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Vassar Clements

Vassar during a documentary interview in 2004, Live Oak, Florida
Courtesy: David Gans
Background information
Born April 25, 1928(1928-04-25)
Origin Kinard, South Carolina
Died August 16, 2005 (aged 77)
Genres Bluegrass, country
Occupations Musician
Instruments Fiddle
Associated acts Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, Jim and Jesse, Earl Scruggs, John Hartford, Norman Blake, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Jerry Garcia, The Grateful Dead, many others

Vassar Clements (April 25, 1928 – August 16, 2005) was a Grammy Award- winning American jazz, swing, and bluegrass fiddler. Clements has been dubbed the Father of Hillbilly Jazz.


Clements was born in Kinard, South Carolina, but grew up in Kissimmee, Florida. He taught himself to play the fiddle at age 7 and the first song he learned was "There's an Old Spinning Wheel in the Parlor". Soon, Clements formed a local string band with two first cousins, Red and Gerald. Gerald was the fiddle player and when he got married and left, Clements had to pick up the fiddle. In his early teens, he met Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys when they came to Florida to visit Clements' stepfather who knew Chubby Wise. Clements heard Wise play and was impressed.

In late 1949, when Wise left Monroe, Clements was hired as his replacement in the Blue Grass Boys where he remained for seven years.

He didn't always earn his living playing music. In the mid-1960s he was employed briefly at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where he worked on plumbing. He also performed several other blue-collar jobs including work in a Georgia paper mill, as switchman for Atlantic Coast Line Railroad; he even sold insurance and once operated a convenience store while owning a potato chip franchise in Huntsville, Alabama.

Between 1957 and 1962, he was a member of the bluegrass band Jim and Jesse & the Virginia Boys. Returning to Nashville in 1967, he became a much sought after studio musician.

After a brief touring stint with Faron Young he joined John Hartford's Dobrolic Plectral Society in 1971 when he met guitarist Norman Blake and Dobro player Tut Taylor, and recorded Aereo-Plain, a widely acclaimed "newgrass" album that helped broaden the bluegrass market and sound. After less than a year he joined Earl Scruggs, who first earned widespread renown for playing the theme to television sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies.

His 1972 work with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on their album Will the Circle Be Unbroken earned him even wider acclaim, and later worked with the Grateful Dead's Wake of the Flood and Jimmy Buffett's A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean.

In 1974, he joined Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, Peter Rowan and John Kahn in releasing the bluegrass album, Old and in the Way. That same year he lent his talents to Highway Call, a solo album by former Allman Brothers Band guitarist Dickey Betts.

He was considered by many to be an outstanding fiddle virtuoso and he described his talent saying, "It was God's gift, something born in me. I was too dumb to learn it any other way. I listened to the Grand Ole Opry some. I'd pick it up one note at a time. I was young, with plenty of time and I didn't give up. You'd come home from school, do your lessons and that's it. No other distractions. I don't read music. I play what I hear."

In his 50 year career he played with artists ranging from Woody Herman and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band to the Grateful Dead, Linda Ronstadt and Paul McCartney, and earned at least five Grammy Award nominations and numerous professional accolades. He once recorded with the pop group the Monkees by happenstance, when he stayed behind after an earlier recording session. He also appeared in Robert Altman's 1975 film Nashville and Alan Rudolph's 1976 film, Welcome to L.A.. 2004 performed in concert with jazz quartet Third Stream- in which a video documentary of the concert was done with Jim Easton guitar, Tom Strohman sax, Jim Miller bass and John Peifer drums

Though he played numerous instruments, Mr. Clements indicated that he chose the fiddle over guitar recalling that, "I picked up a guitar and fiddle and tried them both out. The guitar was pretty easy, but I couldn't get nothing out of the fiddle. So every time I'd see those instruments sitting side by side, I'd grab that fiddle."

Big band and swing music were considerable influences upon his style and musical development, and he said that, "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."

Vassar Clements played on over 2000 albums. His last album, Livin' With the Blues, released in 2004, featured guest appearances by Elvin Bishop, Norton Buffalo, Maria Muldaur and others.

His 2005 Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental Performance was for "Earl's Breakdown," by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and featured Clements, Earl Scruggs, Randy Scruggs and Jerry Douglas.

Mr. Clements, whose last performance was February 4, 2005 in Jamestown, N.Y., died on August 16, 2005 at age 77 of lung cancer that had spread to his brain.


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