Remembering Fahey

An acoustic-guitar legend gets a CD tribute--with some help from M. Ward

Matt Ward isn't the sort of music fan who cares to know much about the life of a musician in whom he has an interest. Her drug or alcohol problems, his poverty, her childhood traumas, his medical conditions--none of it matters much to him.

So the Oregon-based singer-songwriter--who goes by the performing name M. Ward--knows very little about the life and circumstances of American acoustic guitar-legend John Fahey (1939-2001), whose music is the subject of the recent tribute album, I Am the Resurrection, that Ward produced.

"I know very little about him," Ward said during a phone interview from his home in Portland, Ore., last week. "Sometimes, I think I want to listen to an artist's music without knowing too much about them in full--just judge the music, you know?"

Fahey began recording in the late 1950s and is known as being one of the first and most influential guitarists to perform solo instrumentals on steel-string acoustic guitar. Some critics have described Fahey's music as "American primitivism."

Among the influences on Fahey's work were American folk, blues, classical music, jazz, Brazilian and Indian music. He also was known to incorporate into his work elements such as gamelan music, Tibetan chanting, animal and bird cries and "singing bridges." (For the song "The Singing Bridge of Memphis, Tennessee," he stood under a bridge, recording the reverberation that resulted from cars passing overhead.)

His later experiments during the 1990s included forays into music palettes of noise, distortion and drones, as well as musique concrète and industrial music.

"I only knew this really vague background on what he achieved as an artist. I didn't really know that much of his biographical information, just that he was born in Maryland, lived there a long time, and then lived in Oregon, and that he had a long beard," Ward said.

Ward nevertheless was approached a couple of years ago by Stephen Brower, a staff member at Vanguard Records, and offered the chance to produce a tribute to Fahey, because listeners and critics often have compared Ward's bare-bones Americana-style playing to that of Fahey. Brower thought he'd be the ideal artist to work on the project.

Ward didn't at the time hear much of Fahey in his own music, but he admits he had been enamored of the guitarist's sound for more than a decade.

"Back when I was about 21, I was aware of this guy out there in Oregon who recorded dozens of records playing just a solo steel-string guitar. So that sort of piqued my interest that he was maybe worthy of going and out and getting some of his records.

"It was then that a friend of mine loaned me his record, The Yellow Princess. It just so happened that record was really great. I was really impressed with the idea of what he was doing. In my opinion, to have that intense artistic focus in what you're doing is very rare. To just do these dozens of records, playing solo guitar instrumentals, it sounds like what we would call 'outsider' music today."

With Ward teaming up, Vanguard released I Am the Resurrection in February, at the same time reissuing the Fahey classic The Yellow Princess, which had drifted out of print since Ward first heard it.

I Am the Resurrection includes performances of Fahey's tunes by an assortment of the more adventurous alternative-rock artists around, including Ward himself, Sufjan Stevens, Devendra Banhart, Peter Case, Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo, Cul de Sac, Grandaddy and the Fruit Bats, as well as Tucson artists Calexico and Howe Gelb.

Ward--playing at TapeOpCon 2006 in Tucson in mid-June--allowed that although he loves all the tunes on I Am the Resurrection, he is especially fond of Gelb's piano interpretation of "My Grandfather's Clock" and Calexico's robust "Dance of Death."

Also in the stores is another new Fahey tribute titled Friends of Fahey Tribute (Slackertone), which features cuts by Fahey contemporaries such as John Renbourn, Peter Lang, Paul Geremia and George Winston, as well as "Why Haven't I Heard From You?" by Fahey himself.

Ward was hesitant to speak explicitly about how Fahey's music has influenced today's rock aesthetics--"You critics are probably more qualified to discourse on that," he said--but he isn't shy about praising the guitarist's amazing technical skills or about noting how his own music has changed since the exposure to Fahey's

"After I heard Princess, I started to consider not playing with a pick at all, on the guitar side of things. I guess on the production side of things, I was impressed by his choice to include songs on one record from different generations or eras, and that it is not that much of a far-flung idea."

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