Vassar Clements

Vassar Clements

Clements, Vassar, 1928-2005, American virtuoso fiddle player, b. Kinards, S.C. Self-taught, he played with Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys from 1949 to 1956. Though his roots were in country and western music and he began his career playing bluegrass, Clements was accomplished in many genres, including jazz, pop, rock, and swing. Known for his innovative style and technical prowess, he played or recorded with such diverse performers as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Paul McCartney, Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, Jerry Garcia, Earl Scruggs, John Hartford, and Dave Holland. Clements, who made more than 25 solo albums, also played the viola, cello, bass, mandolin, guitar, and banjo.
Vassar Clements (April 25, 1928August 16, 2005) was an American virtuoso jazz and bluegrass fiddler.

Biography

Clements was born in Kinard, South Carolina, but grew up in Kissimmee, Florida. He taught himself to play the fiddle at age 7 and the first song he learned was There's an Old Spinning Wheel in the Parlor. Soon, Clements formed a local string band with two first cousins, Red and Gerald. Gerald was the fiddle player and when he got married and left, Clements had to pick up the fiddle. In his early teens, he met Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass boys when they came to Florida to visit Clements' step-father who knew Chubby Wise. Clements heard Wise play and was impressed.

In late 1949, when Wise left Monroe, Clements was hired as his replacement in the Bluegrass Boys where he remained for seven years.

Between 1957 and 1962, he was a member of the bluegrass band Jim and Jesse. Returning to Nashville in 1967, he became a much sought after studio musician.

After a brief touring stint with Faron Young he joined John Hartford's Dobrolic Plectral Society in 1971 when he met guitarist Norman Blake and Dobro player Tut Taylor, and recorded Aereo-Plain, a widely acclaimed "newgrass" album that helped broaden the bluegrass market and sound. After less than a year he joined Earl Scruggs, who first earned widespread renown for playing the theme to sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies.

His 1972 work with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on their album Will the Circle Be Unbroken earned him even wider acclaim, and later worked with the Grateful Dead's Wake of the Flood and Jimmy Buffett's A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean.

In 1974, he joined Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, Peter Rowan and John Kahn in releasing the bluegrass album, Old and in the Way. That same year he lent his talents to "Highway Call", a solo album by Allman Brothers Band guitarist Dickey Betts.

He was considered by many to be an outstanding fiddle virtuoso and he described his talent saying, "It was God's gift, something born in me. I was too dumb to learn it any other way. I listened to the Grand Ole Opry some. I'd pick it up one note at a time. I was young, with plenty of time and I didn't give up. You'd come home from school, do your lessons and that's it. No other distractions. I don't read music. I play what I hear."

He didn't always earn his living playing music, though. In the mid-1960s he was employed briefly at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where he worked on plumbing. He also performed several other blue-collar jobs including work in a Georgia paper mill, as switchman for Atlantic Coast Line Railroad; he even sold insurance and once operated a convenience store while owning a potato chip franchise in Huntsville, Alabama.

In his 50 year career he played with artists ranging from Woody Herman, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band to The Grateful Dead, Linda Ronstadt and Paul McCartney, and earned at least five Grammy nominations and numerous professional accolades. He once recorded with the pop group the Monkees by happenstance, when he stayed behind after an earlier recording session. He also appeared in Robert Altman's 1975 film Nashville and Alan Rudolph's 1976 film, Welcome to L.A..

Though he played numerous instruments, Mr. Clements indicated that he chose the fiddle over guitar recalling that, "I picked up a guitar and fiddle and tried them both out. The guitar was pretty easy, but I couldn't get nothing out of the fiddle. So every time I'd see those instruments sitting side by side, I'd grab that fiddle."

Big band and swing music were considerable influences upon his style and musical development, and he said that, "Bands like Glenn Miller, Les Brown, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James and Artie Shaw were very popular when I was a kid. I always loved rhythm, so I guess in the back of my mind the swing and jazz subconsciously comes out when I play, because when I was learning I was always trying to emulate the big-band sounds I heard on my fiddle."

Vassar Clements played on over 2000 albums. His last album, Livin' With the Blues, released in 2004, featured guest appearances by Elvin Bishop, Norton Buffalo, Maria Muldaur and others.

His 2005 Grammy award for best country instrumental performance was for "Earl's Breakdown," by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and featured Clements, Earl Scruggs, Randy Scruggs and Jerry Douglas.

Mr. Clements, whose last performance was February 4, 2005 in Jamestown, N.Y., died of lung cancer that spread to his brain on August 16, 2005 at age 77.

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