Fiddle virtuoso Vassar Clements, one of the most innovative musicians in the history of bluegrass music, died Tuesday morning (Aug. 16) at his Nashville-area home following a battle with lung cancer. Clements, 77, received the diagnosis in March 2005.
Although Clements began his career as a bluegrass musician, his mercurial style encompassed jazz and country, and he recorded with a wide variety of musicians, including Paul McCartney, Dickey Betts, Bonnie Raitt, the Grateful Dead and the String Cheese Incident.
Born April 25, 1928, in Kinard, S.C., Clement began playing the fiddle at age 7 and was just 14 when began an association with Bill Monroe. He officially joined Monroe’s band, the Blue Grass Boys, in 1949, remaining there for seven years. In 1957, he began working with another important bluegrass act, Jim & Jesse McReynolds. In 1962, he took a hiatus from the music industry but returned to it in 1967 as a Nashville session musician.
After touring with Faron Young and performing solo dates, he joined John Hartford’s ensemble, the Dobrolic Plectral Society, in 1971. Working alongside guitarist Norman Blake and Dobro player Tut Taylor, they recorded Aereo Plain, an influential album many consider to be the very first newgrass album. The band existed for less than a year, but Clements soon found work with bluegrass icon Earl Scruggs, who was pushing musical boundaries with his sons in the Earl Scruggs Revue.
Clements gained an even wider audience after participating in the recording sessions for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1972 album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken. The exposure led to work on the Grateful Dead’s Wake of the Flood and Jimmy Buffett’s A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean. Clements teamed up with Grateful Dead leader Jerry Garcia (on banjo) for Old & in the Way, a bluegrass album that also featured guitarist Peter Rowan, mandolinist David Grisman and bassist John Kahn. The 1975 album, Hillbilly Jazz, featured Clements playing Western swing and jazz standards with a group featuring guitarist David Bromberg, steel guitarist Doug Jernigan, former Elvis Presley drummer D.J. Fontana and others.
As a solo recording artist, Clements recorded albums released on several labels, including Mercury, MCA and Rounder. His most recent project, 2004’s Livin’ With the Blues, included guest appearances by Elvin Bishop, Norton Buffalo, Maria Muldaur and others.
In recalling the first time he heard Clements playing on a recording, Marty Stuart once said, “It was the most lonesome, scary sound coming out of a fiddle I’d ever heard. I played the mandolin, and once I heard this music, I ditched everything I ever knew and went back and tried to play mandolin like Vassar played fiddle. Years later, I played the Opry, and I saw this man playing fiddle. He stood straight, with his eyes closed and he was playing the prettiest music you could ever imagine. It froze me on the spot. This man is probably my favorite fiddle player on earth.”