’, because there’s nothing else on this planet that will keep you as high as a Georgia pine. It really will.”

ge was incontestable, but was that any way to end the show?

—Glenn Weiser

See the article on the Metroland website 
Index of Metroland Articles by Glenn Weiser    ©2010 by Glenn Weiser. All rights reserved.  


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