Phone Interview with Art Menius, July 2, 1994
When the Crowe Brothers quit me they were a powerful force. I had to go out and pick people I thought would fit my style the best. I already had my son, Zane, on the road all the time, and that was a big help. He already knew my style on rhythm and lead guitar. I just picked people that would fit my style.
The people I am using right now on the road. After the Crowe Boys left me I used Ricky Lee. He stayed with me for three years, and he’s a powerful man. I cut back on my festivals in ‘94 and started devoted more time to my building out in Maggie Valley. I just wasn’t playing enough for him to stay, so he quit because I wasn’t playing enough festivals to keep him going.
Shane Crowe, that’s Wayne Crowe’s boy, he’s still with me on bass. Bruce Moody, he’s a nephew of Clyde Moody, is helping me a little bit on what few festivals I’m playing this year. I cut way back on my festivals to devote time to my building that my wife runs.
Me and the Crowe Brothers started that building. This is the seventh year. They stayed in it two years and pulled out, and then my wife took it over. It’s the Opry House located in the center of Maggie Valley, right across from the Soco Zoo and right next door to the Country Vittles Restaurant. We run bluegrass and country music shows from the first of May until the last of October, seven nights a week. We’ve had people in there like the Bluegrass Cardinals, Jimmy Martin, Ralph Stanley, the Lewis Family, Bashful Brother Oswald [Kirby], Chubby Wise, the Jones Brothers, just to name a few. I can’t name them all. We’ve had some big acts in there.
This year  I’ll be playing the Maggie Valley Opry House 85% of the time, maybe more. The band that works the Opry House with me is not my road band. The band consists of Frank Buchanan, that used to play with Bill Monroe in the early ‘60s. He’s on guitar. Little Rufus Sutton, the oldest original Maggie Valley Hillbilly living. Playing guitar and singing tenor. He’s a great showman. Then we’ve got Jim Jarrell. We call him Humphammer. He’s on the bass and acts as comedian. Of course, we’ve got guests who come by almost every night and perform with us. You never know who you’ll see at the Opry House.
Are you happier cutting back on the festivals and being around home more?
Very much so. See, I’ve traveled the festival circuit now for about 20, 25 years. I’ve got a lot of miles on these old bones. I’m very happy. I plan on spending lots more time at the Opry House.
Frank Buchanan’s singing and picking better than he ever did. He had a bout with arthritis. He’s doing real good.
How do your describe your sound?
When I started playing music, there was nobody you could learn from. I was raised back in the mountains. We had an old battery radio, and part of the time the battery was dead. I always had a love for the banjo, even though I started out playing guitar. When I heard Don Reno and Earl Scruggs, it flipped my mind. I never did get to hear enough of them to copy them note for note, which in the long run was good. I’d count my style in between Reno and Scruggs. You can call it the Fairchild style. It’s a style of its own, just like the Scruggs style and the Reno style. What I do is not copying anybody.
When you were a kid how often did you practice?
Just every hour that I had free time to do it. When I was a kid we had work to make your living. Had to work on the farm, in the garden, and putting up stuff, but every free hour I got I had that banjo in my hands.
Do you play much now other than shows?
We work most every night. In the winter time we pick ‘em up and practice a little bit, me and Zane.
A man has got to have younger musicians on the stage. You’ve got to have them. But a younger musician thinks different than a man my age. They’ve got a little different ideas on music. It’s hard to get young musician to sit down and play Raymond Fairchild style music, because they’re more interested in other stuff, which is good, but you can’t have all old men up on the stage. That’s not appealing to the audience. You have got to have so many youngsters in your band before it looks right on a festival or anywhere else.
What do you need to do to get young musicians to play Raymond Fairchild music?
That’s hard, Art. That’s hard. They just ain’t none of them going to do it 100%, but they will learn enough of it to where you can get by. My style’s natural to Zane. Zane and Shane both can do everything I do. Still yet, they can sit around do stuff I can’t do. It’s not what I call bluegrass, but a trend, a generation gap.
It speaks well for them that they can hang in with either generation.
Did you have to work hard to put your new road band together?
I hand picked them. There’s no problems. My bookings picked up. Surprisingly, they picked up. Promoters never asked me who’s with me. As a matter of fact, I tell them I changed bands. They say, ‘I’m booking Raymond Fairchild. I could care less whose with him.’
Was it tough for you to step into the emcee role?
No it wasn’t, because I knew all the time if I ever had to do it, I could. Josh Crowe’s such a good emcee, and he and his brother Wayne stayed with me for 17 years. I was going so good. I figured if it wasn’t broke, not to change it. When it came time where I had to do it, it was no problem. I came just as natural as picking the banjo.
What makes you such a good band leader?
