Singer, songwriter, violinist
Since beginning his career as a session musician in Nashville, Tennessee during the 1960s, Vassar Clements has gone on to become perhaps the best known fiddler in the United States, or perhapsthe world. Renowned for his willingness to play music reflecting a wide range of genres—from traditional bluegrass and country, to pop, rock, swing, and even jazz—Clements has won numerous awards over the years since he first transcended his original status as a sideman and moved to center stage. With five Grammy nominations and more than 3,000 recorded performances to his credit, critics have—in reference to another world-class violinist—dubbed him the “Isaac Stern” of the fiddle. With a multi-dimensional, riveting, jazzy style that is characterized by a spontaneous, moody feel and a lighting-fast delivery, Clements does more than just perform a piece of music when he draws a bow across the strings of his eighteenth-century fiddle; he recreates it, reshapes it, gives it new life. In addition to his mastery of several musical instruments—including violin and viola, cello, string bass, guitar, mandolin, and banjo—he is also a prolific composer of instrumental music. Clements has accomplished all this despite the fact that he does not read a lick of music.
Born April 25, 1928, near Kinard, South Carolina, Clements was raised in Kissimmee, Florida. Although not considered traditional bluegrass country, Kissimmee provided the young Clements with a fertile musical background, thanks to Saturday-night radio shows like Grand Ole Opry and programs featuring some of the popular swing bands of the thirties and forties. As Clements recalled in a Vassillie Productions press release, “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.”
Although Clements began as a guitar player, he shifted his attention to the violin when a local band he was playing with needed a different sound. Unfamiliar with the instrument, he attempted to teach himself and eventually received some much needed assistance from famed bluegrass fiddler Chubby Wise, who had visited the Clements home to call on a friend. By the time he was 14 Clements had mastered the instrument. Determined to make music his life’s work, he traveled to Nashville to audition for a seat in Bill Monroe’s crack band, the Blue Grass Boys. Although he didn’t have
For the Record…
Born April 25, 1928, near Kinard, SC; married; wife’s name, Millie.
Began performing with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, 1949-58; debuted on stage of Grand Ole Opry, 1949; toured with Jim and Jesse McReynolds, 1958-61; worked variously as a real estate salesman, mechanic, and potato chip franchise owner, 1962-67; performed as studio musician, Nashville, beginning 1967, appearing on more than 3,000 recordings; toured with Faron Young, 1968; toured with John Hartford and the Earl Scruggs Revue, 1968-72; performed on legendary Will the Circle Be Unbroken album, 1972; signed with Mercury Records, 1973; cameo appearance in film Nashville, 1975; performed with Jerry Garcia as part of group Old and In the Way, 1973; has toured or recorded with numerous musicians, including David Grisman, the Allman Brothers, the Byrds, the Grateful Dead, Paul McCartney, Linda Ronstadt, Doc Watson, and Bob Wills.
Awards: MRL Living Legend Award, 1991; RCA Honors Award for lifetime achievement in the recording arts; British Fiddlers award; five Grammy nominations, including 1987, for Together at Last.
Addresses: Management —Vassillie Productions, P.O. Box 567, Hermitage, TN 37076. E-mai J—[email protected] ix.netcom.com.
any luck the first time he tried out for the taciturn Monroe, Clements found that persistence does indeed pay off. He finally got a gig with the late “Father of Bluegrass Music” when a telephone operator-friend told Clements that Monroe had been overheard saying that he was looking for a fiddle player. Joining the Blue Grass Boys in 1949, Clements remained with the blue-grass pioneer until 1958, when he left to perform with bluegrassers Jim and Jesse McReynolds, who toured the country demonstrating their famous cross-picking mandolin style in addition to being regulars on the stage of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. By 1962, however, Clements was forced to leave the McReynolds brothers and sideline his musical career due to a battle with alcohol. With the help of family and friends, he was able to get his personal life back under control, and Clements moved to Nashville five years later with a renewed commitment to his music.
In Nashville, Clements worked as a session musician for various Music City recording studios. He also got a steady gig playing tenor banjo at Nashville’s Dixieland Landing Club. By 1969 he was on the road again, this time participating in singer Faron Young’s touring band, while still performing solo dates when the opportunity arose. In 1971 Clements joined up with singer/songwriter John Hartford and his band, the Dobrolic Plectorial Society, to record Aereo Plane. While the group’s innovative quasi-bluegrass stylings—which were popular with audiences at the historic first annual “Bean Blossom” bluegrass festival, organized in 1971 by Bill Monroe himself—foreshadowed “newgrass” music yet to come, Clements found himself out of a job by the end of the year when the group disbanded. Coincidentally, banjo wizard Earl Scruggs was in need of a fiddle player for his stage show, the Earl Scruggs Revue, and teamed up with Scruggs.
