By Bruce Sylvester
RED ALLEN AND FRANK WAKEFIELD: The WDON Recordings 1963
Back in the 1960s, when I was a radio-dial-surfing teenager in the Washington, DC, area, I often roamed up to WDON at 1540 AM. The station educated me in country music. Now, after five decades on the shelf, Frank Wakefield and Red Allen's The WDON Recordings 1963 (Patuxent) presents 22 broadcast songs by bluegrass legends Wakefield (mandolin, vocal) and Allen (guitar, vocal) backed by Tom Morgan on doghouse bass and Pete Kuykendall on banjo. They were aired about the time when the hard-driving musical style pioneered by Bill Monroe was first being labeled bluegrass.
The disc's audio quality is strong. Not surprisingly, it repeats a few songs found on Red Allen: The Folkways Years 1964-1993 Featuring Frank Wakefield (on Smithsonian Folkways) or the duo's informal 1963 The Kitchen Tapes (on mandolinist David Grisman's label, Acoustic Disc). After all, only the Folkways sessions were originally meant to be commercially released on disc. All three CDs' covers seem to be based on the same photo shoot.
The WDON disc enjoys plenty of numbers on neither earlier disc – for example, a cover of Flatt & Scruggs' practical “Give Me the Flowers while I'm Living,” which philosophically parallels the Carter Family's “Give Me the Roses.” As for songs by bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe, Red and Frank harmonize on his only co-write with Hank Williams, “I'm Blue and Lonesome.” Religion being a cornerstone of bluegrass, the disc closes fervently with one of Hank's obscurities, banjo-propelled “Sing Sing Sing” (sometimes called “I'm Gonna Sing”).
Having already played together for about 10 years, neither Wakefield nor Allen wanted to be pigeonholed as purely a bluegrass act. Thus, alongside standard “Old Joe Clark,” we find trad-folk murder ballad “Poor Ellen Smith” and covers of the Louvin Brothers' “Don't Laugh” and Texas troubadour Ernest Tubb's “I Wonder Why You Said Goodbye.”
Later, after moving to northern California, Wakefield would revisit the WDON disc's “Pistol Packin' Mama” (a 1944 western swing hit for Al Dexter) and folkish “Deep Elem Blues” when he joined Don Reno, Chubby Wise, Pat Campbell and (in a break from New Riders of the Purple Sage) David Nelson on the Good Old Boys' 1976 Pistol Packin' Mama on the Grateful Dead's label, Round (which was often confused with Rounder).
As Grisman once said, Wakefield “split the bluegrass mandolin atom.” His classical mandolin forays were yet to come, as was his time in the Greenbriar Boys (through whom Linda Ronstadt found his composition “Up to My Neck in High Muddy Water,” then blessing his bank account when she made it the flip side to “Different Drum”).
Harley (“Red”) Allen died at 63 in 1993. Franklin Delano Roosevelt Wakefield is now 80. We're fortunate that after so many decades, we can hear some of their work on WDON from their Washington, DC, years together.