Vassar Clements, 77 | Music Feature | Indy Week

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Vassar Clements, 77

Self-taught fiddler

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That Vassar Clements was a musician who bridged gaps instead of burning bridges and an artist whose truly massive body of work is characterized by inclusion was instantly apparent when the remembrances started flowing on various country- and roots-related Internet music groups. Clements, who died on Aug. 16 at age 77 after a battle with lung cancer (the same disease that claimed his wife Millie in 1998), taught himself to play the fiddle at age 7, started gigging professionally in his teens, and took off on a career that saw him playing with everybody from Bill Monroe, Faron Young and Willie Nelson to the Grateful Dead, Stephane Grappelli and Paul McCartney.

Longtime fans on the local Guitartown listserv were quick to share their memories of seeing Clements perform. One message described seeing him as a member of the Earl Scruggs Revue in Winston-Salem in the mid '70s at a show that featured Arrogance as the opening act, and another told of Clements sharing the stage with Jean-Luc Ponty in Long Island in 1978. Several folks also acknowledged Clements' role in Will the Circle Be Unbroken and Old and in the Way, a pair of recordings that tramped down a path for rockers to make their way to bluegrass and country. There was praise for his 1975 Hillbilly Jazz record, which showcased the titular swing/country hybrid. And then there was this, from Eddie Stubbs of Nashville's legendary WSM-AM, as reported in an obituary out of Music City: "But even if you didn't like Vassar Clements' music, you had to like the man. He never had an unkind word to say about anybody."

As wonderful as the firsthand recollections were, they couldn't help but merely scratch the surface of such a lengthy, fascinating ride. At age 14, Clements began sitting in with Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys, and he officially signed on with the group seven years later in 1949. He went on to play with Jim & Jesse McReynolds and in the aforementioned Scruggs-led outfit. But bluegrass was just one musical outlet for Clements and sideman just one role. In addition to fiddle, he mastered guitar, banjo, mandolin, viola, cello and bass, and the nearly 30 recordings under his own name revealed him to be as comfortable with jazz and waltzes as he was with a country breakdown. For that reason, Once in a While is perhaps the most intriguing album in his discography, as it was recorded with members of Miles Davis' band.

It's fitting then that Vassar Clements was sometimes referred to as "the Miles Davis of bluegrass," and his fiddle virtuosity also earned him the nickname Superbow. But by all accounts, the modest Clements would have been happier being addressed without the trimmings--the way he was, in bittersweet absentia, in a message from a fan whose Web identity is chilliwetwater: Rest in peace, dear Vassar. You done good.

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