Bluegrass Banjo

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Raymond Fairchild (b.1938 in Cherokee, N.C.) is often called the fastest and best banjo player alive. Fairchild blends traditional mountain tunes with country-western and bluegrass music to produce the unique sound that has come to be known as the “Fairchild Style.”

The son of a Cherokee Indian mother and a father who spent much time away from home while serving in the military, Fairchild spent his early years learning the ways of the woods that surrounded his home. His formal schooling ended after he completed the fourth grade, but he had begun to work on the family farm and do odd jobs as soon as he was able. His aunt, Martha, was a self-taught, left-handed banjo picker and hers was the first banjo music Fairchild ever heard. He had learned to play an old Gibson guitar when he was 11, but the banjo was the instrument that interested him. He wanted to learn to pick, but he was too poor to buy a banjo, so his first instrument was a hoop with a squirrel hide tacked over it attached to a fretless neck. His first store-bought banjo was a Silvertone model that he ordered from the Sears and Roebuck catalog. He played the instrument, but he ignored the instruction manual that had come with it, for even then he was determined to play music his own way. His father eventually noticed the progress his son had made on the Silvertone and took him to Dunham’s Music House in Asheville, where he bought him a Gibson RB-150.

Until he was nearly grown, Fairchild had almost no exposure to recorded music. He grew up in a house without electricity and was a teenager before his father brought home a battery powered radio. During those years, whenever he could get to Asheville and to a place which had a jukebox, Fairchild would spend his quarters to hear Earl Scruggs play the banjo. Once his family had the radio, he could listen to the Grand Ole Opry broadcast from Nashville on Saturday nights, to the Stanley Brothers on Farm and Fun Time out of Bristol, Virginia, and to Snuffy Jenkins pick with Pappy Sherrill and the Hired Hands from a station in Statesville, North Carolina, but his exposure to banjo music remained quite limited. He occasionally saw professional banjo players at their show dates in school houses and small auditoriums in Western North Carolina and remembers Wade Mainer of Weaverville, North Carolina, as the very best of these. But guitars and fiddles were the instruments of his early life, and he learned the many traditional mountain tunes on which he would draw when he began to make his own music from the fiddlers and guitar players who lived in the mountains around him.

Fairchild did not attempt to play for the public until the mid 1960’s. By then, he had moved from Cherokee to Maggie Valley, North Carolina, and was working as a stonemason to support his wife and children. He had found an audience for his music at “The Hillbilly Campground” in Maggie Valley, and for twelve years he played for tips on the road that led to the campground. Sometimes he was joined by friends who played other instruments, but just as often he played alone, from eight in the morning to midnight when he could, because, as he said, “It was love of the music.” During this period, Fairchild recorded several albums for Uncle Jim O’Neal at Rural Records, but these did not reflect the mountain music of his childhood. Fairchild was willing to experiment with new sounds and styles, and his recordings for Rural Records include drums, saxophone, and steel guitar in addition to banjo.

Despite his success and his growing reputation, Fairchild did not form his own band until 1975. It was then that he met the Crowe brothers: Wayne, who played bass and Wallace, who picked rhythm guitar. With the Crowes behind him as the Maggie Valley Boys, he perfected his unique combination of sound and speed and got the break that would eventually take him to the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. Nat Winston, himself a banjo player, hired Fairchild and the Maggie Valley Boys to play at a cabin party on Grandfather Mountain. Winston was so impressed by Fairchild’s picking that he arranged an informal audition for him in Roy Acuff’s dressing room backstage at the Opry. While Loretta Lynn and Ernest Tubb were entertaining onstage, Fairchild played for a group that included Acuff, Bill Monroe, Archie Campbell, Billy Grammer, and Hal Durham, the Opry’s manager. Durham hired Fairchild on the spot, and he would become a major star there in the years that followed.

During his career as a banjo player, Raymond Fairchild, who never learned to read music and who never wanted to copy anyone else’s musical style, has played in every state in the United States and has toured abroad. He has won five consecutive Master of the Banjo Championships, the title of World Champion Banjo Picker, and has had several gold albums for banjo instrumentals. But the career accomplishment of which he says he is most proud is as designer of the Cox/Fairchild banjo. Using Fairchild’s design, banjo maker Jimmy Cox has produced 100 gold and 100 nickel-plated instruments with a curly maple neck and resonator, an ebony fingerboard, and a 20-hole flathead bronze tone ring that produces the sound that Fairchild considers the perfect for playing the music that he loves.