The 1960s and early 1970s saw a resurgence of interest in old-time American music, sparked in part by the Newport Folk Festivals of the late 1950s, the civil rights movement, and the work of musical traditionalists like Pete Seeger, Burl Ives, Odetta, and a host of other folk groups. The new generation of acoustic-based musicians inspired by earlier musical forms and instrumentation included singers like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Joni Mitchell. One of the most important recordings to come out of this era was 1972’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken, an album that featured the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band alongside such stellar country, bluegrass, and folk artists as Roy Acuff, Mother Maybelle Carter, Merle Travis, Jimmy Martin, Doc Watson, and Earl Scruggs. Attesting to his stature as a musician, Clements was asked to perform on fiddle. He agreed, and his stylings in such tunes as “Orange Blossom Special” and the Clements-penned “Lonesome Fiddle Blues”—later echoed on Charlie Daniels’s smash crossover hit “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”—became classics. Circle went on to become a phenomenal country-pop crossover success.
Clements’ work on Circle introduced his style to a younger, non-bluegrass audience and jump-started his own solo career as a progressive fiddler of “new acoustic” music. The fiddle virtuoso soon found himself on stage or in the studio with such diverse performers as the Allman Brothers, the Byrds, the Boston Pops, the Grateful Dead, Linda Ronstadt, Paul McCartney, and Jerry Jeff Walker. In 1973 he joined forces with newgrass mandolinist David Grisman, guitarist Peter Rowan, bassist John Kahn, and the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia—who cut his teeth on bluegrass banjo long before fronting the Dead—to record a live album, Old and In the Way. This popular recording further fueled Clements’s move towards a career as a soloist, and further spread the word about bluegrass music to younger audiences.
In 1973 Clements signed with Mercury/Polygram records and released his first solo LP, 1975’s Vassar Clements. In this recording he is joined by John McEuen, Charlie Daniels, and Hartford. Since then, Clements has recorded over 25 albums that span musical genres from bluegrass to jazz. In addition to promoting his own brand of what he terms “hillbilly jazz,” he has continued to remain active in numerous projects, and was featured in a cameo performance in the Robert Altman film Nashville, released in 1975.
Moving increasingly to the edges of “country” in his creative projects, the jazz and swing influences that Clements absorbed during his youth allowed him to sideline as a jazz musician. Once In a While was recorded during a jam session with Dave Holland, John Abercrombie and Jimmy Cobb, all ex-band members of jazz master Miles Davis. 1987’s Together At Last, with Italian jazz violin virtuoso Stéphane Grappelli, provided Clements with one of his five Grammy award nominations. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Clements worked to broaden his musical experience beyond the traditional limits of his pre-Circle studio work. Clements first album of pure, traditional bluegrass music was Grass Routes, released on Rounder Records in 1992.
Clements’s “hillbilly jazz” performances, even more than his work in country and bluegrass, continue to provide audiences with a true expression of his exceptional technical and creative abilities. Impossible to pigeonhole into one or even two musical genres, a complete list of Clements’s extensive musical accomplishments reads like a musical melting pot. To say that Vassar Clements is a musicians’ musician is an understatement. His modesty and professionalism have won him the admiration of critics, and the respect of his musical peers.
(With John Hartford and others) Aereo Plane, Warner, 1971.
(With the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and others) Will the Circle Be Unbroken, United Artists, Vol. 1, 1972, Vol. 2, 1989.
Crossing the Catskills, Rounder, 1973.
(With Old and In the Way) Old and In the Way BMG, 1973.
Vassar Clements, Mercury, 1975.
Superbow, Mercury, 1975.
Southern Hillbilly Waltzes, Rhythm, 1975.
(With David Bromberg) Hillbilly Jazz, Flying Fish, 1976.
Bluegrass Session, Flying Fish, 1977.
(With Jesse McReynolds and Buddy Spicher) Nashville Jam, Flying Fish, 1979.
Vassar, Mercury, 1980.
More Hillbilly Jazz, Flying Fish, 1980.
Westport Drive, Mind Dust, 1984.
Hillbilly Jazz Rides Again, Flying Fish, 1987.
(With Stephane Grappelli) Together at Last, Flying Fish, 1987.
New Hillbilly Jazz, Shikata, 1988.
(With John Hartford and Dave Holland) Clements, Hartford and Holland, Rounder, 1988.
Grass Routes, Rounder, 1992.
(With others; and producer) Saturday Night Shuffle: A Celebration of Merle Travis, Shanachie, 1993.
(With John Abercrombie, Jimmy Cobb, and Dave Holland) Once in a While, Flying Fish.
Editors of Country Music magazine, Comprehensive Country Music Encyclopedia, Random House, 1994.
Rosenberg, Neil V., Bluegrass: A History, University of Chicago Press, 1985.
Smith, Richard D., Bluegrass: An Informal Guide, a cappella books, 1995.
Bluegrass Unlimited, December 1990.
Nashville Tennessean, August 15, 1971.
Additional information for this profile was provided by Vassillie Productions.