Clarence 'Tater' Tate

Bluegrass veteran


Clarence "Tater" Tate, fiddle player and bassist: born Gate City, Virginia 4 February 1931; married; died Jonesborough, Tennessee 17 October 2007.

Clarence "Tater" Tate was an accomplished bluegrass bassist and fiddler who, over the course of a 60-year-plus career, lent effective support to many of the leading figures in the genre, from Bill Monroe to Jimmy Martin.

Born, one of nine children, in the south-western corner of Virginia, he played the guitar as a child and had appeared on local radio by the age of 10. In time, he heard a performance of "Train 45" by Flatt and Scruggs on a Bristol, Tennessee radio station and its driving fiddle part, courtesy of Art Wooten, sparked his interest in the instrument – "that sound just sent cold chills up my spine".

By 1950, he had become a much-sought-after sideman, performing regularly on Knoxville's popular Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round, where the sponsor, Cas Walker, gave him the enduring nickname "Tater", and making his recording début with the Sauceman Brothers. He worked with the Bailey Brothers from 1951 until the draft intervened in 1954 and then, on his return to civilian life in 1956, received an invitation from Bill Monroe to join his seminal group, the Blue Grass Boys.

Tate's initial tenure with the "founding father" of the genre would be relatively short – some seven months – but in 1984 he returned to the fold, playing bass and fiddle until Monroe's death in 1996. In the interim, he worked alongside bluegrass notables including Carl Story, Hylo Brown, Jim Eanes and Red Smiley. From 1969 until 1977, he was a mainstay of the Shenandoah Cut-Ups, an underrated outfit whose work today seems ripe for reassessment. In 1977, he replaced the ailing Paul Warren in Lester Flatt's Nashville Grass, remaining as the group's bowman in the years prior to its leader's death. Together they cut the classic "Peacock Rag".

Tate additionally recorded a number of albums in his own right, including a pair of delightful discs dedicated to the waltz made for Rural Rhythm in the mid-Sixties, on one of which, Twenty Beautiful Waltzes, he collaborated with the dobro player Shot Jackson. He occasionally ventured outside the genre, contributing some fine work to Kate and Anna McGarrigle's Dancer With Bruised Knees (1976) and, in 2001, was one of several bluegrass veterans to appear on Patty Loveless's acclaimed roots-based project Mountain Soul.

More recently he delighted in his role as a teacher of fiddle at East Tennessee State University, a position that enabled the modest and unassuming Tater Tate to pass his artistry on to a new generation.

Paul Wadey

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