It’s often said that Frank Fairfield looks and sounds like he’s just stepped out of a time capsule but until you experience him yourself you can’t fully appreciate the man’s dedication to his art.
Making no concessions to this century and few to the last, his clothes looked as old as his battered instruments – a microphone being the only electronic equipment on stage.
He appeared to be painfully shy and modestly apologised if a song didn’t go the way he’d planned, even though to us he was finger perfect throughout. Chuckling and muttering to himself when switching between banjo, fiddle and guitar, each song came with its own history lesson. We not only learned the names of the composers and when they were written, we also got the region it was made popular in and the background of the inhabitants.
Dismissing generic terms such as bluegrass, Appalachian and mountain music, he eloquently described the music instead as regional interpretations of Russian and European immigrants’ folk songs. A number of these were from the pre-recording era and were popularised through sheet music sales and word of mouth.
The set was rich with devil-beating fiddle and banjo stompers including ‘The Road To Beaumont’ and ‘The Keyhole In The Door’, the bawdy tale of a peeping tom. The crowd were held completely spellbound by the sight of this seated man, sawing on his fiddle and beating out the rhythm with his heel as he sang with a voice like a heartbroken octogenarian moonshiner. All of this seemed even more amazing given he’s still in his twenties.
Frank’s own songs sound as authentic as the old numbers with his tearjerking ‘Poor Old Lance’ proving a fine partner to the heartbreaking ‘Poor Benny’ and ‘The Cottage By The Sea’. He injected a genuine melancholy to these songs owing to his confessed lonesomeness on the road, since his touring partner returned home.
By the closing number, a rousing ‘Texas Farewell’, he’d sweated through his clothes and worn out his bow but, being the gent that he is, he still hung around to sign stuff and patiently answered questions, addressing everyone as Ma’am and Sir. A truly genuine and wonderfully unique performer.
Prince Albert, Tuesday 28th August 2012
Words and photos by Steve Clements