Number one, Art, you’ve got to realize that just because a man’s working for you, you don’t own him. You cannot tell that man: ‘Don’t do this. Don’t do that.’ You’ve got to make it clear to him that when it comes time to go on stage to be there ready and do his 45 minute show. Then after that, you’ve got no control over that man. You cannot own him. You can’t boss him.
And you’ve got to do exactly what you promise a man. If you promise to pay him so much, you’ve got to do it even if you have to take it out of your pocket, and that’s what I’ve always done.
What kind of banjo are you playing these days?
I’m playing the Cox/Fairchild banjo. I’ve had some great banjos in my time, some great Gibsons. I sat down a designed the banjo. I worked on it for three years drawing the blueprints on the way I thought a banjo should sound, look, balance, and perform from one end of the neck to the other. And I got it all in one package. And I run into a banjo maker whose the greatest banjo maker in the world. He’s Jimmie Cox. He supplies parts for all the banjo companies. He’s in Topsham, Maine. I run into him at a festival in Maine, and I showed him my plans.
He said, ‘I’ll tell you what. I’ll make a hundred of each. I’ll make a hundred nickel and a hundred gold. I’ll make you two banjos, if you’ll help me sell the rest of them.’
That’s exactly the agreement we came to. My banjo’s been out a little over a year. Over half the gold ones already gone, and up towards half the nickel ones are already gone. If a man wants the best banjo in the world, get the Cox/Fairchild banjo. The banjos might all be gone by the time this article gets out. I don’t know. They can contact me at 704-648-7941.
Don Reno was never talked about enough. Don Reno was the most underrated musician ever in history. Don Reno was the best banjo picker that me or you will ever see or hear. They’ll never be nobody, to my way of listening at music, that could do on a banjo what Don Reno did. One of the reasons I think that Don Reno didn’t go over as well as Scruggs was Don Reno was anywhere from 25 to 30 years before his time. Reno was before his time. That’s all there is to it.
I’ve read that Andy Boarman was an influence on you.
Andy Boarman was a great influence on me. He was also a great influence on Don Reno. Don told me that himself. Andy Boarman is a great banjo picker. He never did use picks, but man he knew that neck one end to the other. He’s still living in Edgeville, West Virginia as far as I know. I met him at a festival in Moorefield, West Virginia years ago.
Earl Scruggs was an influence on any banjo picker who plays three finger style, right hand roll. If they do it smooth, they have to credit Earl Scruggs, because there’s no man aliving who could do it like Earl Scruggs with that right hand.
Bill Monroe’s music influenced me.
I’m going to tell you, if you want to hear genuine music played note to note perfect, put on a Jimmie Martin record. For instance, This World Is Not My Home. It’s an all-gospel record, and it’s flawless. I can not find a bad note or a misplaced note. Jimmie spoke his words so plain, and he was such a true timer on that guitar. There’s never been a man that could pick rhythm guitar like Jimmie Martin. If Jimmie Martin stepped to a microphone, you just have to say this, the greatest in bluegrass was at that microphone.
Of course, there’s the Osborne Brothers. They’re great. Their music influenced me a lot. Jimmie Martin, Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs, the Osborne Brothers, Ralph Stanley, and Charlie Waller was another great entertainer. That just about says it all.
If you’re going down the road and see a kid sitting on the side of the road picking a banjo that don’t know but two tunes, don’t never pass him by. Listen, because out of those two tunes you might find a note that he’s getting that you might have been searching for got 10, 15 years.
How did you come to be a musician?
Well, I love music. I got it from my mother’s side of the people. When I went into the music business full time, I had a wife and a baby. You talk about a rough life. It was a rough life. If it hadn’t been for my wife, I could never have stayed in it. She stood by and supported me, and that’s the reason I could stay in music. We’ve seen it rough many, many, many, many times. But she stuck with me, and I finally put the sound together I wanted and people started booking me, and it went from there.
When I started full-time was in 1975 when the Crowe Brothers come with me. That’s when we really hit it full-time. I’d searched for years and years and years. That’s why I say don’t ever pass a man up that’s picking. Me and a fiddle player, he’s dead now, by the name of Wilford Messer, me and him went down to Wahalla, South Carolina to Morgan Boroughs. It was a little barbecue, and they was having music there. One of the Crowe Brothers was over there, and he was playing bass. He said he was going to go wake up his brother. He and his daddy was there. He went and woke up his brother, that was Wayne. Wayne come and got on the bass. When Josh hit that guitar, I knew right then that was the sound I was looking for for 25 years. It’s just like hunting a piece of old money for 25 years and stumbling on that certain piece.
What enabled you to develop so much speed?
Well, I always had the speed. That’s what I was looking for when I found them was someone who could play speed. I knew when I played the first two or three tunes with them that there was the men who could do it.
