We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
The heaviest burden that a visionary artist must carry isn’t the pain of being misunderstood—it’s the fear that an endless parade of lowest-common-denominator acolytes will slouch unimaginatively in your wake. John Fahey, the Takoma Park-bred musician who was arguably the most influential, if not most technically proficient, fingerstyle guitarist of our time, may bear some responsibility for a few overly precious, coffee-shop acoustic diddlers, in the same way that Pauline Kael inspired some effusively confessional arts critics and Marcel Duchamp energized a few smartassed, art-school hacks. Not that Fahey, a very private individual, was the type to obsess over the kind of musicians who would follow him. Before he died in 2001, he had plenty of other things to worry about: a history of drug addiction, a bout with Epstein-Barr virus, and a long stretch where he was homeless.
Still, Fahey did directly mentor several fingerstyle guitarists, most notably Leo Kottke: His 1969 studio debut, 6- and 12-String Guitar, was by far the best-selling record on Fahey’s own record label, Takoma. They, in turn, influenced the likes of Will Ackerman, who founded the signature New Age label, Windham Hill. Taken with both Fahey’s playing style and his fascination with turtles, Ackerman’s (and Windham Hill’s) first album was titled In Search of the Turtle’s Navel.
Fahey invented music for shut-ins, at least as far as its players were concerned: The fingerstyle guitarist is arguably more of a loner than any other musician. It’s just a dude and his instrument, without the lyrics that might provide a clearer connection to the listener. The inherent solitude made the fingerstyle guitar movement less a unified scene than it was a loose confederacy of pickers, playing in small clubs and releasing albums on specialty labels. Numero Group’s Wayfaring Strangers: Guitar Soli, a fascinating compilation of fingerstyle guitar pieces from 1969 to 1980—roughly the period between Kottke’s arrival and the rise of Windham Hill—does a great job of memorializing these disparate individuals who reverently followed in Fahey’s footsteps. Brad Chequer represents just how isolated this culture could be: While the other 13 musicians on the CD had put out proper albums, even if self-released, Chequer’s unpolished but melodious contribution, “Warm River,” came from a demo tape that wound up in Windham Hill’s reject bin. (The LP version of the album includes two additional tracks.)
Fahey called his music “American primitive guitar,” a phrase that at first seems too rough-hewn to describe such a gorgeous, gentle sound. He used the term to illustrate how his style was rooted in his musical influences—Delta blues, early jazz, classical composition, and Native American music, among others. While the abstracted style had a distinctly mystical character—players like Robbie Basho were obsessed with Indian ragas—its Americana roots seemed to keep it grounded in a salt-of-the-earth reality. Dan Lambert’s “Charleytown,” more than any other songs on Wayfaring Strangers: Guitar Soli, exemplifies that blue-collar mysticism. His rolling melody, shifts in tempo, and overall exuberance are so prodigious that the song could easily pass for one of Fahey’s.
That winning combination of transcendental themes, crowd-pleasing tunefulness, and respect for numerous genres is why the Fahey-esque sound has kept a following. You can hear traces of his legacy on Tompkins Square Records’ Imaginational Anthem series, and in artists like James Blackshaw and Jack Rose (one of the few stylistic descendants who can match Fahey’s crackling intensity). Yet “Fahey-esque” is a slippery term: The solipsistic nature of the American primitive guitarist inevitably produced different kinds of songs. Jim Ohlschmidt’s “The Delta Freeze” is all abstract dissonance; William Eaton’s “Untitled” is a quiet minimalist piece; Scott Witte’s “Sailors Dream” has a rollicking swagger.
The liner notes, a combination of essays and brief song introductions (some written by the artists themselves), do much to illuminate these fascinating, often obscure figures. (One quibble: Max Ochs, a college chum of Fahey’s and unsung member of the Takoma roster, is a distant cousin of the more famous folkie Phil Ochs—not a brother, as one essay has it.) The songs’ intricate melodies and the artists’ graceful dexterity are appealing enough, but the backstories help make many of the songs even more engaging. Ted Lucas’ bluesy “Raga in ‘D’” is as hypnotic as anything in Robbie Basho’s catalog. Yet perhaps just as interesting as the song’s thumb-strummed drone and psychedelic patterns is the fact that Lucas was the in-house, on-staff, Indian-music specialist at Motown, applying his sitar magic to the Temptations’ questionable cover of “Hey Jude.” Similarly, Tom Smith’s slide-guitar acrobatics on “Quidate Quierada” are impressive in their own right, but it’s nice to know that Smith had to bribe Tommy Heath, frontman of Tommy Tutone (“867-5309/Jenny”), with weed to engineer the session.
Fahey’s technical ability was never as important as the fact that he could convey such powerful emotions through his instrumentals. Though the songs on Wayfaring Strangers: Guitar Soli may not hit the highs of a Fahey disc like The Dance of Death and Other Plantation Favorites, they share the same goal of musical transcendence and prove that there are many paths to it. Fahey’s playing was imperfect, but Richard Crandell’s “Diagonal” is no less poignant because Crandell is a proficient technician. As the set makes clear, the fingerstyle genre is deep enough to harbor a cache of undiscovered gems of various sorts. It might have eased Fahey’s troubled mind to know that so much talent was following his lead down the great Sligo River of his imagination.