At the tenth annual International Bluegrass Music Awards show staged in Louisville, Ky., Kenny Baker became the newest member in the trade organization’s prestigious Hall of Honor. A professional musician since the 1950s, Baker is distinguished as being the longest-tenured member of Bill Monroe’s legendary Blue Grass Boys. Hall of Honor members Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Chubby Wise, Jimmy Martin, Carter Stanley, Mac Wiseman, Sonny Osborne and Don Reno all worked with Monroe before embarking on their own successful solo careers.
Many of Baker’s musical friends and former Blue Grass Boys joined the fiddler onstage to close out the awards show with a musical tribute that included some of the songs Baker played during his 23-year association with Monroe. “Walls of Time,” “Road to Columbus,” “Jerusalem Ridge” and Monroe’s theme song “Watermelon on the Vine,” were performed by the all-star band that included Laurie Lewis, Missy Raines, Del McCoury, Roland White, Peter Rowan, Bobby Hicks, Eddie Adcock, Josh Graves and Ricky Skaggs.
The Jenkins, Ky., native is one of the most influential fiddlers in the history of bluegrass music. His smooth, long-bow technique has been emulated by many aspiring young fiddlers including the late Randy Howard (this year’s IBMA Fiddle Player of the Year), Stuart Duncan, Jimmy Campbell, David Crowe and Blaine Sprouse, among others.
Countless fiddle players have received words of encouragement, impromptu lessons — even musical instruments — from the man whom Bill Monroe often introduced onstage as “the greatest fiddler in bluegrass music.” The countless hours he logged at Monroe’s Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival in Brown County, Ind., remain treasured memories for his many fans and friends, where he’d hold court at his record table swapping stories, fiddles and laughs. At night, after his work was done, Baker could often be found jamming around a smoky campfire until daybreak playing tunes such as “Festival Waltz,” “Gray Eagle” and “Washington County.”
A third-generation fiddler, Baker was born June 26, 1926, and picked up the fiddle at age 8, but soon switched over to the guitar. As a teenager, Baker worked in the east Kentucky coal mines before enlisting in the Navy during World War II. While stationed in New Guinea, he was given the opportunity to sit in as a guitarist with a visiting USO troupe. Baker, now age 73, so impressed the head of the unit, that he was given an immediate transfer to the entertainment outfit, where he served out the remainder of his military hitch.
During his time in the service, Baker renewed his interest in the fiddle after hearing the music of jazz violinist Steffan Grappelli and the Texas Swing music of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. Baker started dabbling with the instrument after being recruited to play a square dance with the USO troupe. “The two songs I played that night were ‘Ragtime Annie’ and ‘Rubber Dolly.’ I just kept crisscrossing those same tunes all night,” he recalls.
Baker returned to the coal mines after completing his military service but continued to hone his musical skills by playing local dances at night. By 1953, he was working with Don Gibson in Knoxville, which led to his meeting Bill Monroe. The bluegrass patriarch offered him a spot in his Blue Grass Boys, which he joined for the first time in 1957.
With a family to support and times often financially lean for musicians, Baker was in and out of the group over the course of the next decade before settling in for his longest hitch in 1968. For the next 16 years, Baker was Monroe’s right-hand man. The two men’s mutual respect and admiration for each other’s musical abilities resulted in an outstanding body of recordings such as Bill Monroe’s Uncle Pen album and The Master of Bluegrass.
Commencing in the late 1960s, Baker began his relationship with County Records of Virginia, where he recorded a series of instrumental albums including Portrait of a Bluegrass Fiddler, A Baker’s Dozen and Frost on the Pumpkin. All of those records contained a mix of traditional numbers and original compositions that are a part of many a fiddler’s repertoire today. It is perhaps his 1976 recording, Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe, for which he will always be best remembered. Rarely a live performance goes by without someone requesting numbers from the album such as “Lonesome Moonlight Waltz” or “Jerusalem Ridge.”
Baker left The Blue Grass Boys in the fall of 1984 and began a working relationship with his longtime friend and collaborator Josh Graves. The pair continue to work and record together as a duo and as part of the Masters along with Eddie Adcock and Jesse McReynolds.
At Monroe’s festival in 1995, Baker returned to Bean Blossom where he was reunited with Monroe for one final performance in the park’s outdoor ampitheatre. That performance will remain for those in attendance one of the finest moments in bluegrass music. In March 1996 Monroe suffered a stroke and died that September. Baker is now back alongside his former boss man in the Hall of Honor, where a bronze plaque will hang in recognition of a distinguished career in bluegrass music. Congratulations, Baker, for a job well done and for enriching so many lives.