I first heard John Fahey‘s solo acoustic guitar playing on an album when I was a teenager. I liked his strange, minimalist, visually and emotionally evocative instrumental compositions, performed in open tunings in an alternating-bass fingerpicking style.
I found his guitar playing accessible and was able to figure out how to fingerpick from his record America.
The discovery of alternating-bass fingerpicking and its strong, stable rhythmic foundations accelerated my creativity and set me on a path of writing guitar compositions in that style.
For my 17th birthday my sister took me to New York City to see John Fahey play at a club called Max’s Kansas City.
He walked on stage, sat down on a wooden chair, put a large mug of red wine and a towel on the floor next to him and played a continuous improvisation for thirty minutes or so.
Then he stopped, wiped his face with the towel (it was quite hot that day and there was no air conditioning), downed the entire mug of wine, scanned the audience briefly, and played another rambling improvisation for another half hour.
Then he left the stage.
He had never said a word to the audience.
It didn’t matter. It was an awesome concert.
(Years later when we talked about that show, he told me he hadn’t spoken to the audience because was scared to death.)
In the years that followed I was able to meet him (I sent him my first album in 1979 and he sent me a Christmas card saying positive things about the album which gave me a huge boost of confidence) and open many shows for him around the U.S. in the early 1980’s. I even slept on his couch for a couple of nights — the biggest, most comfortable couch I have ever experienced to this day — when I was touring in Oregon.
He was always supportive of my music, my playing and my recordings, for which I was — and still am — deeply honoured and grateful.
From John Fahey’s music I learned about freedom, courage and truth — the freedom to be yourself and trust your own ideas, even if they were different. The courage to show the world who you are, alone on a stage, on a solo instrument. And the importance of telling your personal truth — your unique story — through your art, whatever form that art may take.
John was a quirky, fiercely individual person — a really nice person with a wonderful sense of humour who cared about other people. Despite being a producer and record label owner, he was not built for the music business and seemed tormented by the politics and egos that went with it.
Unfortunately he had a self-destructive alcohol problem which eventually cost him his life.
I see John Fahey as the father of solo acoustic steel-string guitar playing. His pioneering record label (Takoma), the albums he produced for it, and the artists whose first records came out on it gave birth to the instrumental genre we now call acoustic fingerstyle guitar.
Guitar players today who pick up an acoustic and think about performing a solo composition on YouTube owe John Fahey a debt.
He started it.