RIP: Frank Wakefield, Bluegrass Mandolin Innovator

Publisher’s Note: News has spread that bluegrass mandolin pioneer Frank Wakefield (1934-2024) has passed away. He was one of those singular figures which our print magazine is built upon and we were happy to feature him in our now sold-out 35th issue.

Here, in its entirety, is that interview. Thanks for staying so young for so long, Frank. We’ll miss you. -Jason Verlinde

The Bridge

The long, strange and occasionally backwards journey of Frank Wakefield

By Art Dudley

Photographs by Jeromie Stephens

This article originally appeared in Fretboard Journal #35

Shops on Main Street, when such things existed, used to stay open late on Thursday evenings. Imagine my surprise at finding that the new stringed-instrument store in downtown Oneonta, N.Y., not only wasn’t open late, but it closed early on Thursdays.

On Friday I stopped in at lunchtime and asked Lou, the store’s owner, what was up. He explained: Thursday afternoons were when he made his weekly two-and-a-half-hour drive to Saratoga Springs, N.Y., to take lessons with one of the greatest living bluegrass mandolin players – whose existence, as it turns out, was the reason Lou lived in that part of the world in the first place. And why didn’t I know this already?

Bluegrass newcomer that I was, I didn’t yet know about Frank Wakefield, the Tennessee-born Grammy-nominated mandolin virtuoso who, for reasons unknown, had taken up residence in a bustling city in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. But I came up to speed in the years to come, and soon it became a point of pride: The American South had Tony and Del and J.D. and Ricky and Norman, but we had Frank – who turned out to be warm, genial, accessible, and, until recent years, a fixture on the New York state festival scene.

Just as impressive is Wakefield’s recording legacy, a high point being the album he made in 1964 with the singer/guitarist Red Allen. Produced by then-19-year-old David Grisman and released under the simple title “Bluegrass” (Folkways Records 2408*). Equally important is Wakefield’s eponymous 1972 solo album (Rounder Records 0007), an album that stands alongside “Appalachian Swing,” “New Dimensions in Banjo & Bluegrass,” “Manzanita” and a handful of others as a document of a seismic shift in bluegrass: an application of new thinking to old music that perfectly accommodates both. That album contains two of Wakefield’s many solo instrumentals bearing the title “Jesus Loves His Mandolin Player” – the brief, Bach-like “No. 16” and the sprawling and even more adventurous “No. 2,” the latter with its plentiful double-stops, crosspicking and imaginative use of harmonics. Hearing that last track alone, it’s easy to understand Grisman’s famous observation that “Frank Wakefield split the bluegrass atom” – and it’s difficult to imagine that this virtuoso was well into his teens before he even touched a mandolin.

Frank Wakefield: My brother-in-law, he had a mandolin and a guitar. So one day he got that mandolin out, played it some and showed me a couple of chords on it, and I picked it up right away. I’d never played a mandolin before. In fact, I’d never even seen one before. I think his was a Silvertone or a Sears or something … No, come to think of it, it was a Stradolin. That’s what it was. I’ve never seen any more of them, but it sounded actually pretty good. At least I thought it sounded good then, ‘cause I’d just learned to play.

The Fretboard Journal: Was it around that time when you began to be influenced by Bill Monroe and his music?

FW: It was, yeah.

FJ: At that age, did you have the opportunity to see him in concert?

FW: Yeah, I did – but I was afraid to go talk to him ‘til I got older. [laughs] Then Red Allen took me to see him, at Memorial Hall in Dayton, Ohio. I was about maybe 17 then. Of course, Red knew all these people, so when Bill was in his dressing room, we went in to see him, and Bill let me actually play his mandolin. I was scared to death!

FJ: He was nice to you, then?

FW: Oh, yes, he really was.

FJ: Did he seem to enjoy his role as a mentor to a younger player?

FW: I’m not really sure about that. I’d ask him how’d he do something, and he’d show me, but he played so fast, I didn’t have time to catch on to it.

FJ: If I understand correctly, you started out playing local gigs with your brother Ralph on guitar, but Red Allen was your first real professional partner. How did you come to meet him?

FW: I was in Dayton, I was sitting in the yard and I had a cheap mandolin. Red came by, and he had a guitar case, and he walked by where I was living. He didn’t know me, I didn’t know him. He said, “Hey, boy, whatcha got there?” I said, “That’s a mandolin.” So he got his guitar out and we started playing a little, and singing some harmonies. And he happened to know all the songs I knew – ‘cause I knew just about everything Monroe did, because that was the only other person I’d heard play mandolin.

