If you were to meet either Frank Fairfield or Erik the Red on the street, you’d think that each was an absolutely one-of-a-kind, true American original. They’re both difficult to get in touch with, wear high-waisted stovepipe pants, speak with the wide-eyed, hopeful innocence of pre-Watergate Americans, and, indeed, both sing as if the second half of the 20th-century never happened. That made it a treat last week when the two minstrel revivalists—the former a Los Angeles old-time musician, and the latter a songwriter who lives near Scottsville—came together for a very charming, and very bizarre, night of Appalachian old-time acoustic music lyrically centered on ’coons, whiskey, and stories ’bout what papa did at the Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar.
Frank Fairfield, who played a couple of shows in town last week, is a relic from a past most are too young to have lived through. The fiddler, guitarist and banjo player is one of the only living—let alone young—artists on the Tompkins Square folk record label.
Erik the Red, a Charlottesville native “homesteading” near Scottsville whose real name is Erik Knierim, opened the show. Knierim told me has two rules: He never asks to play a gig, and he accepts all gigs he’s offered. That means only a couple times a year can you see him jump between guitar and ukulele, enigmatically prefacing earthy, original tunes with a huge grin: “This next one was written on a cold night.” His set last week featured a Beach Boys cover and a song from his “favorite film,” 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, “A Whale of a Tale”—which goes, “I swear by my tattooooo,” as Kirk Douglas also sings it in the film—plus a spate of Red originals about cold nights with his sweetheart. These he played, still grinning, and jiggling his leg in time with the song, on a small acoustic guitar missing its high-E string.
There is an undeniable cuteness to Knierem’s show, as compared to the dead serious, mustachioed, Brylcreemed Fairfield, who had arrived in town early, and played a secret show Monday at The Garage. He wore a wrinkled gray blazer over a white shirt buttoned all the way up, and seemed to have used the same polish on his black bucks as he did in his hair, which was parted devoutly to the side. It is the kind of total and complete affect that makes you want to track down his high school yearbook in the hopes that you’ll find him wearing a Korn t-shirt. As L.A. Weekly has noted, “If it’s all an act, then this guy deserves an Oscar.”
Like Knierim, Fairfield is a revivalist (though he doesn’t like that term) who plays banjo, guitar and a very, very mean fiddle, singing with the brusque, clipped delivery of 78rpm ghosts like Uncle Dave Macon and Burnett and Rutherford. Like his affect, Fairfield’s tunes haven’t been updated to the computer age. Children die at home while papa’s at the bar; on “Call Me A Dog When I’m Gone,” he sings, “Call me a dog when I’m gone / but when I get back with that $10 bill / it’s, ‘Honey where’d you been so long.’” You’d think he’d at least adjust for inflation.
Fairfield was discovered (though he probably wouldn’t like that term either) busking at a farmer’s market in Los Angeles by a member of the band Foreign Born, who became Fairfield’s manager; soon Fairfield was opening for acts like Fleet Foxes and Cass McCombs, and releasing albums on the influential, lost treasures-oriented folk label Tompkins Square, where Fairfield soon was given his own imprint.
The story of discovery is worthy of Fairfield’s music. On his fiddle in particular, Fairfield achieved a polyphony it usually takes three fiddlers to achieve, augmenting long, rabid bow-drags with pizzicato plucks on his fingering hand. He at times seemed genuinely bewildered by his audience. He drank tea, not beer, and asked what kind it was. Between songs he tuned his three instruments—a banjo, fiddle and a parlor guitar—painstakingly by ear, which most audiences don’t tend to tolerate. Early in his set he ripped out a fiddle rag he said was from the South of Texas, originally written as a dance tune. “I was trying to get you all dancing on that one,” said Fairfield through a thick moustache, looking miffed. “But people don’t dance anymore. They just sit and watch.”
Replacing the fiddle with the banjo, Fairfield softly laughed as he arranged the microphone, “I’m gonna get it just so now, just so.”
After the show I called Knierim to see what he thought of Fairfield. He said he’d previously seen Fairfield play in Oregon and was blown away. Naturally, he was honored to share a stage with the enigmatic, old-time musician. So honored, in fact, that he and his girlfriend invited Fairfield to Miller’s to shoot pool—a game that became popular in the early 20th-century. They played until 2am.
“I’ll tell you what,” Knierem said over the phone. “He whupped our asses.”
“This is a great game,” Fairfield apparently told Knierem. “It’s like playing an instrument. The gentlest touch is always the best.”