John Fahey's history lesson -- A new generation of musicians pays tribute to the late guitarist with a trio of tribute albums

By Michael Endelman
Updated February 24, 2006 at 05:00 AM EST

John Fahey’s history lesson

Late guitar virtuoso John Fahey never reached a mass audience in his lifetime, but five years after his death, a new generation of musicians is paying tribute to the six-string whiz. ”I got some Fahey albums for my 21st birthday, and they changed the way I played the instrument,” says Oregon-based indie rocker M. Ward. ”It changed the way I listened to records.” Some 11 years after that introduction, Ward has produced I Am the Resurrection (Vanguard), a Fahey tribute featuring covers of his material by Sufjan Stevens, Grandaddy, Calexico, and others. Fahey began releasing solo instrumental acoustic guitar albums in the late ’50s, a pioneering concept at the time. His knotty and eclectic style — weaving together blues, New Age, Indian ragas, and classical with stunning acoustic fingerpicking — was a huge influence on everyone from folk picker Leo Kottke (who was mentored by Fahey) to avant-gardists like Sonic Youth, who shared Fahey’s love of unusual tunings. ”I felt like I was learning about the history of American music by going through his records,” says Ward. ”It’s not something you usually find in record stores.”

Death Chants, Breakdowns & Military Waltzes (Takoma) His second album (released in 1963 and rerecorded in ’67) is classic Fahey, from the bluesy melancholy to the absurd liner notes to such odd song titles as ”Dance of the Inhabitants of the Palace of King Phillip XIV.”

The New Possibility: John Fahey’s Guitar Soli Christmas Album (Takoma/Fantasy) These restrained and unadorned versions of standards like ”Joy to the World” and ”O Come All Ye Faithful” bring an elegance to the hectic, shopping-mad season. Beautiful stuff.

Return of the Repressed: The John Fahey Anthology (Rhino) Coming after more than 40 albums, this two-disc compilation is the best way to get a handle on Fahey’s massive, 40-year-spanning catalog. A must for guitar geeks, folk freaks, and Americana addicts alike.