Guitarist John Fahey Dies Following Heart Surgery

Guitarist John Fahey died February 22 at Salem Hospital in Salem, OR, two days after undergoing multiple coronary bypass surgery. The enigmatic musician had been suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome and diabetes for years. Fahey was 61.

Born February 28, 1939 in Takoma Park, MD, Fahey was the son of musician parents. His earliest exposure was to the country music of performers like bluegrass legend Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers. Fahey's lifelong affair with the guitar began in earnest at the age of 13, when he met singer and guitarist Frank Hovington during a fishing trip. Fahey was so fascinated by Hovington's fingerpicking style that he bought his first guitar and taught himself to play. With roots in country music and the blues, he developed an ornate, complex style that was as technically difficult as it was intellectually challenging.

Fahey received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy and Religion from American University at the age of 23. He moved to Berkeley, CA in 1963 and founded his own label, Takoma Records—one of the first musician-owned record labels. Guitarists Leo Kottke, Peter Lang, and New Age pioneer George Winston made their commercial debuts on Takoma Records. Fahey also received a Master's degree in Folklore and Mythology from UCLA and, in the process, rediscovered blues legends Skip James and Bukka White.

Fahey himself also recorded for Warner Bros., Vanguard, Table of the Elements, and other labels—more than 30 albums in all, according to his publicist; the Gracenote Website lists 43 John Fahey titles. Berkeley-based Fantasy records purchased the Takoma catalog, and Fahey's original LPs are being reissued on CD. Fahey also formed another record label, Revenant Records, devoted to traditional music, early blues, and other forms of "roots music."

Never a flamboyant performer, Fahey appeared uncomfortable onstage, speaking very little and letting his guitar do the talking. Despite his extraordinary musical talent and his considerable commercial output, Fahey had financial difficulties, and during the mid-90s, he earned extra money by finding rare albums in used record stores and reselling them to collectors. In recent years health problems had overwhelmed him, but he completed a new album not long before his death. Fahey was "a true American musical genius," said Fantasy Records' Bill Belmont.