“I’m the world’s worst mandolin player,” he told a full house in Garrett Park, Md. “If you don’t believe it, just ask me.” Later, after the show, Wakefield told me what to say in my review: “Tell ‘em how we bad we did.”
But in the next breath, discussing his latest CD, A Tribute to Bill Monroe, he made it clear what he really thinks. Of all the projects honoring Monroe, he said DJs have told him his is the best. And then he proceeded to explain why they’re right:
“That’s because I know how to play bluegrass. Most people don’t know how to play it. You need to give it energy.”
This much is certain: At 77 years old, Frank still has a lot of energy, a sizable ego and a boatload of talent. All were on ample display during the CD release party sponsored by Patuxent Records.
The tribute project includes an all-star cast, and most of them joined Frank on the stage – fiddle master Michael Cleveland, bassist Marshall Wilborn, former Blue Grass Boy Tom Ewing and Tom Mindte, the head of Patuxent and a fine mandolin picker and vocalist in his own right.
The vocals were uneven Saturday night, but that’s not surprising, given the soaring upper register of the voice they were honoring. “You need a guy who can sing higher than a girl,” Frank joked at one point.
Instrumentally, though, the band was superb. Michael Cleveland just might be the best fiddler in the business right now, and on song after song, Frank noted his appreciation by reaching over and patting him on the back. But the best fiddling of the night, on about half of the songs, came when Nate Leath teamed up with Michael for some electrifying twin fiddling, especially on one of Monroe’s signature tunes, Wheel Hoss.
But, as you might expect any time Frank is on stage, the show’s bring-the-house down moment came on one of the few non-Monroe songs on the set list – Frank’s own signature song, New Camptown Races. This version was elevated by the performances of two guests, teenager Brandon Ernst on banjo and Tara Linhardt on mandolin.
“They played the devil out of those tunes,” Frank told me after the show. Indeed, they did.
But Frank Wakefield, who has played with a Who’s Who of bluegrass greats over the decades, isn’t ready to cede anything to a younger generation of pickers. He’s already at work on a new project that will feature multiple mandolins. It’s due out in a few months on Patuxent.