Thursday, August 25, 2005

Remembering Vassar Clements

(Clockwise from top left: Vassar and Earl Scruggs (1971), Vassar (1975), Vassar & fellow fiddler Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown (year unknown).

From Paste Magazine:

Vassar Clements (1928-2005)
Just a Good Ol' Boy

Legendary fiddler Vassar Clements lost his battle with lung cancer on Aug. 16. He was 77 years old, and leaves behind a recorded legacy as diverse as it is vibrant.

Clements was a bluegrass pioneer, having played under Bill Monroe’s charge as early as 1949, but he was also a rare crossover fiddler. He was respected by country music fans, revered by jazz musicians and—after playing with Jerry Garcia in seminal newgrass outfit Old & In The Way—he was adored by Deadheads. Breaking out of the rigid mold of the traditional bluegrass he helped create, Clements blended a wide variety of influences into his singular style.
Born in South Carolina on April 25, 1928, Clements officially joined Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in 1949 at the age of 21. He remained with the group for seven years, then transferred to Jim & Jesse’s Virginia Boys, another important early bluegrass group. From 1962 until 1967, Clements took a leave of absence from music, in part to battle and recuperate from an alcohol problem.

Upon his return to the business, Clements marketed himself as a session musician and gained recognition as a solo artist, but first he pulled a year-long stint with yet another legend—five-string banjo king Earl Scruggs. But it was Clements’ contribution to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s hit 1972 album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, that really certified him as a marquee name. Within the next two years, Clements would cut his first solo album and play music with everyone from Paul McCartney to Jimmy Buffet.

The early ’70s were Clements’ most active years in music, and it was during this time that he first ventured into the world of the Grateful Dead. The band enlisted him for sessions on both Wake of the Flood (1973) and Grateful Dead From the Mars Hotel (1974). Clements became even more intimate with the Dead’s scene as a member of bluegrass supergroup, Old & In The Way, which also featured Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, Peter Rowan and John Kahn. Old & In The Way’s self-titled 1973 live album remains the best-selling bluegrass album of all time.

Clements would associate with members of the Grateful Dead throughout the rest of his career, and he continued doing session work for countless artists from many different genres. As a solo artist, he was also successful, cutting more than two-dozen solo albums, beginning with 1973’s Crossing the Catskills. Clements’ albums—frequently themed—followed his journey of musical self-discovery through jazz and bluegrass, the combination of which he referred to as “Hillbilly Jazz.”

In 2004, Clements released his first and only blues album, Living With the Blues, on David Grisman’s Acoustic Disc label. His last known released recording is a contribution to the eponymous Shimmy Shack, an all-star collaboration project headed by Dark Star Orchestra’s Dino English, on which he performed with members of the Sam Bush Band and Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Right through to the end, Clements continued to branch out and break new ground as a musician. His music is timeless and will live on. But Vassar Clements, the man, will be missed.

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