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Published: 2000/03/15
by Chip Schramm

Vassar Clements: Profile of a Legend

Few musicians have touched as many genres and made as many creative contributions to their art as Vassar Clements. Raised in the flats of South Carolina and residing in his long-time home of Hermitage, Tennessee, right outside of Nashville, Clements embodies the spirit of a pioneer and leader. Even through his seemingly never-ending tour of duty as bluegrass and folk fiddle ambassador, Vassar retains an air of humility and unspoken grace in everything he does. From fiddle seminars for aspiring players at regional music festivals to benefit concerts for special causes, he seems to create an excitement and love for roots music wherever he goes. He has combined the influence of swing music from his youth with the bluegrass standards he helped create with Bill Monroe and in turn inspired countless hundreds of musicians in the last 30+ years.

His career can be traced back to his school days playing with Monroe, but he quickly rose to national prominence in the early 1970’s playing fiddle for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on their “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” album. From there his success and demand as a fiddle player rose exponentially. As many music fans are aware, Vassar was a key ingredient of the Old and in the Way lineup that included Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, John Kahn, and Peter Rowan. Their 1973 self-titled release still stands as the highest selling bluegrass album of all time. A four-time Grammy nominee, Clements’ versatility playing everything from basic folk and bluegrass to swing and “Hillbilly Jazz,” as his own unique style is named, made him a must-have for recording artists of every genre. His credits on studio and live projects of other musicians are far too numerous to list here.

After tapering off a little beginning in the late 80’s, the 72 year-old Clements was once again going strong in the late 1990’s and yes, even the year 2000. He continues to write the pages of live music history, jamming with everyone from Stir Fried, featuring his old pal Buddy Cage on pedal steel, to Jazz Is Dead, reliving some of his old licks on the Dead album “Wake of the Flood.” His tour schedule for the upcoming spring is chock full of gigs, ranging from a benefit show in Nashville for an amputee, to a very special engagement at Center Stage in Atlanta, being backed by , as well as sitting in with Blueground Undergrass, led by the Rev. Jeff Mosier. Mosier’s original bluegrass ensemble, Good Medicine is also scheduled to perform, and Clements will most likely have amble opportunity to contribute. This special show will take place on Friday, April 7.

There is certainly much that could be said about Vassar Clements’ immense talents and contributions. Even so, you most likely won’t hear it directly from him. He is without a doubt the most down to earth, humble guy around. He marvels at the progress of technology in the music industry and is equally impressed with the resurgence of bluegrass in younger players today. He is certainly an important catalyst of the latter, although he wouldn’t be one to boast about it. His website can be found at http://www.vassarclements.com. You can send him e-mail, and his daughter, Midge, reads it to him on a regular basis. The site also includes a touching section on the influence and love shared for his late wife, Millie. Check out the website and catch Vassar playing this Spring in a town near you.

I had the opportunity to chat briefly with Vassar about some of his experiences, past and present.

C: I was taking a look at your tour schedule the other day. You seem to be continuing your tradition of playing with as many different musicians in as many different places as possible. Has your inspiration changed much over the years or has your basic motivation remained about the same?

V: I don’t know. I guess everything changes a little bit. I guess it changes some when you play with different people because you’re playing their music and trying to fit in with what they’re doing. So that might make it sound a little bit different. If I was playing with T Lavitz and playing with Jazz is Dead it would be different than if I was playing with a bluegrass group. I have to blend in with what they’re playing.

C: That’s what has always struck me about you. You like to play a little bit of everything as far as your musical influences go. I guess that’s why you get along with everybody.

V: That’s true. It’s more of a challenge to me than anything else, so not being a [music] reader really helps me do that.

C: Do you like taking to the road and traveling a lot?

V: I don’t care a thing about traveling. I had much rather play to people than have four walls and a studio. I don’t mind studio when you have time to do things and get things worked out a little bit before you go in there. You get in one like you feel at home instead of a rush job. I like studio sometime, but I’d rather play for people. I like to look on their faces, and see if they are enjoying it – meeting them and everything.

C: I know you play a lot of music festivals every year, do you enjoy the county fair atmosphere more than being enclosed in a concert hall?

V: I like both. I like the performing arts centers and concerts at colleges, or just about anywhere. At lot of the festivals are really good. You don’t get as much rest at a festival as you do at a concert. You are going a lot and the time you’re not going, you’re talking to somebody. I enjoy that but you know, I spend the time I have – maybe 3 hours before I’m supposed to go on and I would never sit down. I would never sit down, probably for hours. I don’t know, I just go around and stand up and talk to people. I’d meet one and then run into somebody else, and then it’s time to go onstage. It’s a little more tiresome at festivals then it is at concerts.

C: I know you give a lot of special fiddle clinics at festivals, and you’re even playing some benefit concerts coming up. How important do you think it is to give back to the music community and encourage younger players?

V: I think it is VERY important. That’s part of the reason that I love to play, to give it to somebody else.

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