The Sunday, May 30, edition of the London Times reports from the 21st annual International Country Music Conference on the strange tale of a long-dead fisherman from the Shetland Islands whose recordings are being called “some of the greatest recordings of American music you will hear.” Thomas Fraser’s Grandson Karl Simpson presented a paper on The Legend of Thomas Fraser at the conference last week. The annual conference at Belmont is attended by worldwide authorities on country music.
Fisherman is the talk of Nashville
By Kenny Farquharson
In Nashville, Tennessee, Stetsons are still worn without irony and country music is a serious business. At the city’s Belmont University, the world’s foremost experts in the genre gathered this weekend for earnest debate about Jim Reeves B-sides and finger-pickin’ technique. Yet the 21st annual International Country Music Conference, which finished yesterday, also took time to discuss a curious story about a Shetland fisherman who thought he was a cowboy.
Thomas Fraser from the Burra Isle is an unlikely musical hero for the American heartland. He was a shy man who lived in a croft and died 26 years ago without releasing a record or performing for anyone other than friends, family and fellow Shetlanders. Yet thanks to recordings made on a reel-to-reel tape recorder, which have been lovingly restored and released on CD, Fraser is creating a stir among diehard country aficionados in America.
His rediscovery is due to a grandson who is too young to remember him, but who has become determined to make his bashful granddad an international star.
Karl Simpson, 30, from Lerwick, salvaged the tapes from an uncle’s cupboard and was astonished by what he heard. “I just listened with amazement to what my grandfather had done all those years ago,” he says. “There were more than 500 songs, as well as many parties, conversations about the fishing, the arrival of my mother, a baby crying in the sitting room and the clock ticking in the background.”
Simpson arranged for songs, made throughout the 1950s and 1960s, to be remastered and the best released on two CDs entitled Long Gone Lonesome Blues and You and My Old Guitar. The result, according to John Conquest, the Texas-based editor of 3rd Coast Music magazine, is “some of the greatest recordings of American music you will hear”.
To the first-time listener it sounds like a vintage record by Jimmie Rodgers, the “father of country music”, complete with trademark yodelling. The style, popularly known as “Brakeman’s Blues”, was closely associated with America’s railroads in the Deep South.
Conquest says that Fraser’s music has inspired a cult following. “I know quite a few DJs who, when they heard this, were just knocked out,” he says. “What people respond to is the purity of it and the man’s shyness -all the stories about him playing behind a curtain because he was too embarrassed. Also the fact that there was no commercial aspect to it. These recordings were simply done for his and others’ pleasure.”
From some grainy old photographs Fraser, clad in Shetland jumpers and lumpen boots, gives a broad unaffected grin. But the pictures in which he is holding his guitar look more like relics from some ancient history of country or blues.
He was born in Outterabrake, Burra Isle, on March 20, 1927. His first instrument at the age of eight was a fiddle. But as a young man he began listening to American Forces Radio and was captivated by the music he heard, especially that of Rodgers who had merged blues, jazz and even Hawaiian song to produce a musical form that would become known as country and western. In 1960, Fraser paid £60 for a new Levin Goliath guitar and began recording his versions of country standards.
Life as a fisherman had its dangers. In 1973 he ran aground on the Waster Skerrie off Burra and his uninsured boat was smashed on the rocks. Another accident in 1977 saw him struck in the face while dredging for scallops; he was rescued only when someone spotted his drifting boat. On his return from hospital in Aberdeen, Fraser was tormented by headaches and played very little. The last recordings he made were in April 1977, just before the accident. Despite constant pain, he refused to go to the doctor and died on January 6, 1978; he was 50 years old.
In Shetland in 2004, Fraser’s growing popularity is regarded with pride, tinged with a little bemusement. David Gardner, music development officer at Shetland Arts Trust, says the success has come as a pleasant shock. “When I first heard the tapes I thought it was worthwhile preserving them for posterity,” he says. “I don’t think anyone believed it would take off the way it did.
“But there is a romanticism about the story, about him sitting in this wee croft out in the middle of nowhere with an old tape recorder listening to all these songs from so far away.”
Simpson’s ambitions for his granddad are lofty. He would like him to join the greats in the Country Music Hall of Fame and some American fans have hinted it is a possibility. The party of friends and family from Shetland who went to Nashville -musicians all -will push the case as hard as they can and will be staging a one-hour concert at the Hall of Fame in Fraser’s memory.
They include May Sutherland, 48, Simpson’s mother and Fraser’s daughter. She says she has been taken aback by the Americans’ attitude to her father’s music.
“They find it quite amazing that someone on such a remote island and so far away would have such a talent and feeling for their kind of music,” she added.
For her it is the sound of her childhood. “At the time it was a case of, ‘Oh no, Dad’s got his guitar out again’. From the time I was born I knew nothing else. The house was always full of musicians. I was listening to the Beatles, but I also loved the music Dad sang and came to appreciate it.”
Many people in the music industry believe that the Fraser phenomenon has only scratched the surface of US popularity. Bryan Burnett, who hosts the Brand New Opry on Radio Scotland, says the curiosity value of the story will prove irresistible.
“It’s very compelling listening,” he says. “It’s not the sort of thing you would stick on around the house for a relaxing evening. But as a historical document it is fascinating.
“What’s interesting is that over the years, lots of UK-based country acts have gone to America to try and make it there and have found it very difficult. And here we have this guy from so long ago, and it’s him that people are interested in.
“Taking country music to Nashville. That’s the ultimate case of coals to Newcastle.”