You’ve got a lot of blues in your playing. Where did that come from?
I can tell you exactly where that came from. When I was a kid they used to work colored convicts, prisoners. They worked the roads then, cutting right of ways and cleaning out side ditches. Back then they wore stripes. Some of them went up and down, and of them went all around. The stripes that went around them, that indicated lifetimers. I’d listen to them. I’d slip close enough at dinner time when they’d take a break to listen to them colored fellows. I was afraid to get too close, but I’d get close enough to where I could hear them hum. They’d hum and sing them blues, and that’s exactly where I picked up the blues sound. The blues definitely come from the colored people. Because they was slaves and sad people, when they done something bluesy it would come from the heart. And Jimmie Rodgers was a great influence on that blues-type stuff, too. I’ve listened to his records since I can remember.
The music come from my mother’s side of the family. My Aunt Martha played banjo left-handed. It was hard to watch somebody play left-handed and pick up anything, but I could listen to the sound and sort of adopt it to my right hand style. My Uncle Franz played the French harp, and my mother played the French harp. My Uncle Frank Belew played the guitar and some on the banjo.
What advice would you give to parents who have talented kids in bluegrass, like Zane?
If you’ve got a kid, don’t brag on them. The worst thing you ever done is brag on your own kid. Let somebody else do the bragging. Encourage him. Tell him he’s doing good, but don’t never set down and brag on him. If it’s your kid, see that he’s good instruments. See that he’s got something you can note, something good enough to play on, whether it’s banjo, guitar, fiddle, bass fiddle, mandolin, Dobro, or whatever. But don’t continually try to shove him down somebody’s throat and brag on him. If he’s good enough, somebody else will do the bragging. If he hain’t, it hain’t going to amount to nothing no how.
You’ve always made time for your fans.
The important thing about that is that fans want to buy records from the artists themselves. They don’t want to buy records from somebody sitting at the record table they don’t know. So I figure when I’m on a one, two, or three day festival, that’s my work. I think my place is at that record table, meeting the fans and talking to them, and autographing a record or tape if they want it. Some stranger sitting out there and you’re piled up in some bus asleep, I don’t think that’s business at all. That’s the reason I do, on account it’s my job, and I think it’s my place to do it.
What do you think about bluegrass music in 1994?
The future of bluegrass music depends on the economy. If the economy stays good, the festivals are going to hold up good. The people that support festivals are working people. They go to work Monday through Friday. If they can keep their jobs and keep good pay, then bluegrass music will be in good shape.
END OF SIDE ONE
Where was we at, Art?
They ain’t enough young folks coming up who can play what I call the straight bluegrass. The McCoury boys can do it. But to tell you the honest truth, they’re the only ones I’ve heard who can do it. Oh, you might find one banjo picker who can do it. You might find a guitar picker out here who can do, but as a band. I don’t know of a band who can play what I, a fifty-five year old, call the straight Monroe–Jimmie Martin–Osborne Brothers–Ralph Stanley–Country Gentlemen type bluegrass. It’s going to be a lost art one day. Because there ain’t enough young people learning it. The trouble with a lot of the young people, I’m just going to level with you, is they’re too lazy to learn it. They ain’t going to sit down and figure it out. Something they have to figure out theirself, they ain’t going to do, because they’re too lazy.
Take a man like Jimmie Martin. He has sat night after night showing a performer that he had hired as one of his band members…he sat for hours showing one certain lick exactly the way he wanted it and when he wanted it in there. Getting young people to listen to that now, you’ve got a job on your hands.
What made Martin so great–he knew timing. He knew how words are supposed to be phrased. If Martin could go out and get the band just like he wanted he could still do it on up until he’s 90, 95 year old, if they’d listen to Jimmie Martin. He could still produce records like This World Is Not My Home, but he can’t do it all hisself. He’s got to have people in there that will listen to Jimmie Martin because Jimmie Martin is the teacher, and he knows it, buddy. He knows timing. He knows how to phrase the words. And that the reason that Jimmie Martin can’t cut no records now. He can not get the band behind him that he wants.
It’s the same story with Bill Monroe. He can’t do it unless he’s got the sidemen to come in there. It’s just like plowing a team of mules. If one mule a pulling good and the other’s alaying down, you ain’t going to get no corn plowed.
What do you think has made you so successful and what accomplishments make you most proud?
The three accomplishments I’m most proud of is: First, I got to play the Grand Ole Opry. That’s every musician’s goal, even if he’ll tell you it ain’t. I’ve got to play the Grand Ole Opry various times and can go back and play it when I want to. Another accomplishment was my son apicking it up. I have three kids and my youngest apicking it up and becoming the guitarist he is. He’s one of the greatest in the business. And the third would be the banjo I designed and come out with, the Cox/Fairchild Banjo. That’s the accomplisment that I guess I’m the most proud of of anything I’ve done in the music is designing and having a man like Jimmy Cox make a banjo as fine as the Cox/Fairchild Banjo.
