Frank Wakefield

Dec 24, 2021 | Welcome Column

If you’ve ever played or heard “New Camptown Races,” then you know the music of Frank Wakefield.  He is known for playing with Red Allen as well as the Greenbriar Boys. Back in 1960, he offered private mandolin lessons; and his star pupil was none other than David Grisman.   He has continued to teach and record into this century. The internet tells me he’s 87 years old these days.

Digging around in the Breakdown archives turned up this article from 1978, written by Burney Garelick, which profiled Wakefield at a time he was living in the Bay Area.

The Inspired Frank Wakefield
Nov/Dec 1978 Bluegrass Breakdown
By Burney Garelick

“The Greenbriar Boys gave the urban audience an urban interpretation of bluegrass, both in personal appearances and on their excel­lent Vanguard LPs, which later included some of the best ‘authentic’ greats, like mando­linist Frank Wakefield.

– Bluegrass, by Bob Artis, Hawthorn Books, Inc. New York, 1975

“Jesse’s (McReynolds) excellent mandolin-picking is in a league with such other masters of the instrument as Monroe, Frank Wakefield of the Greenbriar Boys. . .”

– The Country Music Story, by Robert Shelton & Bert Goldblatt, Castle Books, New Jersey, 1966

“Thank us. Thank us for that nice applause. Thank us for coming out and appreciating us. And thank me, too. Now we’re gonna procras­tinate one for you. This is one Darol wrote when he was in Alcatraz. What inspired you to write this?”

Darol Anger, who is fine-tuning his fiddle, cannot resist smiling once again.

Tod Phillips steps forward from his bass. “It wasn’t Alcatraz, Frank; it was Sing Sing.”

Then Darol adds, “Actually, Frank, it was Denny’s.”

Frank laughs and shakes his platinum blonde mane. “You is wise, too wise,” he says and simultaneously kicks off an introduction to “Ashes of Love,” a song that, in reality, was written by J. Anglin and J. Wright, otherwise known as Johnnie and Jack.

And that is the best introduction I can think of to a man who has already left indelible footprints in the snows of blue­grass. Of course I’m talking about the singular Frank Wakefield, who has, at least for a while, become our neighbor here in the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s not his first visit to the Golden State, but he admits to being lured by our fine temperate climate to take up residence in California; he’s had enough of those chilly winters in upstate New York. And we are delighted to have his among us, to appreciate his inimitable man­dolin style and to relish his irrepressibly mad sense of humor.

But California’s a long way from ol’ Dixie where it all began less than 40 years ago in Emory Gap, Tennessee, where Frank, his 10 sisters and two brothers were born and raised. Frank played guitar until he became intrigued by the mandolin. “What inspired you–” Actually, his inspiration was none other than Jesse McReynolds whom he first heard when he was 16, “on the road to 17.” Once, much later, Jesse even asked him to demonstrate a particular lick, after which Flank delighted him by revealing the inspiration for his picking. But the road to mastering the instrument was rocky, and Frank met with many people who told him things like he couldn’t play because his wrist was too weak. All that adversity, however, merely stimulated this country boy to teach himself to be “the best,” as he does not hesitate to tell you, and any arrogance in that pronouncement is immediately dissipated by his natural honesty and dazzling smile. By the time he was 18, he was a professional, traveling widely and working with the likes of Red Allen and then The Greenbriar Boys.

Frank was always experimenting with techni­que, continuously growing and developing his potential. “You’ve got to have your own style,” he says repeatedly. It’s not enough to imitate the masters of the genre; you have to find something that is distinctly yours. Even though Frank cannot be called a traditional mandolin picker, he has great respect for the tradition and for Bill Mon­roe. Frank will be the first to say that “Bill is the best at what he does.” But still Frank emphasizes the necessity to deviate, enlarge and expand upon Bill’s style. It makes Frank unhappy to hear old friends playing the same way year after year after year.

Just as Frank was inspired by Jesse, Frank became the inspiration for David Grisman, probably Frank’s best-known protege and another Bay Area resident. Once, not long ago, David introduced Frank to the number one jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli as his first teacher. Grappelli shook Frank’s hand warmly and said, with his most charming accent, “If you are Daaveed’s teechair, you mus’ be wondairfuul!” David and his quintet have played with Grappelli on several occa­sions, including the scoring of a movie. David is a good example of what Frank means by developing one’s own unique style, since his self-termed “dawg music” is as different from Frank’s playing as Frank’s is from Jesse’s or Bill’s.

