Raymond Fairchild, noted banjo player, entertainer, and western North Carolina icon, died yesterday following a heart attack. He was 80 years of age.
Fairchild was born and lived most of his life in and around Cherokee, NC, and is himself half-Cherokee Indian. The banjo entered his life at age eighteen, when he started learning on a fretless model, reputedly one with a squirrel hide head. He took to it quickly and mastered the 3 finger style of popular players like Earl Scruggs, Don Reno, and fellow Tar Heel Snuffy Jenkins.
Raymond put together his first band in the mid-1960s, initially known as the Frosty Mountain Boys, soon changed to the Maggie Valley Boys, a name he used the rest of his life. In 1963 he signed with the Rural Rhythm label, and built a reputation as a solid banjo player, and for his stoic, nearly rigid, visage on stage. But despite his staid persona, Raymond was a dynamic performer and a natural entertainer, something he credited to Ted Sutton, who ran the tourist shop where Fairchild played for tips as a young man.
Then in 1975, he joined up with Josh and Wayne Crowe, who worked as The Crowe Brothers. They played together as a trio until 1991, known for their brother duet harmony and Raymond’s lightning fast banjo playing. Fairchild won a great deal of attention for his banjo picking, and the way he mixed Scruggs and Reno style at top speeds. He was also widely remembered for his novelty tunes, like the perennial favorite, Whoa Mule.
After parting with the Crowes, Raymond started up the New Maggie Valley Boys with his son, Zane. For the remainder of his life, Fairchild and hi wife, Shirley, ran the Maggie Valley Opry House, and he rarely left his home region. Folks who wanted to see him play the banjo had to visit him there.
Though he had had some health issues this past few years, the heart attack was sudden and unexpected. Raymond was rushed to the hospital yesterday morning, and died at 4:38 in the afternoon.
No arrangements have yet been announced, and the family has requested privacy.
R.I.P. to a true bluegrass original, Raymond Fairchild.