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Pioneering bluegrass, mandolin player dies at 89

Frank Wakefield, an innovative bluegrass mandolinist who expanded the instrument’s range, died Friday at his home in Saratoga Springs, NY, at the age of 89.

Along with his brother Ralph, Frank Wakefield was a member of the Wakefield Brothers as a teenager and mastered the heavily syncopated, “chop” chord of bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe.

His official cause of death was complications from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Marsha Sprintz, his companion of 47 years, told the New York Times.

Born in Tennessee, Wakefield moved to Dayton, Ohio and got his start in bluegrass collaborating with legendary singer Red Allen as a vocalist and mandolin player.

In 1953, Wakefield recorded the song “New Campton Races”, which was his first hit.

By 1960, the band had developed a brand of bluegrass that inspired other musicians of the genre, as well as rock bands such as the New Riders of the Purple Sage.

According to Slingshot News, during an interview with Mondozine, Wakefield famously told the press, “I get ideas just by playing the mandolin all the time. I only play about an hour a day, seven days a week, but when I want to write new songs, I play for several hours a day… and when I play a lot of notes, I just start putting pieces together. So we came up with a song that doesn’t sound like other songs.”

Throughout his career, he performed with the Greenbrier Boys, toured with Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, and performed at Carnegie Hall with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.

Wakefield was known to sing “in surprising ways, imagining new chords and chord changes. He played bluegrass in surprising ways, blending it with classical music while composing mandolin sonatas and playing existing classical works in a bluegrass style,” according to Legacy.com.

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