FJ: Red was older than you?

FW: Yes, he was four years older: Red was born in 1930, and I was born in 1934.

Wakefield and Allen began playing together in 1952, as Red Allen and the Blue Ridge Mountain Boys. In 1956, Allen joined the Osborne Brothers, with whom he played until 1958. During that time, Wakefield moved to Detroit and joined the Chain Mountain Boys, with whom he recorded his most well-known instrumental –  “New Camptown Races” – as a 45 rpm single for the Wayside label. While in Detroit, Wakefield also met Jimmy Martin and played in his backing band, the Sunny Mountain Boys, working alongside banjo player J.D. Crowe.  

Eventually, Allen and Wakefield both made their way back to Dayton. And from there – although memories vary as to who followed whom, and precisely when – both men moved to the burgeoning bluegrass hotbed of Washington, D.C. By 1960, Allen and Wakefield were again working together, now as a quartet named Red Allen, Frank Wakefield, and the Kentuckians.

FJ: After you moved east and established yourself as a professional, did you have more opportunities to see Bill Monroe, so he could know what became of this kid he’d encouraged?

FW: Yeah, I think it was in the early ‘60s: He did a show in D.C., and I went to see him. At that time I was playing his tunes just the way he was playing, and he said to me, “I’ll tell you what you’ve got to do, boy: You’ve got to get your own style now.” I did exactly that! [laughs]

FJ: That’s an understatement! About when was it that you started using different tunings?

FW: Well, I had started to do some special tunings after I heard Monroe do “Get Up John.” I learned that, and after that, I thought, Well, buddy, I better get going on the rest of these tunings. Now I’ve got a lot of them.

FJ: Did you use fingerpicks for a while?

FW: No, I never did use fingerpicks on a mandolin. But it sounded like that sometimes.

FJ: But on some numbers it sounds like you had more than one picking finger going.

FW: Right. Occasionally I would use my straight pick, and also use two other fingers to pick strings with. That’s hard to do, but with practice you can do anything.

FJ: How did David Grisman come to meet you and become your student?

FW: I think the first time, I was playing at a little bar in D.C. He came down from New York, and asked if I could give him a lesson. And I did, ‘cause I lived in Hyattsville, Maryland, so he hitchhiked down to take a lesson in the ‘60s, probably ‘62 or ‘63.

FJ: Did he impress you as a student?

FW: Yes. I think I showed him how I use my right hand. He was fine; he came right along.

FJ: Did you stay in touch with him after that?

FW: Oh, yes. He booked me and Red at Carnegie Hall and, I think, some other places in New York. He booked us some good shows. And I think he got us our deal with Folkway Records. And so he’s been a help. He learnt me good! [laughs]


July 1964 saw the release, by Folkway Records, of the “Bluegrass” album, which Wakefield and Allen began recording toward the end of the previous year. Some tracks featured the Kentuckians’ Tom Morgan on bass and Pete Kuykendall on banjo, while bassist Fred Weisz and banjo pioneer Bill Keith played on others. The latter batch included a re-recording of “New Camptown Races,” in which Wakefield’s mandolin and Bill Keith’s banjo sound especially fine together. (Keith would reprise his banjo part with Grisman, in the well-known Muleskinner television broadcast of February, 1973.)

By the end of 1964, relations between Wakefield and Allen, a partnership that was equal parts cordial and cantankerous, had once again become strained. With the young Grisman taking his place in the Kentuckians, Wakefield struck off for New York, where he joined John Herald and the Greenbriar Boys, filling the mandolin slot that had been vacated by Ralph Rinzler. As Wakefield recalls, “John Herald came to see me and Red play at Carnegie Hall, ‘cause he lived in New York, and later he called and asked me if I’d play with him, and I said, ‘Yup.’ We got to be enemies then!” [The mostly self-educated Franklin Delano Roosevelt Wakefield is a master of talking backwards – for the fun of it. Sometimes he’ll utter complete sentences with all the words in reverse order, while at other times, as in his quote about Herald or when he begins and ends phone conversations, he’ll say the precise opposite of what he means.] 

The personnel change was a two-way street: It gave Wakefield the opportunity to branch into the urban folk scene – as contrasted with the “real serious grass” he played with Allen – while the Greenbriar Boys’ sound gained a certain measure of country-music legitimacy from the addition of Wakefield’s mandolin playing, tenor vocals, and songwriting. The partnership was also, by all accounts, far friendlier than that of the Kentuckians, and lasted approximately two years, during which time Wakefield continued to live in Hyattsville with his wife and preschool-age children – although the commute to New York and to various gigs in the Northeast would soon exact a toll.

