Rev. Jeff Mosier Writes On the Life and Music of Vassar Clements (1928-2005)
‘There He Is Again’
Thoughts on the diverse life and career of fiddle virtuoso Vassar Clements – Dead at age 77 (Aug 16, 2005)
by Jeff Mosier (Revmosier@cs.com)
Vassar Clements dies, but he leaves behind his print. His unique prints are on thousands of some of the most influential tracks of recorded music. I played these tracks on the radio for nearly fourteen years long before I ever met him personally or played a note of music with him. During those radio days, I would see and hear the reactions from listeners as the phone would light up from their calls. I would always grab the record jacket during the fiddle solo to see who it was and I would see that weird and wonderful name ‘Vassar Clements.’ I remember thinking, ‘there he is again!’ Then Bela Fleck used Vassar on some of his last and more complex acoustic recordings prior to starting the Flecktones project, and there was that fiddle player again! Who was this Vassar guy? He could play anything, simple or complex. Who was this guy? I soon learned!
He played everything from early traditional bluegrass with Bill Monroe and Jim and Jesse, to progressive bluegrass including John Hartford’s groundbreaking ‘Aereoplane’ masterpiece. He recorded on the album, Will the Circle be Unbroken (Vol. 1) that helped me in the 70’s as I was learning to play banjo. Playing along with that album was the only ‘banjo lesson’ I ever had. It was, along with Hartford’s Aereoplane, in my opinion, the beginning of the future of ‘cosmic Americana’ as we sometimes call it. This unique meeting of musicians hosted by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was the newest, freshest and most eclectic sound of the time. It was my first listen into the future and it inspired me to stylistically play past the boundaries of traditional banjo. It did this for many players at the time.
Between Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Newgrass Revival, Peter Rowan, Sam Bush, David Grisman, Hot Rize, Bela Fleck, Tony Rice, John Hartford, Norman Blake, J.D. Crowe and the New South and Old and In the Way, I had my own personal ‘Beatles.’ These artists made me jump up and down and cry like a teenage girl and made me stay long after the concert was over until the announcer said that ‘Elvis had left the building.’ Amazingly, among all these great players listed above, one person can be found in and around their music at many times over many decades, and that person is Vassar Clements. But, surprisingly that is the short list of people he played and recorded with. Look at the long list on his website! Truth is, up until just a few months ago, he was gainfully employed, touring regularly and going full bore in the front office of his own music career so to speak. He was not some old fiddler hanging out to talk about the good ole’ days. Vassar was always there to be heard, seen and to live that day in his own Vassar way, both personally and musically. Few have ever lent such a diverse ear to music as Vassar. Bela Fleck once called him one of the greatest ‘free association’ players of all time. I told Vassar that Bela’s comments were true and great, and he just humbly laughed, patted me on the back, and said ‘let’s go pick’ as we both prepared to play an early Sunday morning festival set. Vassar heard music and not the math of musical theory. He could make anything work out in a solo or in a jam. It was like magic to watch him as a player. His ear lent so much to us and surely was a gift. His ear interpreted music through one instrument, the fiddle, yet he must have been hearing a symphony in his head as reflected by his diverse choices. He never used fancy effects, racks or complex stage equipment. He plugged straight into the front of house sound system with a 1/4 inch chord and then you had better hold on for your life because here comes Vassar ready or not! He was always willing and ready to play! No matter what PA or soundman, or size band, he could hang tight. Vassar’s fiddle would cut through the mix and there he was! It was always so, very unmistakingly, Vassar Clements! There Vassar was, like a clean stream of toneful jazz horn lines, like a Billie Holiday vocal, or a sweet simple piano fill, an African drum, or like the most perfect ‘IBMA approved’ classic traditional bluegrass fiddle you had ever heard on any record. Lending his ear to the San Francisco bluegrass of ‘Old and in the Way,’ gave that band an authentic fiddle sound, without destroying the free, droney, stoney, folksy sense of psychedelic wonderment that the other members naturally brought to the table. Vassar told me many times, ‘they needed a redneck and I was the only one in the band.’ He said that with humor, yet his playing melded into that ensemble like nobody else could have. In that light, Vassar’s influence on our jammy ilk and persuasion of roots music may not be really known for years to come. In the eighties, Vassar and Bobby Hicks restated traditional bluegrass fiddle on the many volumes of ‘Bluegrass Album Band’ records released on the Rounder Label. These all-stars of bluegrass gave many of us, who were ‘turning blue’ for fresh new bluegrass material at the time, the kick in the ass we needed to get the ‘drive’ back into our playing and not let these ‘old guys’ show us up! They quietly and confidently challenged the whole bluegrass establishment with those recordings. They were like the Rolling Stones of bluegrass at the time and they all still play even today. Right up until Vassar’s illness set in, just months ago, he was playing and standing tight with some the youngest and greatest players of the new generation, that are on the stage today. But beyond his influence as a player and the influence of his ear on so much music, Vassar gave to many of us the gift of acceptance. After finally meeting him personally in 1998, I was immediately touched by his humility. Sometimes after talking with him, playing with him, or just laughing with him, I would walk away and inside I would be amazed that I had just been with him. Had I just talked to the same guy that had done all of that in one career and the guy was truly one of the reasons I play music? All that music I had played on radio years ago had his prints on it. All that, and he was still here like some fresh young man from another time? He always appeared, even in older age, as some mysterious young hotshot fiddle buck who had just rolled into town looking for a gig, but with humility and a manly confidence that wasn’t cocky. He had much love for people, and no one in his path went unnoticed. He was as alive as any teenager and as wise as any sage. He never judged music no matter what he may have thought. He played great at loud volumes and at soft ones. He worked a microphone like an early radio fiddler, because he was one, and he rocked his ‘plugged in’ electric fiddle sound through the biggest PA’s and stages like a seasoned rocker, because he was one. He looked the part of the consummate starched shirt early Bill Monroe late 30’s banker suit wearing Grand Ole Opry type, because he was there. However, he could hang out comfortably with the biggest names in pop, rock, folk, bluegrass, jamband music or any form of experimental music and do it on the largest stages and in the biggest arenas, and he did. No matter how big or how ‘rock star’ the gig may have been, Vassar would come off the stage and hang out with people like they had all just met at the general store to simply pick up a loaf of bread. Fame and crowds and hype never changed his demeanor or attitude toward others. The kind of example of humility that Vassar was to us all, is virtually nonexistent in our music culture nowadays. He was a hippie inside and a bluegrass picker and the neighbor next door and the grandfather and father we had grown up with. To some, Vassar was the only fatherly figure in their life. Vassar knew people and loved people from all walks of life. He would look you in the eye and would gently bend down and listen when you talked to him. People from all over the world have whispered their love for him and his music into his ears and shaken his gifted hands as they witnessed his sweet humble presence. His laugh and his sense of life were a constant. Once during an early morning rehearsal he ask me to pass his coffee to him calling it, ‘his cup of personality.’ To this day I think of him every time I pour myself a stiff dark cup of early morning festival coffee. Col. Bruce Hampton said he was ‘the man who invented music.’ In a way, Vassar’s ear and his musical interpretations on old and new ideas of music did invent a kind of music. He helped invent and formulate and install free form sensibilities into the very cloneprone tendencies of bluegrass music. However, he would change the music with ease and respect without ever drawing attention to his prowess on fiddle. He always played Vassar on the fiddle and not just ‘fiddle music.’
Now that he’s gone from here physically, we can at least listen to what he was hearing in his head on thousands of musical tracks. We can hear him ‘coming out’ to solo or ‘laying back’ to fill, because Vassar would always solo and do backup with the same passion. We can hear him coming in and out of time like a seasoned jazz drummer and we can hear him laying down the most human, lively, toneful and creative fiddle takes of all time. We can hear his laugh and see his smile in the music. That Vassar smile could stop all fear, hate and sadness in this world if it were posted on billboards everyday across the planet. We have tapes, digital music files, pictures, and many bootlegs from the many bands, big and small, that he played with, recorded with, or sat in with. We have a lot to be grateful for. Yes, we hear the proof in his music, the proof in our music, proof of him in our memories, and proof that we actually knew one of the greatest men, musicians, and friends of our lifetime, Vassar Clements. If we love him this much, imagine the loss his family must feel. We send out our love and peace to those in his family who need so much support at this time of loss. We thank them for sharing all of the medical updates with us and letting us be a part of his passing. May Vassar rest in peace and may his family feel our love this very day and may we all strive to have more Vassar in our world and more Vassar in our music.