On Out on the Open Road, Fairfield continues his exploration of the hinterlands of American roots music. He’s still the center of the music, picking banjo and fiddling frantically, and his eerie, otherworldly voice is still the key to his music. On stand-out tracks like “Ruthie” and “Frazier Blues” (listen here); his voice is unsettling and weirdly beautiful at the same time. There’s a sadness at the heart of his music that’s reflected in his voice, in the way he draws out the songs with long, floating notes that flutter gently to the ground. His playing is rough, no doubt about that.
“I piece together a thing or two or mash up one thing with another or make something up,” Fairfield says, “but I wouldn’t call it songwriting. Ira Gershwin was a songwriter. I’m just a kid that writes songs.” As if there weren’t already enough reasons to like this guy, he’s modest too. His original songs are timeless and sound every bit as legitimately old-timey as any traditional folk song. He truly brings his music alive, picking, plucking and pulling bow with such mesmerizing ferocity that it’s hard to look away. Add that with his dapper-dan side-part and high-waisted trousers, and Frank Fairfield’s old-timey aesthetic is so spot on that it’s not even funny.
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The songs on Out on the Open West, Fairfield’s second record, are more modern in one respect; Fairfield wrote them. Still, he’s made a record that sounds like it comes from another time. There’s no crackle of needle against shellac, but neither is there the compression and isolation of modern recording… He plays like a guy looking for forgotten treasure in an old tool drawer. When he picks up the pace, his signifying reference — the click clack of a steam-powered locomotive — is simultaneously anachronistic and universal. If he’s bringing back the past, it’s not an obscure one.
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.
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To top it all off, the recording perfectly suits the sounds of this album. It is sparse as sparse can be and sounds like Fairfield and a handful of friends, including local bluesman Jerron Blind Boy Paxton, set up a DAT recorder and just laid out these tracks. The result is a lived in sound, full of natural warmth and a very traditional atmosphere. I can’t help but respect him for so clearly foregoing today’s modern recording conveniences for what has worked so well for his forbearers. It’s a brilliant move that aligns his own music with those that he so clearly respects. “Out On The Open West” is raw and primitive and perfect.