Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Anniversary Blues

Vassar Clements w Mark O'Connor, Woodinville,WA, 1973
I was only 11 years old when I came to understood the power of the blues violin. In 1972, dobroist Mike Auldridge released an album called Dobro, which featured one of my early music heroes, fiddler Vassar Clements. The last track on Dobro is a sorrowful rendition of the classic song, House of the Rising Sun, and at the end of the recording, all the instruments drop out, save one – the fiddle, which is left improvising on the melody in a slow fade-out. Vassar’s masterful, lonesome, heartbreaking licks captivated me the first time I heard them, and they still do when I hear the recording today.

Vassar was born on April 25, 1928 and grew up in Kissimmee, Florida. When he was 7 years old, his stepfather, who liked music, purchased a cheap guitar and fiddle at a local furniture store, and it wasn’t long before Vassar picked them up and started teaching himself old tunes like Rubber Dolly (included in Book III of this Method) and There’s An Old Spinnin’ Wheel in the Parlor as well as learning big band music off the radio. It is also said that, on occasion, an African American man would pass by the Clements’ house with a guitar, and Vassar would follow him along the property fence line and listen to him play and sing the blues.

It was on WSM Radio’s broadcast of the Grand Ole Opry show that young Vassar first became exposed to the band that would give him his first break: Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. He heard their new, innovative music on many different Opry broadcasts, and he also attended one of their shows at a school not far from his home in Florida. As luck would have it, a friend of Vassar’s, who was a long distance phone operator, illegally eavesdropped on a call she placed for Monroe in 1949 and discovered that he was planning to replace his fiddler, Chubby Wise. She told Vassar the news, after which he purchased a bus ticket to Nashville, showed up backstage at the Opry, and offered Monroe his services. Monroe accepted. Over the next four decades, both as a member of the Blue Grass Boys and as an independent session fiddler and sideman, Vassar became one of the most famous and respected fiddlers in the world, appearing on albums by Paul McCartney, the Band, and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, among many others.

Vassar Clements and Mark O'Coonor
Vassar possessed a musical sixth sense, an instinctive creativity inspired by the energy of the moment. He always took chances and played on the edge, and for that reason his sound channeled his emotions in a stark, honest fashion. Vassar influenced me in many different ways, but I still often hearken back to the first time I heard him play on House of the Rising Sun, which convinced me that the blues, which can be rendered so powerfully on the violin, should become an integral part of string education. I composed Anniversary Blues with Vassar’s blues playing in mind.

Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown

Stuff Smith