FW: I was driving home from a show in Baltimore, maybe about 11:00 at night, and I went to sleep driving. You know, that used to happen, me driving late at night, and I’d wake up and drive and it was fine. That time I woke up, but in the hospital. I had three skull fractures, and they didn’t think I was going to live. I was ejected from the car, a convertible, when it hit a telephone pole. I remember my arm was caught on the door handle.

FJ: I’ve heard a story that it was actually Red Allen who went to the scene of the accident and secured your mandolin for you . . .

FW: That’s right. Red Allen was living near where I hit that telephone pole, and he came to the hospital, and brought my mandolin. I was in the hospital for a long time, buddy. My kids were about three years old, and I didn’t know if I was getting better or not. My doctor was worried that I’d never come back to my senses: I was banged up all over.

But I remember, when I was coming to, I wrote a lot of stuff in my head while I was semi-conscious. And about a week after I got out of the hospital, I wrote my first, “Jesus Loves His Mandolin Player.”

FJ: I understand it wasn’t long after your recovery that you moved to Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where you’ve lived ever since; how did a bluegrass musician from Emory Gap, Tenn., wind up there?

FW: After I got booked in Carnegie Hall, I had a booking at Gerdes Folk City, and then at the Gaslight – and the lady who owned the Caffe Lena in Saratoga, Lena Spencer, came to the show, and she booked me at Caffe Lena. Over a couple of years, I’d do a show there every six months or so, and I got used to it up here.

That was around 1968. And it’s worked out really fine: People are really nice up here in Saratoga. People don’t have to worry about getting knocked in the head! [laughs]

FJ: I’m from upstate New York, and I never thought of the place as a hotbed of bluegrass music until a I found out about the band Country Cooking (Tony Trischka, Pete Wernick, Russ Barenberg, John Miller, Kenny Kosek, John Miller, and Harry Gilmore). They helped you make your 1972 debut album, on Rounder Records.

FW: That’s right.

FJ: How did you hook up with them?

FW: I guess they read this write-up about me in Rolling Stone. They got interested, and they came up here; the fellow from Rounder, he’s from Boston, so he came over and brought the whole band, and got me to do a record with them. It’s amazing, the job they did. The girl singer on that, who sang “Honky Tonk Angels” …

FJ: … Nondie Leonard?

FW: That’s her! Tell me, what part of upstate New York are you from?

FJ: I was born in Saratoga Springs, but moved away. There used to be an A&P in the middle of the business district, on Broadway, and that’s where my dad worked.

FW: I used to shop at that A&P! Is your dad still alive?

FJ: No, he died in 1997.

FW: No kiddin’? That was the exact time I quit smoking cigarettes after 50 some years. Boy, it’s good to be able to breathe, although I do have emphysema. I don’t have to take oxygen, and I hope I don’t get to that point. I take medicine all the time now.

FJ: You had open-heart surgery a while back, right?

FW: Yes, about eight years ago.

FJ: I hope you’re enjoying good health now.

FW: Yeah, mostly.

FJ: When you first moved to this area, did you support yourself as a musician, or did you take other jobs?

FW: In 1968, when I moved up here, when I bought a trailer, and the kids were all little,  I’d have to take them to the doctor and all, so I got a job at Generous Electric, for about three years. And I played music two or three nights a week. After that, I went back to traveling a lot.

FJ: That was generous of General Electric!

FW: Oh, yeah! And I got to make a lot of mandolin bridges, ‘cause I worked at the service shop, where there was all sorts of motors I had to work on. But I took the night shift, and I got to spend time making mandolin bridges. They liked me there, and the boss, he let me get away with all that.

FJ: Do you still use bridges that you made back then?

FW: Oh, yeah. I gave an awful lot of them away years ago; I don’t have that many left, I don’t think.

FJ: These were carved out of wood?

FW: No, it’s epoxy, fiberglass and … I forget what else is in them. At Generous Electric, they had all this stuff where they made everything.

When I worked the second shift, there was a service shop in Albany, and another place – a factory, I think – up in Glens Falls, and I’d get to drive the truck from one to the other occasionally, maybe once or twice a week, at night. It was only maybe about 40 miles. So I’d work on a couple of motors, and the rest of the night I’d work on my bridges. It’s a good thing, ‘cause all that kind of material they had – Bakelite and fiberglass and all – they did it just for my mandolin! [laughs]

FJ: Like they had you in mind all along.

FW: That’s right!

