Frank Wakefield: Mandolin Wizard

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Nowadays, the man who may be the most extraordinary mandolin player this side of the Andromeda galaxy parks his mobile home in Saratoga, New York. A regular on the upstate New York coffeehouse circuit, he draws clamorous applause from tiny audiences.

“I learned myself how to play this here instrument,” drawls Frank Wakefield.

“But I ain’t braggin’ on myself. You take two weeks, you can prob’ly play better ‘n I can, an’ I wouldn’t lie to ya. But 1 don’t never like t’ copy nobody. I got these new styles.”

Frank’s “new styles” fuse bluegrass to something that resembles one of its most unlikely partners—classical music. Because he plays with such incredible speed, often seeming to pluck several notes simultaneously, he creates a strangely beautiful mandolin equivalent of the symphony. Somehow the total effect of his work with this small and normally quite limited instrument approaches the fullness of an orchestra.

Frank quit school in the third grade to help his family with the potato crop.

Leaving his Emory Gap, Tennessee home at 13, he was on the road for Detroit, where he made his first recording, Now 32, he has played with Bill Monroe, Red Allen, Linda Ronstadt, Earl Scruggs, and Arlo Guthrie; for five years, he was a member of the fast-picking Greenbriar Boys.

Frank helped the New Riders of the Purple Sage make a live album some weeks ago when he appeared with them in concert. He also contributed mandolin work to Don McLean’s recently released Playin’ Favorites LP, On the latest of his own numerous albums, Frank is backed by Country Cooking, a six-member bluegrass band.

Rarely using a backup group in live performances, he demonstrates his solo virtuosity on such seldom-played instruments as the autoharp. Avoided by many musicians because of its harsh, twangy resonance, the autoharp yields a bright fabric of sound when Frank’s fingers comb its strings.

After he puts aside that instrument, Frank may bring out his guitar. Playing such straightforward ballads as “Love Letters in the Sand,” “Tennessee Waltz,” and his own “High Muddy Waters,” he sings in a soft, evocative voice.

The man thrives not as much on the praise of his fans as on their pleasure in what he does. “Are ya all just applaudin’ ’cause that was hard to do,” he asks, “or ’cause ya liked it? I gotta know.”

Other times, all he needs from his audience are smiles. He leans forward on his wooden stool, tosses back his red hair and chides: “Ya damn educated fools! I’m half scairt t’ play to ya. Ya too educated t’ suit me!”

Frank often brings his children to the stage to sing. “Get yerself some kids,” he says, as Glenn, 13, and Karen, 10, stand by. “When nobody else loves ya, yer kids’ll love ya.”

Teasing a show of affection from Karen, Frank says: “Gimme some romance.” He turns to catch a quick kiss from the shy little blonde. “Who do you love?”

Karen grins, a bit embarrassed. “Let’s just get it over with, Daddy.”

After one show, Frank danced into a side room, Karen riding his shoulders. Glenn walked alongside, carrying his father’s hat. While the three extemporized on a Rosalie Sorrels tune, the coffeehouse manager approached with the musician’s pay. “This is more ‘n you tol’ me,” said Frank. “You-all don’ have t’ gimme this much. I like t’ play here, ’cause you folks ain’t out for the almighty dollar. Ya like t’ help musicians an’ give the people a good show.”

Later that night, when all but a few die-hard music lovers had gone home, Frank returned to the stage with his mandolin. As the children watched from a nearby table, he introduced two friends, a banjo player and a guitarist. For about half an hour, the small group of listeners clapped and stomped to traditional country music which was as impressively performed as the “new styles” that had predominated earlier.

Then it was over and the enthusiasts rushed up to Frank. “That was fantastic!” someone told him.

He beamed. “I couldn’t leave without playin’ y’all some bluegrass.”

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