Butch Baldassari has distinguished himself as a premier American mandolinist whose music ranges from classical to traditional folk to bluegrass. Since his introduction to the instrument in 1972, he has played with five different bands, picking up two Grammy nominations as well as awards for Song of the Year from the International Bluegrass Music Association and Best Classical Recording from the Nashville Music Association. He divides his time between recording, concert performances, and teaching at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, where he is a faculty member. He also makes regular appearances at music festivals, where he conducts workshops and has produced a series of instructional videos and recordings through his recording company, SoundArt Recordings.
Baldassari’s instrument, the mandolin, was brought to the United States from Italy; in the early 1900s it was the most popular stringed instrument in America. Baldassari wants to revive this musical sound, popular 100 years ago, and return it to popularity in the modern era. Nominated three years running (1994-96) as Mandolin Player of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association, he seems well on his way to doing so.
Born on December 11, 1952, Baldassari grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where he played guitar in garage bands late in the 1960s with his brother Buster. Early influences were rock bands such as the Beatles, singer Frank Sinatra, and the father of bluegrass music, Bill Monroe. In 1972 Baldassari traveled to the Philadelphia Folk Festival, where he fell in love with the mandolin after listening to a group called the Bottle Hill Boys. He began to study the mandolin immediately; it became his preferred instrument from then on.
Baldassari attended the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in music. He went on to graduate school at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, where he joined a bluegrass band called the Weary Hearts. The group became a success in the 1980s, winning the international band competition of the Society for the Preservation of Blue-grass Music in America in 1989. Their first album, By Heart, hit music stores not long afterwards, but Baldassari and the three other members of the Weary Hearts went their separate ways in 1990.
Baldassari then moved to Nashville, Tennessee, a mecca for musicians of every stripe. It was in 1990 while attending a convention organized by an organization called the Classical Mandolin Society that Baldassari first conceived of a mandolin ensemble, which he would call the Nashville Mandolin Ensemble. Baldassari posted notices around town to recruit musicians, and the ensemble was born. Inspired by the popularity of American mandolin orchestras in the early 1900s, Baldassari’s group was composed of mandolins, a mandola (tuned to the same pitch as the viola),
Born Jerome Baldassari on December 11, 1952. Education: Bachelor of music, University of Scranton, Scranton, PA; attended graduate school, University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Grew up in Scranton, PA; played guitar in garage bands with brother Buster, 1960s; began playing mandolin after attending Philadelphia Folk Festival, 1972; joined bluegrass band Weary Hearts, 1980s; released By Heart, 1989; left Weary Hearts, moved to Nashville, TH, 1990; formed Nashville Mandolin Ensemble, 1991; joined group Lonesome Standard Time, 1992; joined group Grass Is Greener, 1995; released Wolves Are Howlin’, 1996, and Sales Tax Toddle, 1997, with the Grass Is Greener; left the Grass Is Greener, 1997; left Lonesome Standard Time after recording three albums, 1998; released Plectrasonics, 1995, Gifts, 1996, and All the Rage, 1998, with Nashville Mandolin Ensemble; formed Butch Baldassari Trio, 1990s; joined the music faculty at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, 1996.
Awards: Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music Association, Best Bluegrass Band Award (with the Weary Hearts band), 1989; International Bluegrass Music Association, Song of the Year for “Lonesome Standard Time” (with Lonesome Standard Time), 1993; International Bluegrass Music Association, Mandolin Player of the Year, 1994-96; Nashville Music Association Award, Best Classical Recording for All the Rage (with Nashville Mandolin Ensemble), 1999.
Addresses: Office—SoundArt Recordings, 125 43rd Ave. N., Nashville, TH 37209, phone: (877) 292-0324, website: http://www.soundartrecordings.com
a mandocello (tuned to the same pitch as the cello), a guitar, and a bass.
After rehearsing for four months, the group debuted in Nashville at the Horse Theater in the fall of 1991. Billed as America’s only large professional touring mandolin group, the ensemble has remained popular in Nashville, playing music by composers like Vivaldi as well as bluegrass, pop, jazz, and Celtic folk tunes. In 1995 the group hired Paul Martin Zonn, a jazz and classical musician and composer, as conductor.