FJ: I gather you were trying to enhance the tone of your mandolin, but I wonder: In your experience, when it comes to good tone, how much comes from the mandolin, and how much from the player?

FW: Mostly from the player. And it took me years to figure that out. The wrist of the right hand has a lot to do with how you get the tone out of the instrument.

FJ: Could you tell me a little more about your right-hand technique? Going to workshops and all, we hear so many different ideas on the subject from different players. For example, Ron Thomason –

FW: Ron Thomason! I taught Ron years ago! I remember when I used to play in Springfield, Ohio, Ron Thomason lived in Springfield, and he’d always come to the show. And when he would, I’d get him up there to play, when he was learning. Or he would come down to Xenia, where I lived – that’s about 20 miles from Springfield – and he had  a college radio show. And I’d go by there and play on his show occasionally. He gets a good tone out of the mandolin! And he taught me how to do it! [laughs] He didn’t know nothin’ at first, when I first gave him lessons. He was a schoolteacher – I think he taught the 8th grade. He used to try to talk the way I talk all the time: He used his English the right way, you know? [laughs]

FJ: Ron is among the players who says the best idea is to grip the pick really, really firmly, while other folks say the opposite. So it seems a lot of great players have their own approach to it.

FW: Yeah, they do. (But) loose is just about the best way. ‘Cause if your grip is too tight, then you play it too hard. And if you play too hard, it’s hard to play real clean.

I use the cheapest pick I can get, just a regular pick. And I use the back of it – the round part – like this (demonstrates tremolo), so I get a good sound. I use this kind of a pick, and rather than use the sharp part, I turn the pick around like that (demonstrates), and put it betwixt my thumb and finger, like that.

FJ: Have other students of yours gone on to fame?

FW: Well, I used to visit Del McCoury’s house when I was betwixt Xenia and Dayton, so I’d drive by. His boy Ronnie was little then – I think there’s a picture of me and him when he was little bitty. And when he was 13, I gave him a lesson, when I was passing through. And he got a good right hand going for him! He plays a real good mandolin!

And there’s Don McLean – but I just taught him a little stuff on the guitar, while I was working on an album of his called “Playin’ Favorites.” I didn’t exactly teach him – I just sort of guided him. He plays a good banjo. Good guitar player, good singer. And occasionally he’d come up and do a show at Caffe Lena, and I’d sit in with him, and when he’d do “American Pie,” when he’s get through with it, I’d say, “Don, how ‘bout doing ‘American Pie?’” Like a heckler! [laughs]


Frank and Marsha live on a quiet street in Saratoga Springs, in a two-story house with greenish-blue siding, a sunny front porch, and a deck that overlooks their small back yard. There’s an elliptical trainer in the finished basement – an outward sign of how seriously Frank takes his health these days – and a cozy dining nook on the main floor, adjacent to the kitchen. On the day I visited, that’s where Frank was giving a lesson to a business executive from Texas: a fellow whose work takes him all over the United States, and who brings along a mandolin whenever his travels take him to upstate New York.

The lesson winds down, the guest pays and takes his leave, and Marsha heads up the stairs, intent on some chore. Frank leans in and whispers, in a conspiratorial tone, “Listen to this,” then loudly plays a string of seemingly unrelated chords, one after the other. After the fourth chord he puts his hand to his ear – and Marsha calls downstairs, “OK, Frank!”

Frank laughs with delight and yells back, “I didn’t know you heard me!” Then he turns back to me and says, quietly, “Usually when I hit those notes, she hollers, ‘OK!’“ He plays them again, and this time he gets the desired response – plus a scarcely audible “You can stop now!” – by the third chord. I ask for an explanation, and Frank tells me it’s an in-joke that stems from an evening at the concert hall: “We heard a whole bunch of buglers and fiddlers play those chords. It sounded good when the whole orchestra did that, and I kinda liked it.”

Theirs is a pleasant, high-spirited home life: the right reprieve for a musician who’s spent 65 years traveling from job to job. And while Frank still performs live – “It’s nice that the Frank Wakefield Band lets me play with them: It’s a privilege!” – and Marsha serves as his de facto road manager, the gigs are fewer in number, and closer to home: “I don’t (go out on the road) that much anymore. Up to a couple of years ago, we used to go out a lot. Not anymore, ‘cause I’m getting too young.”

*Curiously, by the time this material was released on CD, as Smithsonian Folkways 00000, the original’s co-billing of Red Allen and Frank Wakefield had been changed to simply Red Allen – and, in small print, the words Featuring Frank Wakefield.