IT was 41 years ago today that the death occurred at the age of 50 of Thomas Fraser, undoubtedly Scotland’s most extraordinary country and western recording artist. For during his lifetime, Shetland fisherman Fraser never released a record nor made any appreciable money from his music, but in recent years he has become something of a legend in the country and western scene – not least in the USA, where his fascinating story is constantly retold.

The key to understanding Fraser’s tale is to learn that this self-taught musician was a fisherman by day but an obsessive recorder of his music by night – sometimes literally all night.

The sessions he recorded at his family’s croft on the Burra isle survived long enough to be made into properly engineered CDs which show just how good an authentic singer of country and western and blues music he was.

Born on Burra on March 20, 1927, Fraser was the youngest of six children of Thomas Fraser and his wife May nee Jamieson. He took to music early, being given a fiddle at the age of eight by his brother Walter, while he learned the “yodelling” style of music from his uncle, also Walter.

He acquired a guitar and later taught himself the rudiments of piano and banjo playing, and it was clear to his family that he was something of a musical prodigy.

There was no Britain’s Got Talent or X Factor back then, and Thomas had to follow in the family trades of crofting and fishing.

He took his music very seriously but was painfully shy – he played from inside a cupboard at one event. He married his wife Phyllis nee Inkster in 1955 and their daughter May was born the following year. Both Phyllis and May came to feature in the many recordings on a reel-to-reel tape machine that Thomas made over the years that also involved musical friends from all over Shetland and beyond.

Thomas would happily make recordings for friends and family but never thought of selling his work. After his death, Thomas’s nephew Bobby Fraser looked after the tapes and made a couple of cassettes in the 1980s, but they had a limited distribution.

It was at this point in the late 1990s that Thomas’s grandson Karl Simpson took an interest. He states on the website “Being immersed in the normal routines of work and my own musical ‘twiddlings’, I never really found the time to really appreciate my grandfather’s music let alone find time to do anything constructive with it.

“The tapes remained at Bobby’s until one night in the late 1990s when Mam and I went to Bobby’s to visit. Bobby produced his tape recorder and put on a reel. Having acquired a more ‘mature’ musical outlook, I listened with amazement at what my grandfather had done all those years ago.”

Karl became determined to preserve the reels of his grandfather’s music by putting them on to a CD.

He soon realised what a task he had taken on: “Transferring the reels developed into a harrowing task. It seemed to me that on this fragile tape was the entire history of my family.

‘‘Many of the reels were at the end of their natural lives and very brittle. The slightest false move and you could wipe out a song, possibly the only surviving version of that song. It was fascinating but at the same time enormously stressful.”

Karl sent the tapes to a BBC-trained sound engineer, Andrew Rose, of Pristine Audio in Kent. Rose managed to improve the quality of the sound immensely and in 2002 Karl Simpson gathered 25 tracks on to a CD called Long Gone Lonesome Blues.

The purity of Fraser’s voice and playing struck all who heard it, and champions of authentic country and western music fell over themselves to promote the music and story of Thomas Fraser.

Karl Simpson has since supervised more releases, and as the story of the singing fisherman spread far and wide, the BBC made a documentary about him, before the National Theatre of Scotland made a stage production of Thomas Fraser’s life called Long Gone Lonesome. There is now a regular Thomas Fraser memorial festival on Shetland, to celebrate his amazing music.

So what fate was met by Fraser himself? In an excellent article in The Guardian in 2006, Peter Culshaw described going to Shetland where his own grandmother had been born to research the story of Fraser. He tracked down May Fraser who said of her father: “He would often go out fishing when the weather was bad, when he should have stayed at home.”

That is indeed what happened to Thomas Fraser. In October 1973 he survived his boat sinking on the Wester Skerry rocks off Burra, and again in 1977 he survived a serious accident when a winch on his boat snapped and seriously injured his face.

He signed himself out of hospital prematurely and never truly recovered before dying on January 6, 1978.

It was only many years later that the true amazing legacy of Thomas Fraser began to emerge. Listen to him on the internet and you will discover why.