Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Recording engineered by Shawn Biggs
Death sure hangs around Frank Fairfield. It's an old man's concern. It's what we get to when the sight is dimming and after all that hair that we once had has thinned itself completely away, off on the breezes. It's what finds us when getting around is getting to be a bit too hard, those old tired ways. It's all we can think about after we've buried our wife of 50 years and half of our kids, something that no one has the strength or hydration enough for. It's all that we want to think about as an old man. It won't let us go, at a certain point in our lives, and it's for that time that we fear. Fairfield is not a young man. We're sure of it. He can't be. It would defy everything that he shows and tells. It would defy the way that he chooses to dress, the hair treatment that he uses, the words that come out of his mouth, the mustache that he wears and sentiments that he shares with us, like a strong pull and a swig from the well on a scorching hot day. His easiness refreshes us. He's yanked us in to sit around his porch, to sit at his feet, while he pumps away on the moaning rocking chair, playing his banjo or fiddle, letting all of his stooped shouldered sorrows bend their way out of him, to lie before us the calcified remains of men who are not the one sitting there singing, looking at us. He's whisked us away to the gravesites of so many men and he makes us believe that he's been told the secrets that they took with them to their graves. He's been able to go and sit upon those sunken rectangles of weedy grass, near or far from the headstone, and he's been spoken to. He's heard these men, who must have died in the early 1900s, speak in their mumbles, through those many feet of soil. It turns out that the secrets or the stories that they wanted to get off of their cold chests were a bunch of tales about how much they fooled around in town and about the capacity of their liquor consumption. It's all sinful and regrettable and Fairfield makes these men sound as if they were nothing short of honorable and just victims of tougher times. In listening to him tell these stories, Fairfield always makes these characters sound as if they were mostly decent, as if they were mostly there for their families. They were worked to death, so they killed themselves with alcohol, for they knew no other way to numb themselves from the throbbing in their hands and legs from all of the labor that had to be done in the fields, on the rails, in the mines or in the factories. Fairfield sings these sorry souls back from the dead. He's embodied by their spirits. They do the speaking for him, making him sound like a stranger in this land. He sounds like a mama's boy and someone who lived during the days when, if you caught anything much more serious than the common cold and you were potentially on your deathbed, sweating it out for a few long nights, waiting to see if the fever would break. He sounds like someone who has experienced enough death to know that it's not the end of anything. In a way, Fairfield's helped put a lot of bodies into pine boxes - perhaps a funeral home director or a coroner - and taken just as many more out of them, perhaps all in a former life. It's shaped his thinking about the way he's going to be while he's here. And just in case anyone's confused about him at the end of his days, he instructs, "When I'm gone, don't bury me deep/Just set the gin by my head and feet/When I'm dead don't you bury me at all/Just pickle my bones in alcohol." That should put it all back to square.