Frank Fairfield, Greg Vandy, and American Standard Time
Frank Fairfield’s a strange success story. Plucked from the streets of LA to open a Fleet Foxes tour in 2009, he seems to be from another era but still manages to connect to hipsters and folkies alike. No one would have predicted this kind of success from a solo old-time fiddler, banjo picker and songster, but Frank’s secret is he never tried to be anybody but Frank. He never watered down his music, never compromised his exacting vision of American roots music. He knows what he likes, and to him this kind of music and lifestyle isn’t anachronistic, it’s just the way it is. This kind of surety gives Frank an almost mesmerizing charisma. It doesn’t matter whether you love or hate folk music, when you see Frank perform and hear his voice, he’s got you hooked.
Frank Fairfield’s new album, Out on the Open West, is not so much a return to the roots that inspired him, but rather a burrowing deeper into the Appalachian traditions he clearly loves. His voice winds through the old songs like a trucker crossing the Cumberland Gap. There’s something timeless to the music, but also something critically alive. And that’s what Frank says about the music: it’s alive. Frank hears the beating heart of the music and can tap into it. That’s what makes his music compelling. The opening track, “Frazier Blues,” has a feeling of deep sadness. It’s the same kind of feeling you get when you watch the the Greg Vandy’s new documentary, Frank Fairfield. It’s a feeling that emanates from Frank and it’s part of his charisma and I think part of his connection to the old songs.
Frank Fairfield: Frazier Blues
Up in rainy Seattle, Greg Vandy, DJ of The Roadhouse on KEXP, is riding high these days. He’s the long-time host of a popular roots music radio show on one of the most influential community radio stations in the US and his show plays host to famous musicians all the time. Recent in-studios included Phosphorescent, Ryan Bingham, Frazey Ford, and he’s interviewed big-name artists like Iron & Wine or Gillian Welch. But what’s got him most excited these days is his documentary about Frank Fairfield’s iconoclastic old-timey music, and more generally, his new venture, American Standard Time. Greg discovered Frank’s music through local DJ/music writer Kurt B Reighley, who recently released an excellent book on old-time traditions made new. Greg reached out to Frank’s agent Matt Popieluch. Here’s how Matt pitched Frank Fairfield to Greg:
“I first found Frank playing banjo on the sidewalk at a farmers market. I started booking shows for him right then and there, and things started happening immediately… Frank travels mainly by bicycle around LA, busking all over town, with his fiddle, banjo and guitar tied to his back with twine! He’s also been known to add his gramophone and records on top of that, which I’ll never understand how he accomplished. He brings his gramophone on tour and plays records for people in the parking lots of shows. Frank is an encyclopedia of music. He can talk for hours about it once he opens up. I’ve seen him play probably 30 or 40 times and not once has he played the same set. He’s just an onion with a million layers. I’m still learning things about him, and he’s only 23! I know I’m forgetting some stuff, but that’s some of it. I think he’s fascinating because of his intelligence and talent, primarily. He’s very unique.”
As Greg says, “I was sold. I hosted Frank at KEXP in late 2009 and immediately thought that such a compelling character and musician should be seen as well as heard.” One of the best things about Greg’s work, on his American Standard Time blog and on his KEXP radio show, is that he’s as interested in culture and context as he is in the music. It’s not enough for him to enjoy the music, he wants to know where it’s being made, how it’s being made, and who’s making it. He envisioned a series of videos about his favorite roots artists, a kind of Artist Portraits, and thought Frank would be the perfect subject to kick-start the series. Working with Austin Wilson of More Dust Than Digital, Greg and KEXP filmed Frank on his next visit to the station. This filming snowballed into “B-Roll” footage of Frank at Pike Place Market, shopping for records, and later at the famed Pickathon festival outside Portland. The footage was so compelling that Greg realized it had the makings of a mini-documentary. This mini-doc, Frank Fairfield, turned into a portrait of Frank in a variety of settings, expounding on his views on life and music. In one of the particularly poignant parts of the film, Frank comes off a great set at Pickathon saying how much he enjoyed himself, but immediately follows this with “But then again, whatever, one night I don’t enjoy myself. What’s the big deal, you know?” It’s a moment that shows how you can’t understand one man’s music without trying to understand the man. Hearing that phrase helped me see how Frank’s music has some of its edge, an edge born of the long, lonely roads he’s traveled.
Frank Fairfield, the film, has been doing quite well and has been featured in a number of film festivals, most notable SXSW. It’s playing this weekend at the Seattle Film Festival too and being shopped around to other film festivals. And it’s just the start of Greg’s new work. In 2010, he formed American Standard Time to host the new videos he was producing with More Dust Than Digital. The site became a blog and retains ties to KEXP, but the videos are a key part. As he told me, “The whole idea behind our artist portraits is that musicians like Frank are much more than just the music they play. They are characters too. Same with Blind Boy Paxton and Sallie Ford. And by framing them with relevant backgrounds and good light, you get a beautiful piece that takes you way beyond the music.” One of the most popular videos from American Standard Time is Greg’s portrait of indie folk star Alela Diane. Greg’s portrait was filmed in her Portland home and featured some beautiful footage of her rehearsing and even just singing around the house.
Here’s hoping that American Standard Time will keep cranking out these videos. But it’s not easy to build a new model for roots music video production on a shoestring budget. As Greg says, “I’d like to make more…But so far it’s all a passion project, as we have no budget and my web-site is not monetized. Ultimately a budget is needed to continue making these artist portraits.” Greg idolizes Les Blank, a pioneer filmmaker in the world of roots music, and with the tools of digital film-making and a plethora of amazing artists at our fingertips, we’re in definite need of a new Les Blank. Hopefully, Frank Fairfield, the documentary, will show the potential for more videos and more features for Greg’s favorite artists. As he says, “Roots musicians have a certain fabric about them. They tap into a tradition that we all know (consciously or not) and they usually have a quality about them that is very appealing. They tend to run a little deeper than pop musicians. It’s as simple as that really.”
Northwest Friends: Frank Fairfield screens this weekend at the Seattle International Film Festival. It opens for the film Surrogate Valentine.
May 29, 2011 9:30 PM
May 30, 2011 3:30 PM
This post originally appeared on the Hearth Music Blog. Check out our website and roam through our blog and Online Listening Lounge to discover your next favorite artist! We’re dedicated to promoting today’s best Roots/Americana/World musicians.