Frank Wakefield, Who Expanded the Mandolin’s Range, Dies at 89

Frank Wakefield, an innovative bluegrass mandolinist whose sweeping musicality led to collaborations with the New York Philharmonic and Jerry Garcia, and whose unique voicings and technique expanded the parameters of his instrument, died on Friday at his home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. He was 89.

Marsha Sprintz, his companion of 47 years, said the cause was complications of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

In a career that spanned seven decades, Mr. Wakefield played with a host of bluegrass luminaries, including Jimmy Martin and the Stanley Brothers.

He first made his mark in the early 1950s after joining a band led by the singer and guitarist Red Allen as a vocalist and mandolin player. Working in Ohio and the Upper Midwest and, by 1960, the Baltimore-Washington area, the band developed a hard-driving, harmony-rich brand of bluegrass that inspired not only other musicians in the genre, but also bluegrass-inclined rock bands like New Riders of the Purple Sage.

While still a teenager, Mr. Wakefield mastered the heavily syncopated “chop” chord of the bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe, whom he met in 1961 and who immediately recognized Mr. Wakefield’s prowess as a mandolinist.

Mr. Wakefield in 2010. Despite suffering from emphysema for years, he toured and recorded well into the 2000s.Credit…Michael G. Stewart

“You can play like me as good — or near as good — as I can,” Mr. Wakefield, in a 2022 interview with the Hudson Valley Bluegrass Association, recalled Mr. Monroe saying at their initial meeting. “Now you’ve got to go out and find your own style.”

Heeding Mr. Monroe’s advice, Mr. Wakefield did exactly that. He devised his own sound by alternating up and down strokes on his instrument with equal force to produce a clear, ringing tone and sustained rhythm, which he likened to a sledgehammer striking a steel rail in a 1998 interview with the bluegrass website

At other times, plucking the strings with multiple fingers, he produced a richly textured effect suggestive of two or three mandolins playing together.

David Grisman, a student of Mr. Wakefield’s and a mandolin virtuoso in his own right, said in an often quoted passage from Frets magazine that Mr. Wakefield had “split the bluegrass mandolin atom” by taking the instrument beyond where Mr. Monroe had.

The 1964 album “Bluegrass,” which Mr. Wakefield recorded with the singer and guitarist Red Allen, pushed the boundaries of the genre.Credit…Folkways Records

“Bluegrass,” the album that Mr. Wakefield made with Mr. Allen for Folkways Records in 1964 (and that a 19-year-old Mr. Grisman produced), proved ample confirmation of that claim: It featured versions of two of Mr. Wakefield’s most enduring originals, “New Camptown Races” and “Catnip.” both of which, with their developments in melody, tunings and chord changes, pushed the limits of what then constituted bluegrass.

Mr. Wakefield’s innovations didn’t stop there, though. By the mid-1960s he had begun composing sonatas for the mandolin and arranging classical pieces for traditional bluegrass ensembles. He performed with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall in 1967 and made a guest appearance with the Boston Pops orchestra the next year.

The Greenbriar Boys (from left, Bob Yellin, Mr. Wakefield and John Herald) in performance at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival. Credit…David Gahr/Getty Images

Mr. Wakefield’s forays outside bluegrass extended into pop territory as well, including a mid-1960s stint with the Greenbriar Boys, an urban folk revivalist group. During this period, he also performed with country bluesmen like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Son House and, later, rock acts like the Grateful Dead.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Wakefield was born on June 26, 1934, in the Emory Gap enclave of Harriman, Tenn., the 10th of 12 children of Simpson and Bertie (Isham) Wakefield. Growing up poor, he was forced to leave school after second grade to help work on the family farm.

Enthralled by DeFord Bailey’s performances on “The Grand Ole Opry,” young Frank took up the harmonica at an early age and soon also became adept at playing the guitar.

His father, who worked as a brakeman to supplement the family income, froze to death in a local railyard when Frank was 13. Several of his sisters moved 300 miles north to Dayton, Ohio, as part of a Depression-era migration. Frank and his brother, Ralph, were left to move between orphanages until Frank finally ran away to join his sisters in Dayton, where a brother-in-law introduced him to the mandolin.

Billing themselves as the Wakefield Brothers, Frank and Ralph, who played guitar, made their first public appearances at house parties and on local radio in 1960. Two years later, Frank joined Red Allen’s band, and his path as a musician was set.

However, his tenure with Mr. Allen was fraught with conflict, much of it brought on by Mr. Allen’s abusive behavior, especially when he was drinking. Nevertheless, apart from a period with the Detroit-based Chain Mountain Boys in the mid-1950s, Mr. Wakefield persevered with him until 1965, when he joined the Greenbriar Boys to replace Ralph Rinzler, who had left the band to become Bill Monroe’s manager.

Mr. Wakefield in a New York recording studio in 1966, at around the time he embarked on a solo career.Credit…David Gahr/Getty Images

After recovering from a near-fatal automobile accident in the late 1960s, Mr. Wakefield moved to Saratoga Springs and embarked on a solo career. Over the next five decades, he released albums for a variety of bluegrass-aligned record labels, including Takoma, Flying Fish and Patuxent Music. His 1972 Rounder album, called simply “Frank Wakefield” and featuring the New York bluegrass band Country Cooking, is widely regarded as a touchstone of the movement known as newgrass, which incorporated elements of rock, jazz and classical music into traditional bluegrass.

Despite suffering from emphysema for years, Mr. Wakefield continued to tour nationally and to record well into the 2000s.

Besides Ms. Sprintz, Mr. Wakefield’s survivors include fa sister, Susie Norton; a son, Greg Wakefield; and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Despite his musically omnivorous appetites, Mr. Wakefield was unfamiliar with Mr. Garcia, who would later produce the 1976 album “Pistol Packin’ Mama,” a string-band collaboration between Mr. Wakefield and others, when they started playing shows together.

“Whenever Garcia played with me and David,” Mr. Wakefield explained, referring to David Nelson of New Riders of the Purple Sage in a 2006 interview with, “we would always have a full house. I thought it was because of me.”

“It took me a while,” he added, “to realize that people were coming to the shows because Jerry was playing with us.”

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