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.