It ain’t bluegrass: Frank Lee and old-time music |

It ain’t bluegrass: Frank Lee and old-time music

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Frank Lee jokes that he doesn’t want to give bluegrass a bad name. But what Lee really wants to do is make clear the distinction between the old-time music he plays, which derives from Delta blues and folk, and the music invented by Bill Monroe with the help of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.

“I’m worried that people will hear me and think they’re hearing bluegrass,” said Lee, a Georgia product and North Carolina resident whose current swing through Colorado stops tonight, March 12, at Steve’s Guitars in Carbondale. (Lee also performed Wednesday at Main Street Bakery.) “I show up at a gig, and people see a banjo and think, ‘Oh, bluegrass.’ But I don’t play bluegrass. It would be better for people to know it’s not bluegrass, because they might not like me and get a bad feeling about bluegrass.”

More likely, people will hear what Lee does and want to know exactly what it is. Lee calls it old-time music and pins it down as mostly the songs of the Mississippi Delta from the late 1920s.

There was a time when Lee, now 45, did favor bluegrass. After an accident that broke his femur and ended his motocross aspirations, Lee was laid up in traction for a month. His father gave him a banjo to occupy himself, and Lee taught himself the three-finger style common to bluegrass. When he started at the University of Georgia that fall, studying drawing and painting, Lee brought his banjo, and found out what a magnet an instrument could be.

“I learned what good attention a banjo could bring a person,” he said. “It was a pretty popular instrument around college.”

For some 20 years, Lee was happy playing bluegrass. He taught banjo and toured the U.S. as a member of Clearwater, which released an album, “Willow of Time,” produced by Rhonda Vincent.

But in the early ’90s, Lee had his head turned by old-time music. He began listening to the likes of Fiddlin’ John Carson, Tommy Jarrell and Ralph Stanley, and discovered the Round Peak style of playing that originated in southwest Virginia. It wasn’t the easiest music to find, but Lee dug anyway. He eventually found a treasure trove of 78s made by black Delta musicians in the 1920s, some of the earliest commercial music ever recorded.

What struck Lee most about the music was the songs. In bluegrass, Lee found that so much of the music was about improvising ” one picker taking his turn playing fast and clean, followed by another and another.

“What I thought was kind of cool was you had these old songs and tunes,” he said. “In bluegrass, that tune is taken to show off the individual’s talent. You can’t hear the melody but that flurry of a gazillion notes. In an old-time format, everyone’s working together to glorify the song.

“In one, the music is used to show off the music. In the other, the ability is used to show off the piece.”

Lee has also learned to prefer the rhythm of old-time music. On his banjo ” a raggedy but wonderful-sounding contraption made up of a century-old “pot” and a fairly new neck that he traded some of his artwork for ” Lee plays a style called frailing, also known as clawhammer. (He also plays finger-picking-style guitar, on a 1932 National Duolian, which he bought four years ago.)

“It’s a real rhythmic style that came from slaves, a real hard style with a heavy downbeat that was not lilty and soft, like the music that came from the Northeast,” he said. “People in the South seem to like that rhythm somewhere in their consciousness.”

In the mid-’90s, Lee formed the Freighthoppers, a four-piece old-time band that released three albums (including two on the major roots music label, Rounder). The band split when one member needed to get off the road and get a heart transplant. But Lee has the old-time music in his blood now and has made a solo career for himself. He performs solo or in various combinations; recently, he released “Artseen,” which features bass by Joey Damiano and harmony vocals by Jessica Johnson.

But “Artseen” is mostly about the songs ” relics like “Run Little Rabbit” and “Let an Old Drunkard Be” ” and what Lee can do with them on some simple instruments and with crude recording techniques. The songs are identified by which ancient musician played the version that Lee is familiar with. In the liner notes, Lee writes, “I hear dead people. I’ve been hearing them for a long time.” In some ways, Lee prefers the company of the dead.

Asked to name which contemporary musicians Lee likes, he said, “The only people I know anything about are people who are dead. I go to those people’s graves, and it’s the most powerful thing. I’m 6 feet from their bones, but they’re very much a part of my life. They’re in my house singing and playing every day.”

[Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is]

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