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 trance like 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.
By Jeff Weiss