Vassar Clements is considered one of the world’s finest and most versatile fiddle players. His career began at a very early age. His phenomenal ability to virtually play any kind of music (bluegrass, country, pop, rock, jazz and swing) has garnered him various awards, including five Grammy nominations and a track record that involves multitudes of recording performances. His performing and recording experience has been so diverse, the list reads like “Who’s Who” of fiddle players.
Vassar is more than just a fine musician. Many titles have been bestowed upon him. Some refer to him as a country “Isaac Stern”, others a “Count Basie” fiddle player., and even the “Miles Davis” of bluegrass, The reason – perhaps is the fact that Vassar is a music philosopher who elects to play his thoughts on his instrument. He has simply taken the medium of music and used it to express his feelings. He is a prolific composer of instrumentals and plays seven instruments.- violin, viola, cello, bass, mandolin, guitar and tenor banjo.
Vassar’s career spans over fifty years. His association with Bill Monroe began when he was only 14 years old and still in school. He started with Bill as a regular Bluegrass Boy in 1949 and was with him through 1956. From 1957 to 1961 he performed with bluegrass stalwarts, Jim & Jesse McReynolds. In 1962 he took leave from his music to pursue other interests, but returned to full time music when he decided to make Nashville his home in January 1967.
Vassar did recording sessions and played tenor banjo in Nashville ‘s “Dixieland Landing” club until October 1969. He then started touring with Faron Young and doing occasional solo dates when time permitted. In February 1971, he joined John Hartford and his “Dobrolic Plectral Society”, initiating a professional association and personal friendship that has grown even stronger through the years. After ten months, and earning an enormous amount of recognition and popularity the group decided to disband. Vassar then found himself with the legendary Earl Scruggs and the “Earl Scruggs Revue”.
During this time, one of the most important milestones in his career, was his participation on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1972 Landmark album ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken”. This historical event was produced by William McEuen and featured an extravaganza of bluegrass, country and folk’s greatest artists. It was the turning point that re-kindled Vassar’s career and at the same time introduced him to a much younger non-country audience.
Within a few short months, Vassar was recording and/or performing with Dicky Betts, Jerry Garcia, The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers, Linda Ronstadt, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, David Grisman, Paul McCartney et al. In May 1973, The Classic, “Old & In The Way ” album was recorded in San Francisco during a live performance. The Sales from this project have exceeded other albums of like kind, and has formed staunch cults that still exist after twenty three years.
Since 1973, when Vassar signed his first major label deal with Mercury/Polygram records, his personal discography totals 27 albums ranging from country, waltzes, swing & jazz. Ironically, in 1992 he recorded his only straight bluegrass recording for Rounder Records entitled “Grass Routes”.
His early experience growing with jazz and swing music left an indelible mark on his style. Vassar says “bands like Glen 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. Understandably, the form of jazz music created by virtuoso Vassar Clements is an amalgam of the diverse influences that have touched him throughout his career, but particularly his affinity for the jazz and swing music of his youth.
Therefore, it is no surprise that even though early in his career, as he learned and developed bluegrass and country styles, he also gained respect as a jazz player. Hence, classic number two: “Once In A While” which resulted from a jam session with Miles Davis’s ex-band members, Dave Holland, John Abercrombie and Jimmy Cobb. Classic number three: “Together At Last” with Stephane Grappelli was produced by Tim Yaquinto and recorded in Vassar’s former studio.
Vassar’s jazz is an uninhibited and unabashed expression of his approach to music, people and life in general. In the true tradition of all the great musical stylists, he has rejected the straitjacket of labeling. He performs with the depth of someone who has lived a lot, and as if he had been born prepared to play. His solos soar and glide gently over the rhythm in a manner reminiscent of saxophonist Lester Young’s work with the great Count Basie Band decades ago.
This legendary artist can and will take his listener somewhere on an exploratory journey through time past, present and future.
To say that Vassar Clements is a musicians’ musician is an understatement. His modest demeanor and his professional approach to music has made him an idol to many in the entertainment industry. He is the quintessential American musician, being well versed in bluegrass, country, rock, blues, jazz and swing. His career presents a model that most musicians would gladly follow.
Vassar Clements died of lung cancer on August 16, 2005 at the age of 77. He is missed so much by so many.