Vassar Clements - Biography
Fiddler Vassar Clements started his professional career with Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys in the 40s, but his interest in jazz, folk and rock made him one of the most in demand session players in the world of bluegrass, country and jazz. His star turn on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken (1972 United Artists) led him to projects with the Grateful Dead, Jimmy Buffett, Mickey Newbury and made him one of the foremost hillbilly jazz artists, a genre he pioneered. As a sideman, Clements received five Grammy nominations and played on over 3,000 albums. He contributed to the Flatt & Scruggs theme song for The Beverly Hillbillies and his solo albums are marked by his dazzling musicianship and eclectic original compositions. He died in 2005 after a long battle with lung cancer.
Vassar Clements was born in 1928 in South Carolina, but was raised in Kissimmee, Florida. He grew up listening to swing bands and the Grand Ole Opry on the radio and loved Glenn Miller, Les Brown, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, and Artie Shaw. He played guitar as a boy but shifted to fiddle to play in a teenage country band with his cousins. Chubby Wise, the Florida fiddler who made his reputation with Bill Monroe, gave Clements some early lessons. By the time he was 14, Clements was good enough to drop out of school and seek a full time musical career. Ironically, when Wise left Monroe’s band in 1948, Clements replaced him. Clements stayed with the Bluegrass Boys until 1958, when he was hired away by Jim and Jesse. His problems with alcohol got him fired from the Jim and Jesse show, and it took him five years to get clean and sober.
By 1967 he was an A list session player and the banjo player in the house band at Nashville's Dixieland Landing Club. In 1969 he was a member of Faron Young’s tour band but soon joined John Hartford’s Dobrolic Plectorial Society to record Aereo Plane (1971 Warner Bros) one of the seminal albums of the newgrass movement, a style that fused bluegrass, jazz and pop. Clements’ next gig was fiddling for the Earl Scruggs Revue, which led to his inclusion on Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken (1972 United Artists). Circle introduced Clements to the pop and rock crowd and sessions with Allman Brothers, the Byrds, Monkees, Vince Gill, Bonnie Raitt, the Boston Pops, the Grateful Dead, Linda Ronstadt, Paul McCartney, and Jerry Jeff Walker. Jerry Garcia asked Clements to join his Old and In The Way project with David Grisman, Peter Rowan and John Kahn. They only made one actual album, the live set Old and In The Way (1973 Grateful Dead) but its rock/newgrass vibe made it a legendary set. Years later two more live recordings for the band’s short-lived History surfaced — That High Lonesome Sound (1996 Acoustic Disc) and Breakdown (1997 Acoustic Disc).
By 1973 Clements, was known by bluegrass, rock and pop fans and Mercury signed him as a solo artist. Vassar Clements (1975 Mercury) featured The Dirt Band’s John McEuen, Charlie Daniels, and John Hartford on an out that combines bluegrass, folk, rock and old time fiddling. While keeping up his work as a session player, Clements found time to record Hillbilly Jazz (1975 Flying Fish, 1992 Flying Fish), a set of western swing, bluegrass and, yes, jazz; Superbow (1976 Mercury) cut with Johnny Paycheck’s hard rockin’ honky tonk band; The Bluegrass Sessions (1977 Flying Fish), considered by many as Clements’ best traditional album; The Vassar Clements Band (1977 MCA) a country rock outing with a taste of funk and some mellow vocals from the fiddler; Vassar (1977 Flying Fish) a straightforward jazz set by Clements and his band; Hillbilly Jazz Rides Again (1997 Flying Fish), Vassar Clements, John Hartford, Dave Holland (1988 Rounder, 1994 Rounder) an low key acoustic folk rock outing; Once In a While (1987 Flying Fish) a jazz outing with Dave Holland, John Abercrombie and Jimmy Cobb from Miles Davis’s band; Together At Last (1987 Flying Fish) pairs Clements with Stephane Grappelli, who shows an innate sense for country music.
In the 90s Clements kept playing sessions and touring with various country and bluegrass acts, but still found time for solo recordings. Grass Routes (1991 Rounder) is a traditional bluegrass set; Vassar’s Jazz (1996 Winter Harvest) is just what the title indicates, original compositions with a feel halfway between Bob Wills and the Hot Club of Paris and 20 Fiddle Tunes & Waltz Favorites (1998 Rural Rhythm) is just that. Back Porch Swing (1999 Chrome) was cut with The Little Big Band, AKA Paul Zorn’s Acme Jazz Movers. This is a real jazz outing and the band toured the west coast opening for the Grateful Dead for most of the year. Full Circle (2001 Oms) is a progressive bluegrass outing featuring Béla Fleck, Jim and Jesse, Ricky Scaggs, Sam Bush and J. D. Crowe and Runaway Fiddle (2004 Oms) a jam with Buddy Spicher, another Nashville A list fiddler and founder of Area Code 615. Cut just before his death, Livin’ With the Blues (2004 Acoustic Disc) is Clements’ only blues album, a stellar set with guests Maria Muldaur, Norton Buffalo, Roy Rogers, Charlie Musselwhite, Bob Brozeman and Dave Mathews.