“The evolution of a musician starts with learning an instrument, learning tunes, then playing so much that the music flows from the heart to the fingers without an effort. It is then that the heart of a musician and the uniqueness of style can be heard.” These words, from the liner notes of Raymond Fairchild’s Skyline album (SR 012) Playing Requests, best describe how he became known as “The King of the Smoky Mountain Banjo Players,” eventually leading to his induction into SPBGMA’s Preservation Hall of Greats in 1989.
Raymond was born March 15, 1939, in the Smoky Mountains near Cherokee, North Carolina, and grew up learning many things from his mother’s people, the Cherokee Indians. He spent much time as a youth roaming the mountains near his home, hunting wild game and the native plants that provided food for his family. He sometime spent many days away from home, appreciating the raw beauty of the mountains and learning to survive in very primitive conditions. He still loves to go into the forests, and hunt Ginseng root, which he combines with other herbs to make a tonic, that he takes daily.
It is quite hard for the young people of today’s society to understand the difficulties of growing up without electricity, record players, tape recorders, and other modern conveniences. They were not available on the small farm where Raymond lived. His first exposure to music came from his relatives, who played various instruments, providing their own entertainment in their homes.
He started learning the guitar when very young, and his first banjo was one without frets with an animal hide stretched over the body. He later obtained a Sears and Roebuck Silvertone banjo. When his father, who was away most of the time on his military duties, noticed how Raymond was progressing, he took him to Asheville, North Carolina, and bought him a Gibson Mastertone RB-150 banjo. When Raymond got his first set of picks, it took him some time to discover that he was trying to use them backwards, for he had never seen anyone play with picks.
In Asheville Raymond also discovered juke boxes or piccolos that had Flatt and Scruggs records. Many of his hard earned coins went into those machines. He would carry in his head the tunes that he heard Earl Scruggs play on the banjo, and when he returned home he would try to duplicate those sounds. When he could not remember the exact way the song or tune was played, he would just play it the way he wanted it to sound. This method of learning, plus his personal drive, provided him with the motivation to become the accomplished and original musician that he is today.
Raymond moved to Maggie Valley, North Carolina with his wife, Shirley, his three children, Mary Sue, John John and “Little” Zane, where he supported them by playing with friends at the entrance to “The Hillbilly Campground” for tips. They would sometimes play from the early morning hours until late at night, and this constant performing allowed Raymond to develop his distinctive style of banjo playing. He did some work as a stonemason during this period, building his own home near Canton, North Carolina, but music was the mainstream of his life.
When you hear Raymond play his banjo, you will notice that he has learned much from people like Earl Scruggs, Don Reno, and Ralph Stanley, banjo players that he still admires. He always knew, however, that he had to play his own style, if any success were to come his way. He never served as a sideman with any band, the usual route for a fledgling musician. He came to the attention of “Uncle” Jim O’Neal, who saw the potential of Raymond as a banjo player, and he recorded several albums for the Rural Rhythm label. Raymond received “Gold Records” from the Rural Rhythm Record Company in 1990 and 1991 for his albums (RR 159) Mama Likes Bluegrass, released in 1967, that he recorded with the Smoky Mountain Boys, and (RRRF 254) Thirty One Great Tunes, released in 1972. Raymond always refers to the latter album as “Thirty One Songs.”
To many people the Grand Ole Opry is the “top of the hill,” when it comes to country and Bluegrass Music. Raymond has always felt that playing that show was as high as a person could go, and he became the second bluegrass banjo player to “set the audience on fire” there. The first, of course, was Earl Scruggs. His appearance on the show came about when he played his now famous arrangements of “Whoa Mule Whoa” and “The Orange Blossom Special” in Roy Acuff's dressing room. Raymond has played the Grand Ole Opry many times since his initial appearance in 1977, and he has also made several guest appearances on the “Nashville Now” and “Fire on the Mountain” television programs on the Nashville Network.
Wallace “Josh” Crowe, guitar, and his Brother, Wayne, bass, joined forces with Raymond. They played several years as Raymond Fairchild and the Crowe Brothers, until the brothers left to pursue their own musical careers in 1991. Raymond has always been very particular about the musicians that play in his band, and he is very proud of his son, Zane, who now plays guitar with his father.
Zane was born January 11,1971, and has become a very accomplished guitarist at a young age, inheriting Raymond’s ambition to excel at his chosen craft. Zane’s first recording with his father was on the Atteriam Album (1-2-1655) Me and My Banjo in Maggie Valley. Raymond’s wife, Shirley, is also very active in the music business. She operates The Opry House in Maggie Valley, presenting live music seven nights a week. May through October each year, with Raymond playing there as often as his busy personal appearance schedule will allow.
The songs or tunes that Raymond plays come from many sources. His unique presentations have made him much in demand at festivals and concerts everywhere. Raymond Fairchild has made his mark in the world of Bluegrass Music in a most unusual way. He plays the banjo and emcees his shows, but he does not sing, leaving those duties to the members of his group. The only vocal recordings he has made came when he sang lead on three songs on a cassette tape (Rebel C-1677) Ralph Stanley and Raymond Fairchild. The project happened after Stanley coaxed Raymond into singing on stage at the Jekyll Island, Georgia, Bluegrass Festival. Ralph asked Fairchild if he had only sung in the shower before, and, to the delight of the crowd, Raymond replied, “I haven’t sung no where before, Ralph.”
The highly ornate and individualistic banjo style of Raymond Fairchild pleases your ears and boggles your mind. He plays perfect rolls and balances the entire tune with his own original innovations, the one thing that sets him apart from other players. He must be seen and heard to be appreciated. When he plays his banjo, his facial expression rarely changes, since he has reached a point where he does not need to speak with his voice, he lets his banjo do the talking. The five-string speaks with a voice of authority that lets the listener know that “RAYMOND FAIRCHILD, THE KING OF THE SMOKY MOUNTAIN BANJO PLAYERS,” has taken the stage.