The music I write…I don’t feel I write it, it flows through me, things that grow within me. It doesn’t come from me, it comes through me. I’m a practical and scientific person, an agnostic, but this is spiritual. There are things that happen in life that are mystical and spiritual…”
So said Billy Faier back in 2010 before what might have been his last Woodstock performance. The banjoist who was in and out of town since the mid-1940s died at the age of 85 on January 29 at the Big Bend Regional Medical Center in Alpine, Texas.
Every two or three years since he moved to Texas in 1995, Faier would show up back in Woodstock, hang out on the street, playing his long-neck Vega banjo outdoors on Mill Hill Road in front of what was then Just Alan.
He could be a cantankerous sort, with both good and bad opinions of Woodstock, its denizens and its music. He first moved here with his family in 1945.
“When I bought land in Mink Hollow from Earl Watson, I bought 16 acres, and later another ten and it was three acres for a thousand dollars…$333.33 per acre,” he said in the 2010 interview. “We wrote out the contract by hand…it may have been the last transaction in Ulster County without lawyers, on a handwritten contract. I built my house and lived there from 1964 to 1995. It was a good life in Woodstock. The 60s were amazing…I had my light box gallery, and I booked all the folksingers into the Expresso until Bernard (Paturel) learned to do it.”
The website, Bluegrass Today, noted that he was “a contemporary of Seeger, Jack Kerouac, and Woody Guthrie…Billy was active in the music scene in New York’s Washington Square in Greenwich Village during the late ’40s, noted for its left wing politics and the burgeoning acoustic folk scene.” And it characterized his unique music thusly: “Faier had recorded a number of influential banjo albums starting in the late 1950s, running through to 1987. His earliest records would probably be categorized today as folk music, while his specifically banjo LPs in the 1970s were at the forefront of what we now describe as progressive banjo music. He was fluent in many styles of playing, including clawhammer and 3-finger picking, as well as the folk style Pete Seeger popularized in the ’60s. Later in life he came to favor using a long neck banjo tuned to E.”
In the 1990s, Billy moved to west Texas, living in Terlingua and then for the last eleven years, in Marathon. “Texas music, I like to play it…the sentiments are invariably sick and sentimental, but the music is great fun to play. It took a long time to get used to Texas. The first year I told myself, keep your mouth shut…then it was OK after that.”
He met Wendy Wright 15 years ago, and they struck up a friendship. “We were good pals. I promised him I’d be there at the end, and by god I was.” She accompanied him to St. Louis last June for one of his last performances, and it’s preserved on YouTube, labeled Billy Faier 1 and 2. “He knew something was up at the end of May. But we drove to St. Louis and he had the most amazing concert, told stories, and it’s lovely. He was riddled with cancer, but he just fed off the audience and was great that night. He didn’t get to play that much after.”
Billy has a son, Nico Wand and daughter-in-law Phyllis and a grandson Christopher, in California.
Wendy said she is planning a celebration of life, a musical memorial for Billy, maybe the first week in March in Texas. She said Billy went quietly and peacefully. “The only thing he was mad about was that he didn’t live to a ripe old age of 102, like his mother did.”