Fiddle Legend Vassar Clements dead at 77
Wednesday, August 17, 2005
Vassar Clements, age 77, a legendary fiddle player who took bluegrass music from an obscure cultural art form to a mainstream influence, and who played on over 2000 albums, passed away at his Goodlettsville, Tennessee home August 16th 2005 at 8:35 am Nashville time (CST) from lung cancer which had metastasized to his liver and brain.
Mr. Clements taught himself to play the fiddle at age 7, and though he had no formal training was recognized as one of the world’s most versatile fiddle players and was considered a virtuoso. The first song he learned was “There’s an Old Spinning Wheel in the Parlor”. 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.”
He didn’t always earn his living playing music, though. 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 Railroad; he even sold insurance and once owned a potato chip franchise.
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 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”.
Mr. Clements, whose last performance was February 4 in Jamestown, N.Y., was hospitalized earlier this year for 18 days to receive chemotherapy and other treatment. He had been diagnosed in March 2005.
Born in Kinard, South Carolina, his musical career began at age 14 when he associated with Bill Monroe, and later officially joined the Blue Grass Boys band where he remained for seven years. In 1957 he joined bluegrass band Jim & Jesse McReynolds where he remained until 1962. In 1967 he returned to Nashville where 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 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.
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.”
Mr. Clements’ daughter Midge Cranor wrote on his website  that “As I was still holding his hand his breathing stopped. I looked at the clock and it was 7:20 am.”
Mr. Clements’ remains have been transported to Bond Memorial Chapel, 1098 Weston Drive, Mt. Juliet, TN 37122; (615) 773-2663.