The previous post in this series described Frank Wakefield’s many innovations and contributions to bluegrass through his mid-1960s tenure with the Greenbriar Boys. By then, Frank had taken to heart Bill Monroe’s advice to develop his own style of mandolin playing, and he was just getting warmed up. This post continues his story.
After the Greenbriar Boys went their separate ways, Frank moved to Saratoga Springs where, except for six years in California, he has since made his home. There, he worked on a solo style of mandolin playing, featuring melody and harmony together. Frank was playing many shows by himself in those days and needed a fuller sound than the traditional bluegrass mandolin styles afforded. Frank’s very personal classical mandolin style, which evolved during this time, is the best known of his solo playing styles. In the late 1960s, he guested with the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Pops, which were unusual precincts for a bluegrasser.
In Saratoga, Caffe Lena became Frank’s base of operations. Lena encouraged him to keep working on his classical style. By this time, Frank was also playing banjo and autoharp. In 1972, Rounder released Frank’s first solo album, titled simply “Frank Wakefield” (video link to entire record is immediately below), which demonstrated his new music. He played his solo classical style on two compositions, including “Jesus Loves His Mandolin Player No. 2,” (track 16 below) and showed his autoharp skill on “Dance Of The Sandcrab” (track 4). He was still in fine voice, covering a 1950s pop song, “White Silver Sands” (track 7) and he continued to write beautiful but more conventional mandolin instrumentals, such as “Waltz In Bluegrass” (starts at 36:07). On this album, Frank’s backup band was Country Cooking, an Ithaca-based bluegrass band featuring several pickers who became very well known in bluegrass-Peter Wernick and Tony Trischka on banjo, Kenny Kosek on fiddle, and Russ Barenberg on guitar. Frank certainly had an ear for talent.
Later in the 1970s, while he was in California, Frank teamed up with David Nelson of the New Riders of the Purple Sage and other musicians including (at various times) bluegrass pioneers fiddler Chubby Wise and banjoist Don Reno, as the Good Old Boys. This group recorded several albums of more straight ahead bluegrass, although Frank’s mandolin playing continued to be innovative and distinctively his own.
Frank’s subsequent recordings set a pattern that Frank has followed more or less to the present, namely, surrounding himself with talented musicians to perform and record simply as Frank Wakefield or the Frank Wakefield Band. Back in upstate New York in the 1980s, he was frequently accompanied by Summit, a stellar group of local musicians including Craig Vance on guitar and Chris Leske (then known as Chris Lee) on banjo. Frank was playing with Summit when I saw him for the first time at the 1987 Peaceful Valley festival. (I already knew Summit from having seen them without Frank five years earlier at a bar in Washington DC. I was very impressed by their music and by the fact that they were, as I was, from upstate New York.) The next time I saw Frank, in 1992, he was playing at Lena’s accompanied by the Bear Bridge Band, another very talented group I knew from Berkshire County. And, jumping ahead to 2018, at the Oldtone Festival, Frank was accompanied by the Hay Rollers, a very impressive group whose members may be familiar to local readers. At that festival he also did a mandolin workshop with Caleb Klauder of Foghorn Stringband. It was a pleasure watching these two mandolin virtuosos pick and talk shop.
Frank’s recordings from more recent years continue to showcase his creativity and virtuosity. His 1996 CD, “That Was Now…This Is Then,” contained many Wakefield originals, including “Mexican Stomp!” Frank also recorded his very novel arrangement of the old fiddle showpiece “Blackberry Blossom.” This notey tune is usually played as fast as humanly possible, but Frank shows the beauty in the tune played at a very relaxed tempo. His solo tune “The Greek,” from 2000’s “Midnight On The Mandolin,” updates his classical style, and 2009’s “Ownself Blues” contains two classical pieces, one each from Bach and Beethoven. This CD also includes his modern take on his most famous tune, “New Camptown Races,” featuring some new licks on the old favorite. And finally, Frank returned to his first mandolin inspiration; his 2011 “A Tribute To Bill Monroe” includes one of Bill’s hypersonic mandolin showpieces, “Pike County Breakdown.” Purists be warned: there are some mandolin licks here that Bill Monroe did not play. However, Frank does wrap it up with Bill’s fancy impossibly high lick at the end. Frank’s speed, clarity and beauty of tone are as impressive as ever.
Another important part of Frank’s music for many years has been teaching mandolin. I am one of his many lucky pupils. In the early 1990s the band I was in had the good fortune to do a show at Lena’s in Saratoga. One of our numbers was “New Camptown Races,” which I did my best with on the mandolin. When we finished, a whoop came from the stairs. I had not realized that Frank was in the house and was listening, and it was lucky for me that I had not, for I would never have been able to get through the tune had I known he was there. A few years later, at a festival workshop, Frank listened to my mandolin playing and said that he could help me. We arranged a lesson at Frank’s home in Saratoga. Frank showed me his note perfect renditions of Monroe classics as well as his versions of old time numbers like “Billy In The Lowground.” I especially remember that he showed me how Bill played Pike County, and when he hit that fancy lick at the end he grinned broadly while I just gaped. I found the lesson very worthwhile. Years later, at one of his shows at Lena’s, Frank saw me and said, “I gave you a mandolin lesson.” “Yes, Frank, you did,” I replied. “You must be way better than me now,” he said. “Only in my dreams, Frank,” I replied. Long may he continue to inspire us all.