Getting the group to catch on was not an easy task. Since their music did not fit the precise categories established by record companies, they had trouble finding a label. Baldassari even had to borrow money to fund the band’s first album. Finally Plectrasonics was picked up and released by CMH Records in 1995. Produced by Richard Bennett, who had worked with such notable artists as Emmylou Harris and Neil Diamond, the album featured arrangements by John Carlini and included music by the Beatles, Charles Mingus, bluegrass great Bill Monroe, and even the theme from the Star Trek television series.
The group’s second album, All the Rage, released in 1998, allowed Baldassari to realize his dream of bringing back the mandolin groups that enjoyed widespread popularity in the United States during the early twentieth century. The album featured tunes spanning the heyday of the mandolin’s American popularity, from 1897 to 1924. All the Rage won the Nashville Music Association Award for Best Classical Recording.
In 1992 Baldassari became a member of the Lonesome Standard Time band, staying with the group until 1998. Together they cut a total of three albums, Lonesome River Band, Mighty Lonesome, and As Lonesome as It Gets. Their debut album earned a Grammy nomination in 1992; in 1993 the song “Lonesome Standard Time” from the same release was named Song of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association.
In 1995 Baldassari teamed up with fiddler Richard Green and his band the Grass Is Greener; they released Wolves Are Howlin’ in 1996 and Sales Tax Toddle in 1997. The latter recording earned Baldassari and the band a Grammy nomination in 1997 for Best Bluegrass Album. Baldassari and Green parted ways, however, soon after Sales Tax Toddle was released.
In addition to performing and recording with the Nashville Mandolin Ensemble, Baldassari also played with the Butch Baldassari Trio, which includes Gene Ford, a guitar player, and John Hedgecoth, a mandocello player, for several years; he eventually retired the Butch Baldassari Trio in 2001.
A teacher as well as a performer, Baldassari divides his time between his various recording and concert projects. He teaches mandolin at the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where he was made adjunct associate professor in 1996. He also teaches through a series of instructional videos, books, and tapes, and conducts workshops at music festivals, including Telluride, Rocky Grass Bluegrass Academy, and Winterhawk.
Evergreen/Mandolin Music for Christmas, Cactus, 1990.
Old Town, Rebel, 1990.
Evergreen, CMH, 1994.
Day in the Country, Pinecastle, 1994.
Duets for Mandolin & Guitar, SoundArt, 1998.
New Classics for Bluegrass Mandolin, SoundArt, 1998.
American Portraits, SoundArt, 1998.
(With Lonesome Standard Time) Mighty Lonesome, Sugar Hill, 1993.
(With the Nashville Mandolin Ensemble) Plectrasonics, CMH, 1995.
(With Lonesome Standard Time) Lonesome as it Gets, Sugar Hill, 1995.
(With the Nashville Mandolin Ensemble) Gifts, Columbia, 1996.
(With the Grass Is Greener) Wolves Are Howlin’, 1996.
(With the Grass Is Greener) Sales Tax Toddle, 1997.
(With the Nashville Mandolin Ensemble) All the Rage, New World, 1998.
(With John Carlini) Reflections, SoundArt, 1999.
(With John Reischman and Robin Bullock) Travellers, SoundArt, 2000.
Pickin’on theAllman Brothers, CMH, 2000.
Country Roads: Acoustic Tribute to James Taylor, CMH, 2000.
The Mandolin Tribute to Andrea Bocelli, CMH, 2000.
“Butch Baldassari,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (March 20, 2003).
“Butch Baldassari Extended Biography,” SoundArt Recordings, http://www.soundartrecordings.com/bio.shtml (March 20, 2003).
“Nashville Mandolin Ensemble,” MandolinCafe.com, http://www.mandolincafe.com/cmsa/groups/nashville.html (March 24, 2003).
“Nashville Mandolin Ensemble,” SoundArt Recordings, http://www.soundartrecordings.com/mandolinensemble.shtml (March 24, 2003).
Additional information was taken from e-mail correspondence with Butch Baldassari in June of 2003, and from the liner notes to All the Rage, New World Records, 1998.
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