Kentucky mandolin player Nolan Faulkner passed away on Wednesday, May 25, 2022. He was 89 years old.
He was a huge Monroe fan, but also studied Hungarian, gypsy, jazz, and early black blues music to make his style truly unique.
Lee Nolan Faulkner was born in 1932 in the Bear Pen community, south-west of Campton in Wolfe County, Kentucky (between Lexington and Hazard).
Life was tough on the family farm, but he survived a hand-to-mouth existence until music became part of his life in 1946. He began playing a guitar before switching to mandolin and studying Pee Wee Lambert and Bill Monroe, who featured on radio stations WCYB and WSM respectively.
Faulkner’s first experience in a band came while playing at pie suppers with the King Boys. Following that, when 16 years old, he took over from a guitarist in the Powell County Boys and played in a trio with Harold Booth and Ramah Boyd. They performed on the Kentucky Mountain Barn Dance on radio station WVLK in Lexington, a show that appears have run from September 1949 to May 1951, and featured Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, and the Davis Sisters during that run.
At the start of the 1950s he joined Dallas Riddell’s band, the Kentucky Troubadours and, while he continued to play guitar, he learned a lot from the group’s mandolin player Johnnie Johnson, notably two-string harmony picking. They performed on WVLK Radio in Richmond, Kentucky and even ventured as far as having gigs in Hamilton, Ohio.
Having also done some farming back home, Faulkner followed his brother Jim up to Brighton, Michigan and worked for a gravel company, income from which enabled him to buy a new Silvertone mandolin. He stayed with American Aggregate for 15 years.
It was while in the state that he became aware of Arkansas-born multi-instrumentalist and bluegrass singer/songwriter Red Ellis, then a DJ on Ann Arbor’s WHRV. Faulkner credits Bill Christian (mandolin player with Ellis) with being a further influence.
Occasionally, Faulkner would play with Ellis and his Huron Valley Boys and circa. May 1963, they recorded two fine original songs – Christmas Is Not Far Away and Home For Christmas, both of which Faulkner co-wrote with Bill Carpenter, their Dobro player.
While these two seasonal songs can be heard on the Rebel Records’ collection Christmas Time Back Home, they were apparently originally released by the obscure Pathway Records.
About the same time the band’s recording of Two Little Rosebuds features Faulkner’s vocals.
During the 1960s Faulkner cut sides for a few obscure labels, such as Sun-Ray, Happy Hearts and Irma.
Nolan(d) Faulkner & Bill Carpenter – Abraham / The End Of The Day
Nolan Faulkner and Ed Bryant – Alimony Blues
This original by Faulkner reflected his personal circumstances at the time.
While at the University of Michigan, Doug Green (the Blue Grass Boys and Riders in the Sky) got his start in the music business with Faulkner.
He continued to be a big influence on many bluegrass musicians in the Detroit area, and that was cemented by his collaboration with The Miller Brothers.
After meeting Earl Miller – a fellow Kentuckian – in a tavern in the Walled Lake district of Detroit, Faulkner joined him and his brothers – Charlie and James.
They worked together during the early to mid-1970s playing barroom-style bluegrass, reminiscent of two decades earlier, with lots of bluesy notes. Faulkner is quoted as saying, “We were brought up real hard. That kind of music we played, you kind of played the way you felt. Everybody can’t play that kind of music – with that blues in it.”
The Miller Brothers recorded material for four LPs and three singles, two sides being released in 7” format only.
Subsequently, Faulkner and James Miller released three albums.
However, before that Faulkner cut an all-instrumental The Legendary Kentucky Mandolin Of Nolan Faulkner (he penned all but one of the featured tunes) LP.
Throughout the 1970s Faulkner was in great demand in the studio with sometimes uncredited recordings with Lee Allen; Wendy Miller & Mike Lilly; Bob Smallwood; Larry Sparks; Wade Mainer; Joe Meadows; Clyde Moody; Charlie Moore; and John Hunley’s Kentuckians.
Lee Allen with Nolan Faulkner – Praise God I’m Ready To Go
Nolan Faulkner and Wendy Miller – Twin Mandolin Waltz
Also, he Filled in with The Case Brothers occasionally during the latter part of the decade.
In 1979 Faulkner was critically wounded by a gunman and he had to have extensive treatment, recuperation, and prolonged therapy that included learning to walk again.
As a consequence, he was unable continue doing any heavy-duty jobs and Faulkner returned to work with John Hunley, and travelled and recorded with Roy McGinnis and the Sunnysiders, Robert White and the Candy Mountain Boys, as well as James Miller.
Nolan Faulkner and James Miller – Knocking On Your Door (circa. 1990)
Dana Cupp, with whom Faulkner started The Cass Valley Ramblers in 2012, said …
“Nolan has been such a tremendous influence on me since I met him back in the ’70s. He always encouraged me and helped me with my music.”
Among the other songs that he wrote are Alimony Blues, Empty Cradle, Playing Hard To Get, Lonesome Wind, Changed, Afraid To Be Afraid, Lexington Girl, and Ham Tramack (sic.) Waltz.
Having lived in Michigan for so many years, Faulkner returned to home state recently.
R.I.P., Nolan Faulkner
- The Legendary Kentucky Mandolin Of Nolan Faulkner (Old Homestead OHS 90064, released 1976)
- Nolan Faulkner and James Miller (Old Homestead OHS 80041, 1981)
- Land of the Thoroughbred (Niptune NPB 014, 1990) with James Miller (cassette)
- From The Heart Of Bluegrass (Old Homestead OHS 80099, 1991) with James Miller (cassette)
- Black Robe/Alimony Blues (Irma FB 102, 1969), with Ed Bryant and the Big Sandy Boys
Noland (sic.) Faulkner & Bill Carpenter
- Abraham/The End Of The Day (Sun-Ray SRR 113, 196?)
- Two Little Rosebuds
- Old Time Religion Bluegrass Style (Starday SLP-273, May 1964)
The Miller Brothers
- Teenage Angel In Heaven (Jessup Michigan Bluegrass MB 117, 1972)
- Sacred Songs With A Down Home Flavor (Old Homestead OHS 90005, 1972)
- Detroit Blues (Old Homestead OHS 90022, 1973)
- Bluegrass Sound Of The Miller Brothers (Old Homestead OHS 90039, 1974)
- I’m Losing My Family (And Breaking Up My Home)/That Old Moon (Old Homestead 45-5006, 1973)
Lee Allen And The Dew Mountain Boys
- Lee Allen with Nolan Faulkner – Praise God I’m Ready To Go
- Sacred Songs And Mountain Ballads (Old Homestead OHS-90006, 1972)
Wendy Miller & Mike Lilly
- Twin Mandolin Waltz
- New Grass Instrumentals (Old Homestead OHS 90017, 1972)
- Have You Seen Papa’s Coal Loadin’ Hands (Old Homestead OHS-90021, 1973)
Roy McGinnis and The Sunnysiders
- Sacred Songs Of Life (Old Homestead OHS-70015, ca. November 1977)
- Bluegrass (Old Homestead OHS-80071, 1985)
- Black Mountain Rag – West Virginia Fiddler (Old Homestead 90076, 1977)
John Hunley’s Kentuckians
- John Hunley’s Kentuckians (Old Homestead OHS-80022, 1979)
- Christmas Time Back Home (Rebel Records REB-1600, 1980)
Bluegrass Today gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Gary B Reid, who found some lesser-known facts and confirmed others.