Frank is enthusiastic about many of our pickers and bands. In fact, in the process of putting together a group of his own, he has borrowed their talents on many occasions. You may already have seen him at Paul’s Saloon or The Other Cafe in San Francisco, Rosebud’s in Benicia, the Red Vest in El Cerrito or a club in Fairfax with talents like Keith Little, Kathy Kallick, Darol Anger, Tod Phillips, Rick Shubb, David Nelson or perhaps even Tony Rice. Of course it’s not easy to form a compatible band, even if the musicians are excellent; there is still that indefinable element that brings it all together. But Frank knows what he wants, and experience has taught him how to get it. He has very definite ideas on putting on a show, and it is on this point that he differs from so many of our bands. “The audience doesn’t want to see you sad,” he begins and stresses the importance of smiling and joking and res­ponding to the audience, letting them know you’re alive and enjoying the music. He says that he’s seen too often how people come into a club and leave after a couple of songs because the band didn’t relate to them on a one-to-one, personal basis.

Frank’s own stage personality is a model of his philosophy. From the moment he steps on stage until the break, there is no question as to who’s in charge or why you’re there. Although he has had little formal education, his instincts and perceptions are accurate and piercing, and he has a genuine appre­ciation for the use of language; he loves to play word games with his audience, twisting familiar locutions so easily you’re momen­tarily caught off guard, that is “if you’re alone or with someone.” After you’ve seen him once or twice, you begin to catch on and begin answering in his way. And his charisma is such that you never get tired of his antics. Then his voice–a raw hoarseness, a conspiratorial whisper–will lead you right into the magic of his music, whether it is a bluegrass standard like “Orange Blossom Special” or a high-flying improvisation like “The Greek.” He also makes a point of displaying the unique talent of each backup musician; during each show he’ll set aside time for each member to solo with whatever he/she feels like playing. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t, depending on the particular per­former. But after the solos, the audience always applauds Frank’s return with increa­sing enthusiasm.

Frank is happy to play the afore-mentioned clubs because it keeps him in practice, playing with other people to a live audi­ence, but he is a little surprised at the wages musicians around here will accept. Of course he is a professional and used to receiving a different scale for concerts, clubs and festivals Back East. Still, it rankles him, as he believes a musician should be paid what he is worth and not be exploited by unscrupulous or well-meaning promoters.

But he’s a very positive person and not one to brood. The flashing smile and crinkling eyes make you laugh again quickly. Frank’s days are filled with music and softball. He plays with an Oakland team and claims to possess an overhand fast ball guaranteed to strike ’em out nearly every time. He also claims to be an excellent though conserva­tive hitter, not so much interested in the home run as getting on base–which sounds a little strange coming from such a daring mandolinist, until you realize that the lines on the ball field are limited, no matter what you hit, whereas his own musical imagination is boundless.

Three or four months ago Frank began to teach himself fiddle, which he says is the most difficult instrument to learn. Early in September he even entered a contest in Marin County and so impressed the judges they created a special, sort of free-style category for him and awarded him first prize! Frank assured them that he was nowhere near good enough to beat the contes­tants in the regular category, where first place went to Paul Shelasky. Frank was happy with the special award, but he did mention that had the audience judged, he would have beaten even the considerable talent of Paul. Someday Frank predicts that he will be the “best fiddler” just as he is the “best mandolin player” already. Of course only time will tell, but when it comes to determination to succeed, not to mention ability, Frank has a pretty good record.

His newest album, on Bay Records, will be released before the end of the year, and it promises to be super. This will be the third he’s made in California; others are GOOD OL’ BOYS: PISTOL PACKIN’ MAMA (Round Records, 1975) with Don Reno, Chubby Wise and David Nelson and FRANK WAKEFIELD AND THE GOOD OL’ BOYS (Flying Fish, 1977). Meanwhile, don’t miss the opportunity to see and hear him in person while he is living in the Bay Area. And don’t forget to thank yourselves for a most enjoyable time. And thank me. And thank him, too.

I hope you get a chance to listen to some Frank Wakefield over the holidays. And happy holidays to you!

Read about: