Vassar Clements

Fiddle player and creator of 'hillbilly jazz'
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The Independent Online

The master fiddle player Vassar Clements effortlessly fused country, bluegrass, jazz and swing to create a style dubbed "hillbilly jazz". A highly expressive and inventive performer, he played alongside acts as diverse as Johnny Cash, Stéphane Grappelli and the Grateful Dead and enjoyed iconic status among fellow musicians.

A native of Florida, Clements taught himself to play the fiddle at the age of seven. As a youngster he was drawn to the swing bands of leaders such as Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey, later commenting, "I always loved rhythm so I guess in the back of my mind the swing and jazz subconsciously comes out when I play."

Perhaps inevitably, he was drawn, too, to the music of the "Father of Bluegrass", Bill Monroe, and by 1949 he was performing as a member of Monroe's Bluegrass Boys on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. He remained with the band until 1956 and then, in 1957, joined Jim and Jesse McReynolds' Virginia Boys, staying with them until alcohol abuse got the better of him and he was forced to take a six-year hiatus from performing.

When he returned to music in 1967 he gained a residency playing the banjo at Nashville's Dixieland Landing Club, toured briefly alongside Faron Young and, from 1969, played bluegrass as a member of John Hartford's short-lived Dobrolic Plectral Society. He followed that with a year's tenure as a member of the Earl Scruggs Revue, joining the great banjo picker in creating a progressive fusion of rock and bluegrass that appealed to younger audiences.

Whilst with the Revue, he cut his début album as leader: Crossing the Catskills (1972). It was the first in a series of critically acclaimed discs including the appropriately titled Superbow (1975), Hillbilly Jazz (1976), Nashville Jam (1979), the Grammy-nominated Grappelli collaboration Together at Last (1982) and his only straightforward bluegrass album, Grass Routes (1991).

In 1972 Clements participated in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's seminal three-record set, Will the Circle be Unbroken. In its interplay between pioneering figures such as Scruggs and Roy Acuff, and a group previously dismissed as "four guys with long hair", the project successfully bridged the gulf between the traditional and the progressive in country music, and led to an award-winning follow-up some 16 years later.

In 1974 he appeared on disc as a member of Old and in the Way, an influential group that featured bluegrass musicians Peter Rowan, David Grisman and John Kahn alongside the Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia. Intended as a one-off exercise, the outfit's eponymous album developed cult status and in 1996 led both to a reunion and the release of a new disc, That High Lonesome Sound.

Over the past decade Clements had continued to perform regularly onstage and remained an in-demand session musician. He continued, too, to release albums of his own including Back Porch Swing (1999), Full Circle (2001) and, in 2004, a fascinating blues-based disc, Livin' With the Blues.

Paul Wadey

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