“I can’t ever remember not being around music,” said Brien Fain, who was at least a seventh-generation mountain musician. The rich musical tradition in his family dates back to the 1760s in Patrick County, in Southwest Virginia near the North Carolina border. Brien owned fiddles that were played by his father and grandfather, and one built by his great-great-grandfather in the 1830s. “I’m the youngest of 32 grandchildren on my daddy’s side, and the youngest of 48 grandchildren on my mama’s side,” he said. “Half of the people on my mom’s side play and 75 percent of the people on Daddy’s side play.”
Brien’s parents fashioned a banjo-ukulele with an open tuning for him when he was just two years old, and he remembered playing along with his father at dances by the time he was five. His mother’s father was an elder in the Primitive Baptist church. “He always led the singing,” he remembered. “He would sing those old mountain gospel songs and hymns.” At ages seven and eight, Brien started playing the guitar and mandolin, and he focused on those instruments until he was a teenager, accompanying his father at dances and community gatherings.
After his father passed away, 15-year-old Brien focused on mechanics and racing cars, passions that led to his career as a machinist building motors for race cars. He resumed playing music at age 17, taking up the fiddle and banjo. While he usually played fiddle at home and in informal music sessions with friends, Brien became a champion banjo player. He won first place in the old-time banjo competition at the Galax Old Fiddlers’ Convention four times and three times at the Appalachian String Band Festival (“Clifftop”), and earned more than 300 prizes in total.
Over the years, Brien was quite active performing solo and with numerous groups, including playing guitar with Raymond Fairchild, leading the Rock Mountain Ramblers, accompanying Mike Seeger, playing bluegrass gospel with the Mayo Mountain Boys, presenting fiddle-banjo duet performances with Stu Shenk, and playing clawhammer banjo at fiddlers’ conventions around the region. Brien performed at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and National Folk Festival, and taught workshops at the Blue Ridge Folklife Festival and Augusta Heritage Center.
Brien Fain passed away on April 18, 2018 at the age of 46.