BY MARTY McGEE—
Old-time singer and guitarist Fields Mac Ward was born January 23, 1911, in Buck Mountain, Grayson County, Virginia. Fields was influenced by a musically rich family: Father Crockett (ca. early 1880s—mid—1960s) was a noted fiddler and banjoist, mother Perlina (Linie) was a ballad singer, and his four siblings were all musically inclined. When Fields was 10 his family moved to the Ballard Branch community, just west of Galax. At the age of 12 Fields learned guitar runs by listening repeatedly to Riley Puckett’s 78s, and local fiddler-guitarist Alex (Uncle Eck) Dunford taught Fields several fingerstyle guitar pieces and the basics of backup guitar.
In 1927 the 16-year-old Fields (lead singer and guitarist), his father Crockett (fiddle), and brothers Curren (autoharp) and Sampson (banjo) cut several sides in New York for the OKeh label, four of which were released as by Crockett Ward and His Boys. Fields, Samp, Dunford and Ernest V. Stoneman then formed the Grayson County Railsplitters and cut 15 sides in 1929 for the Gennett Record Company, although the material was never released until around 1968 on Historical Records. Fields took home test pressings of the entire session, and refused to deal with another record company for almost 40 years.
In the 1930s Fields played with the Buck Mountain String Band, led by his uncle Wade Ward, the area’s top banjo picker. Around 1934 Fields formed a family band, the Ballard Branch Bogtrotters, which included Dr. W.P. Davis—a local chiropractor and the Wards’ family doctor—Crockett, Samp, and Eck (and later Uncle Wade). The Bogtrotters swept the top prizes at the 1935 Galax fiddlers’ convention and recorded over 150 songs for John Lomax at the Library of Congress between 1937 and 1942. On January 9, 1940, the band traveled to Roanoke, Virginia, to broadcast over WDBJ for the nationally televised CBS American School of the Air. Fields was offered a solo contract by John Lair to perform on the Renfro Valley Barn Dance, but he balked at leaving his bandmates and forcing his wife and family to live on the road.
By 1942 Crockett and Eck had decided they were too old to lead the lives of professional musicians, and the Bogtrotters disbanded. Fields moved to Hartford County, Maryland, in 1947 to manage a dairy farm. Over the next several years he worked at several jobs, eventually becoming a painter, the trade he was to follow the rest of his life. There he was “discovered” by the folk revival audience in the 1960s, and played at colleges and folk festivals. As a result Ward recorded albums for Biograph and Rounder. An unauthorized recording made by he and his Uncle Wade for the Parsons Auction Company in Virginia was released on a Folkways album, adding to his mistrust of record companies.
Despite a variety of health problems (including hypertension, diabetes, emphysema and arthritis), Ward continued to perform in public into the 1980s. He died on October 26, 1987, at his home in Bel Air, Maryland.