Vassar Clements, RIP

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I can't pinpoint the exact moment in my childhood when I realized I actually liked country music, but it might have happened when I heard the fiddle virtuoso Vassar Clements making a cameo on my dad's only Nitty Gritty Dirt Band album. He was playing "Orange Blossom Special," and somehow, as he was improvising, he managed to work in the theme from Dragnet.

Clements, who died of cancer Tuesday morning, was one of those musicians whose work regularly breached the artificial boundaries of genre that criss-cross the world's music. Writing in The Washington Post, Richard Harrington remembers seeing the fiddler at a festival in the early '70s and finding himself impressed with his affable versatility. Clements, Harrington writes, was "equally comfortable playing bluegrass, jazz, country and rock—preferably all at once":

It hardly mattered who brought Vassar to the festival all those years ago—most likely, it was Earl Scruggs—because he seemed to sit in with everybody, not only with the many bluegrass, folk and rock acts on the weekend bill but also at the impromptu picking sessions taking place all over the festival grounds and often going well into the night, lit by the glow of campfires and gas lamps. Whether with grizzled veterans or inspired amateurs, Vassar made no distinctions, and you could just imagine him saying, "Anybody want to pick a little bit? I'll back you up."

If that isn't the archetype of a great American, then I don't know what is.

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  1. I can’t see who’s going to take up the mantle, now that Vassar has joined Don “Sugarcane” Harris at the great fiddle shack in the sky. Clements may have been the only man to ever make the famous fiddle cliche “the tri-hop” interesting. I guess we still have Leroy Jenkins.

  2. I apologize for the wrenching thread-jack, but I just read the following and was looking for any vaguely music-related post where I could pass it on.

    The UK Sun says Eminem has retired as a solo peformer in order to concentrate on being a father. Is the Sun a reliable source? Its Web site looks horribly tabloidy, but I’m told that in the UK “tabloid paper” is not so synonymous with “totally made up stuff” like it is in the USA.

  3. Stevo- page three gets a thumbs up in this corner! Must be reliable.

  4. Thanks for cheering up those of us mourning Vassar Clements with the thought that M&M might be closing his trap for a while.

    Must be interesting to have such an all-comsuming job like rap star that you actually have to quit work to concentrate on being a parent. I seem to remember my old man going to work five days a week while still managing to keep a grip on the domestic situation.

  5. Vassar has joined Don “Sugarcane” Harris at the great fiddle shack in the sky.

    Not to mention Papa John Creach, whose stint with the Jefferson Starship didn’t do him justice. R.I.P. to all.

  6. Wish I could listen in on the jam session in heaven right now with Vassar Clements on fiddle and Clarence White on guitar, and Jethro Burns on mandolin.

  7. That would be a nice jam but things would really get serious when Bill Monroe showed up.

  8. Must be interesting to have such an all-comsuming job like rap star that you actually have to quit work to concentrate on being a parent. I seem to remember my old man going to work five days a week while still managing to keep a grip on the domestic situation.

    Doug — Well, it’s been on Eminem’s mind for a while, apparently. It’s not the job per se, but the travel.

    My soul’s escaping, through this hole that is gaping
    This world is mine for the taking
    Make me king,
    As we move toward a new world ordah
    A normal life is boring, but superstardom’s close to post-mortal
    It only grows harder, it only grows hotter
    He blows it all over, these hos is all on him
    Coast-to-coast shows, he’s known as the globetrotter
    A lonely road scholar
    God knows, he’s grown farther from home
    He’s no father
    He goes home and barely knows his own daughter..

  9. Word. Whatever. Not impressed.

  10. Well, I have to post either Eminem lyrics or Rush lyrics here at least once a week. I was way overdue.

  11. Let’s just say your record collection is safe from me, anyway.

  12. That sucks.

    I saw Vassar play with Doc Watson last January (2004).

    He was one of the last living generation of bulegrass/folk musicians (Doc Watson, Ralph Stanley, etc) who when they die, their music is gone forever.

    Damn 🙁

  13. Relax, juice. Ralph Stanley, both solo & with his brother, has recorded something like 150 albums. There are so many first-rate bluegrass recordings from the ’40s and ’50s and beyond available on CD you couldn’t possibly listen to it all and still have an active social life of any kind. Check out the Bear Family Records catalog if you don’t believe me, just for a start.

    The old guys are going fast but they’ve left enough clues behind them for a lifetime worth of study. If you want to keep the tradition going all you needs is ears, talent and an open mind.

  14. “Old and In The Way” played great bluegrass. Vassar and Jerry Garcia got along well. These guys are my heroes. They wanted to create beautiful music, share it with others, and allow common folk to join in the fun. Inspiration without the irritation.

  15. Yeah, I got turned on to bluegrass about 3 years ago when I saw Vassar at a festival. He will definitely be missed.

    I’m not sure who the best fiddler left is, but I’m partial to Tim Carbone of Railroad Earth.

  16. Thank God, we still have Earl Scruggs.

  17. Come on, you’re seriously not impressed by Eminem lyrics? I don’t own any of his albums myself — I’m not a big rap fan, and even if I was, Eminen’s delivery is a little annoying — but them’s are some good lyrics.

  18. i bet john hartford is joinin in that great jam session in the sky as well!

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