Patuxent CD-182 Frank Wakefield - Ownself Blues
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Bluegrass Hall of Honor member, Red Allen, already in his 20s and playing bluegrass music locally in Dayton, Ohio, discovered 16 year-old Frank Wakefield sitting on his front porch strumming on an inexpensive mandolin. Later that same evening Frank was sitting in with Red Allen and the Kentuckians. The mandolin was such a new instrument to Frank at the time that during some early shows with Red he would be playing in one key and Red in another. Even so the crowds loved what they heard and a partnership was forged that evening which would lead Frank to a prominent position in the world of bluegrass music and the broader world of mandolin music.
When Frank first started playing mandolin, about 6 months before his meeting with Red Allen, he was listening to the sound of Bill Bolick, the mandolin playing brother in the Blue Sky Boys. He also enjoyed the playing of Ray Lundsford who played electric mandolin with Cincinnati country band leader Jimmie Skinner. Bluegrass music was something that he heard but paid little attention to.
In late 1951 Frank was working in a music store in Marietta, Georgia when Decca records released a single by Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys containing two gospel songs. One, a Monroe composition titled Get Down On Your Knees And Pray, touched a chord in Frank. After hearing it he was consumed with learning that style. 13 years later it was Monroe himself who told Frank that he played his style as good as he himself did and that he should get his own style. Frank enjoys telling that story and he should be extremely proud that he was so highly thought of by Monroe, but even if there weren’t a Bill Monroe, Frank’s music would have evolved.
As a teenager in Ohio, Frank watched classical music on television and was impressed with that “Bay-tow” guy waiving the little stick in front of all those instruments. Although he won’t admit it, it is obvious in his playing that he has listened to a lot of classical music.
While still living in Maryland, Frank played with the Greenbriar Boys of New York City from 1964 until they broke up in 1968. It was during that time that he began working on his solo playing which included arranging classical works. Although known to the bluegrass world as a mandolinist, Frank began arranging classical music as well as his own original music for several instruments including guitar, banjo and autoharp.
He moved to Saratoga Springs, New York, and with the help of a local promoter was booked with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic as well as receiving an invitation to appear with the Boston Pops Orchestra. Frank spent time developing alternate tunings and techniques which made his style his own. He appeared on popular television shows like the Mike Douglas Show and the David Frost Show. He even did a one man show for public television playing mandolin, guitar and autoharp. My favorite comedian from that period was Steve Martin who began some of his shows with a comment like “I always like to start my show by doing something impossible”. In many respects that is what Frank’s music sounded like. Some of his new music, although technically brilliant, was well beyond the acceptable tolerances of his bluegrass fans.
But he didn’t forsake bluegrass music. Although he was without a full time bluegrass band he recorded some demos with the late Roy Lee Centers and Junior McIntyre. He continued to perform with and record one last album with Red Allen. In 1975 he was reunited on record with Don Reno and Chubby Wise with whom he had recorded 15 years earlier. During that period, while living on the west coast, he toured with The Grateful Dead and New Riders of the Purple Sage as well as with his own band, The Good Ol’ Boys. Bill Monroe got his wish and Frank found a brand new audience.
10 of the 13 tunes on this project are original bluegrass tunes written by Frank. His classic New Camptown Races is here. Written before most of his accompanying musicians were born, it continues to stand up as a standard in the bluegrass repertoire. The others, to my ear, are very reminiscent of Monroe’s music from his later years, a bit more haunting and modal than his earlier titles. These tunes show a reverence and understanding of Monroe as only someone who heard the same “ancient tones” could share. I think anyone who enjoyed Bill Monroe’s music will see these new tunes to be as much a tribute to him as they are a tribute to the creativity of Frank Wakefield.
The remaining 3 tracks are classical music, one written by Frank and played solo while the other two are older pieces arranged by Frank. Although he has described much of his original music as “Bay-tow” this, to my knowledge, is the first time Frank has actually recorded Beethoven’s music. Frank’s signature tone and staccato technique bring a new dimension to these pieces. It’s all well played and doesn’t try to prove anything other than that it is beautiful music.
Playing either bluegrass or classical, the band assembled for this recording is exceptional. Award-winning fiddler Michael Cleveland, long-time Jimmy Martin, Red Allen and Rhonda Vincent sideman Audie Blaylock and finally, Mike Munford, a banjo player’s banjo player, round out the veteran players. Joining them are a few newer names, among them Jordan Tice on lead guitar and Darrell Muller on bass. Together they put out a sound that is well worth the price of admission.