Avirtuoso mandolin player, Butch Baldassari effortlessly straddled musical genres.
Although usually cited as a bluegrass musician by virtue of his work with performers such as Lonesome Standard Time, Richard Greene and Alison Krauss, he was also the founder of the Nashville Mandolin Ensemble, an outfit that revived the largely forgotten late-19th century tradition of the mandolin orchestra.
Anative of Scranton, Pennsylvania, Jerome “Butch” Baldassari played in rock bands as a teen before being drawn to the mandolin after witnessing a performance by Barry Mitterhoff of the Bottle Hill Boys at the 1972 Pennsylvania Folk Festival. While undertaking postgraduate work at the University of Nevada he joined a bluegrass band, Weary Heart. They proved popular with fans and recorded an acclaimed album, By Heart (1989).
Inspired by a visit in 1990 to a classical mandolin convention in Louisville, Kentucky, he set about recreating the sound of the many mandolin orchestras that were once enormously popular across America. The Nashville Mandolin Ensemble made its first appearance in late 1991 with a line-up that included mandocello, mandola, guitar and bass. They went on to record a clutch of fascinating discs including Plectrasonics (1995), All the Rage (1998), which surveyed some of the early repertoire, and Bach>>Beatles>> Bluegrass (2004).
Throughout this time, he continued to perform bluegrass. He joined Lonesome Standard Time in 1992 and remained with them until 1998. During that time they recorded three albums, the Grammy-nominated Lonesome River Band (1992), Mighty Lonesome (1993), and As Lonesome as It Gets (1995).
“Lonesome Standard Time” taken from the first of these discs was named Song of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association in 1993. In 1995 he teamed up with the fiddler Richard Greene and began to perform with his band, the Grass is Greener. Their albums Wolves Are Howlin’ (1996) and Sales Tax Toddle (1997) were well received, and the latter release gained him a second Grammy nomination.
Having founded his own record label, SoundArt Recordings in the 1990s, he also cut a number of albums with his own Butch Baldassari Trio and in conjunction with musicians such as John Mock and John Carlini.
In 2002 he premiered a long-cherished project, “Blue Moon Over Kentucky”, an extended, concerto-like work that drew upon the music of Bill Monroe and wove a number of bluegrass standards such as “Roanoke”, “Rawhide”
and “Jerusalem Ridge” into a satisfying musical tapestry. “I’ve always thought the genius and richness of these tunes would be a great foundation for an orchestral piece,” he said.
More recently, he had augmented his work as a performer by teaching at Vanderbilt University’s prestigious Blair School of Music.
Paul Wadey Jerome ‘Butch’ Baldassari, mandolin player: born Scranton, Pennsylvania 11 December 1952; married (one son); died Nashville, Tennessee 10 January 2009.