Raymond Fairchild,
Plays the Classics
(Copper Creek, 2002)

For a non-American like myself, the music performed by Raymond Fairchild on this compilation CD of banjo tunes represents the stereotypical "cowboy music," as we Europeans call any traditional American musical style, unable as we are to distinguish between country & western, bluegrass, Appalachian, Smoky Mountain and what have you music. Of most of the compositions I did not know the titles, but I recognized many of the tunes instantly. "Turkey in the Straw," for example, is in my mind forever associated with the reruns of slapstick movies I saw as a child.

An album like Raymond Fairchild Plays the Classics allows one to learn what bluegrass is really all about, and that in the relative isolation of the mountainous regions of North Carolina, Georgia and -- I would imagine -- elsewhere, distinct strands of bluegrass were developed. The story of Fairchild confirms this. Growing up in the "remoteness" of the Smokies, the lack of access to other kinds of music allowed him to develop his own unique style, later underscoring his individuality as a musician.

This CD consists of 13 tracks, all taken from two earlier Fairchild albums: Raymond Fairchild Plays Requests (1985) and World Champion Banjo (1987), covering a whole range of bluegrass compositions. On this 2002 production Fairchild is supported by his faithful trio of companions: Josh Crowe on guitar, bassist Wayne Crowe and, of course, Arvil Freeman with the indispensable fiddle.

Apart from reworked traditional numbers like the earlier mentioned "Turkey in the Straw," "Roll on Buddy," "T for Texas" and "Katy Hill" (actually written for fiddle), Fairchild plays a number of covers by other bluegrass composers. For example, the opening number "Flint Hill Special" and "Shuckin' the Corn" (with Fairchild's hallmark single-string picking) are by legendary Earl Scruggs, as is "Dear Old Dixie," which he arranged together with Lester Flatt. Two ladies from same stable, Anne L. Scruggs and Gladys S. Flatt, signed on for "Foggy Mountain Special," while another Scruggs composition, "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," features towards the end of this classics collection.

Also included are "Clinch Mountain Backstep" and "Daybreak in Dixie," two tunes written by the Stanley Brothers and featuring their distinctive style, and Bill Monroe's "Rawhide." This number was originally written for mandolin, but Fairchild has adapted it for his banjo and it has become one of his showcase performances.

The album concludes with the 19th-century composition "Double Eagle," which only entered the bluegrass genre thanks to recordings by two other pioneers, Don Reno and Red Smiley. Apart from providing a wide-ranging sample of bluegrass music, this collection also allows an agile performer like Fairchild to show off his versatility and dexterity. As such Raymond Fairchild Plays the Classics is an affirmation that he is -- as the subtitle of this album has it -- King of the Smoky Mountain Banjo Players.

- Rambles
written by Carool Kersten
published 7 June 2003

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