Getting to meet people like Ralph Stanley, Jimmie Martin, Bill Monroe, the Osborne Brothers, Charlie Waller, Del McCoury, and all them fellers and getting to set and talk to them, that’s like a lifelong dream come true. I used to listen to the radio and listen to fellers like Jimmie Martin and Bill Monroe, and I’d wonder what they looked like, what size man they was. One day I got to see them in person and got acquainted with them.
And Ralph Stanley is one of the greatest men that’s ever been. He’ll sit and talk to anybody. I got to meet my idol when I met Don Reno. Long before he died me and him set and talked many hours. That’s another achievement that money could just not buy.
Bluegrass Unlimited has done more for bluegrass music than any other one thing. I want to personally thank Pete Kuykendall for getting it started and keeping it going. He’s a great man, him and his wife both.
What do you look forward to?
Well, I’m cutting down on my festivals, Art. Seven days a week, I’ll be there, maybe 85%, 90% of the time. But there are a few festivals I’m obligated to, and I’ve got to work them. I’m also trying to encourage Zane. He’s in the process of getting him a record out. I want to see Zane go out on his own, get him a band. Whatever type music he chooses, that’s up to him, but I want him to do it.
I want to thank all my fans that have supported me and continue to support me. I’m grateful to them, but I can’t call them all by name because there are thousands of them.
Rural Rhythm sent me two gold albums from the sale of Rural Rhythm records. They’re hanging out in the Opry house. The one with that had 31 tunes on it and the Frosty Mountain, Mama Likes Bluegrass. The 31 tune album turned gold first, and it wasn’t long before the other one turned gold. I was dumb back then when I signed with Rural Rhythm. I just was getting records to sell. I didn’t have no contract. All I got out of it was just gold albums, but that’s something to be proud of.
I cut four at one time up in Cincinnati, Ohio at Rome Studios. It was the late ‘70s.
I also won SPBGMA five times in a row, and they retired me as the World’s Best Banjo Picker.
My son Zane, you know how proud I am of him. When he plays, people say the biggest smile comes across my face they ever saw. There can be nothing more soothing to your soul than to see your youngest son doing what you’ve loved to do all your life.
You cannot force them into listening to one style. What you’ve got to do is say, ‘Now, listen boys. We’ve got a 45 minute show to do. Be there 10 minutes, 15 minutes before time. Here’s a schedule of the festival. You know when we go on. And they’re always there tuned up. They do that 45 minutes. They ain’t going to hang around no record table. They ain’t supposed to. I’m the man that’s selling the records. I’m supposed to that. That’s the way I look at it. But when it comes time for the next set, they’re always there. That’s all you ask of a musician. You can’t own them.
I’ll repeat, you cannot own nobody. You can’t even own your wife. You can have could times with her. You can fellowship with her, but you cannot own nobody. A lot of folks may not understand that. You cannot own another individual.
Ricky Lee, the three years he was with me, there ain’t no better man that was ever beside of me than Ricky Lee. When I slowed down I just wasn’t working enough on the road for Ricky to stay on. He’s got a family, and he’s got to feed them. No hard feelings. He’s a great friend. He’s one of the best men who was ever with me.
When this writing comes out, I may have an entirely different group. You never know. But I think Zane will always be with me. At least I hope so. The only place he’ll play is on the road. He sits and practices a lot. He’s in the process of cutting a guitar album.
Another thing, me and Jimmie Cox, my banjo maker, just recently cut a twin banjo tape. It’s a knockout, buddy. He came down, and we cut a twin banjo tape at Country Roads Studios in Marion, NC. The name of it will be, Raymond Fairchild/Jimmie Cox: Twin Banjo Jubilee. Zane’s doing a guitar number on their called “Hoss Fly,” that will knock your socks off. The only ones we used is me and Jimmie Cox on twin banjos, Zane on guitar, and Shane Crowe on bass. It is a dandy. I’m putting it out myself. It’s at Crystal now.
How come you never got into singing?
I sung a little bit. I always loved the Stanley Brothers songs. Ralph Stanley, me and him got to singing at festivals, and we just had to put out the tape. Me and Frank Buchanan got out a new tape, Smoky Mountain Memories. I’m asinging one song on there with Frank. It’s an old tune he recorded with Bill Monroe, “There’s Nothing We Could Do.” I don’t sing much. I’m not a singer. I never will be. Just on certain occasions. More a curiosity than anything else.
To my notion, Frank Buchanan is among the top five best Bill Monroe ever had. The best lead singers Bill ever had were Lester Flatt and Jimmie Martin. Then after than comes Edd Mayfield.