Vassar Clements: Not Just Bluegrass Fiddle

Vassar Clements: Not Just Bluegrass Fiddle

Written by Anne E. Johnson

Musicians in one genre are often compared to those in another. But for a fiddler like Vassar Clements, who was equally gifted in bluegrass, jazz, rock, and country, the comparisons cross-pollinate. So, he was variously called the Miles Davis of bluegrass, the Isaac Stern of country, and the Count Basie of the fiddle. What matters is that he was the one and only Vassar Clements, and he’s always worth listening to.

He was born in 1928 in the town of Kinard, on Florida’s Panhandle. When he started fiddle as a child, the first thing he learned to play were big band numbers, but soon he became enthralled with the hillbilly fiddle sound of Chubby Wise. By the time Clements auditioned for Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Mountain Boys in 1949, he was skilled enough to be invited on tour and into the studio with the father of bluegrass.

Clements stuck mainly with bluegrass into the early 1970s – he was a member of the Virginia Boys and the Sunny Mountain Boys, among other groups – but all that time he was playing in a style with far wider ramifications. His improvisations had a jazz sound unlike what anyone else was doing in Nashville. In the 1970s, other artists started to notice. He was hired as a session musician on thousands of singles and albums, for artists as wide-ranging as John Hartford’s “newgrass” Dobrolic Plectral Society to the Allman Brothers, Hot Tuna, and the Monkees.

In the early 1970s, Clements made several live jam-style recordings with members of the Grateful Dead, released over 20 years later as a three-volume set called Old and In the Way on the Acoustic Disc label.

Clements’ solo albums tended to feature the distinctive harmonic and rhythmic blend he called “hillbilly jazz.” His sound can’t be mistaken for anyone else’s. He died in 2005, at the age of 77. 

Enjoy these eight great tracks by Vassar Clements. 

  1. Track: “Gravy Waltz”
    Album: Hillbilly Jazz
    Label: Flying Fish
    Year: 1974

Hillbilly Jazz was Clements’ first solo album, although he already had over 20 years of experience in recording studios when he made it. He had a long and fruitful relationship with the Flying Fish label, which sought out uncategorizable artists, often with one foot in the jazz world. This was Clements’ ideal opportunity to introduce the world to his freewheeling bluegrass/jazz improv style.

The album includes several tunes that Clements co-wrote with guitarist David Bromberg and mandolinist Michael Medford, both of whom appear as session musicians. “Gravy Waltz” was written in 1962 by Steve Allen (later best known as a comedian at the piano) and Ray Brown; it became a minor jazz standard, with recordings by Oscar Peterson, Quincy Jones, and others. In Clements’ version, the fiddle starts off improvising counterpoint against Bromberg’s melody line on guitar. When Clements takes the melody at 1:28, he wanders way off the path and back like a true jazzman.


  1. Track: “Hillbilly Jazz”
    Album: Hillbilly Jazz Rides Again
    Label: Flying Fish
    Year: 1986

“You can’t play swing on the fiddle” is the first line in the chorus of Clements’ song “Hillbilly Jazz,” which he sings and plays to open the album Hillbilly Jazz Rides Again. Unlike the first album, the instrumentation is jazzier than bluegrass. Steve Davidowski’s saxophone and Bob Hoban’s piano contribute greatly to the jazz sound. 

His fiddle solo starting at 1:50 is a good example of his improvisatory style – not quite either of the genres he’s borrowing from but made with big helpings of both.


  1. Track: “Alabamy Bound”
    Album: Together at Last
    Label: Flying Fish
    Year: 1987

The melodic nature and raw energy of Clements’ playing often brings to mind the sound of jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli (I wrote about Grappelli in Copper Issue 89), so it’s fascinating to hear the two fiddle masters playing together on this duet album.

Experiencing them side by side is a good reminder of the suave, sliding quality of Grappelli’s style, compared to Clements’ grittier, wilder approach. Grappelli opens “Alabamy Bound”; Clements’ first solo is at 1:40. The two guitarists, in order of appearance, are Martin Taylor and Davis Causey.


  1. Track: “Fiddlin’ Will”
    Album: Grass Routes
    Label: Rounder Records
    Year: 1991

 As the title implies, Grass Routes is more strictly a bluegrass album than many of Clements’ solo endeavors. There’s standard bluegrass instrumentation, including a banjo (J.D. Crowe), mandolin (Jesse McReynolds) and another fiddle (Buddy Spicher). It seems like Clements made this record to prove that he could do something besides his signature hillbilly jazz, and to remind listeners that he came up with the great Bill Monroe.

Jesse McReynolds and his brother Jim (who sings lead here) wrote “Fiddlin’ Will.” Clements demonstrates just how well-behaved he can be, sticking with bluegrass tropes, beautifully executed without even a whiff of jazz.


  1. Track: “Once in a While”
    Album: Once in a While
    Label: Flying Fish
    Year: 1992

Even with his distinctive sound, Clements was thought of by many as primarily a bluegrass and country musician (he gets a significant mention in the Ken Burns PBS series on country music). But his claim to the jazz world was well-founded. Once in a While finds Clements jamming with three musicians boasting bona-fides in the realm of jazz. Guitarist John Abercrombie was known especially for his work in free jazz; bassist Dave Holland played a lot with Miles Davis, including on the classic album Bitches’ Brew; drummer Jimmy Cobb also recorded several albums with Davis, such as Kind of Blue.

But bluegrass is in his blood, and there’s no erasing it. On Clements’ version of the song “Once in a While,” there are occasional hints, like his use of sliding double stops, that let the hillbilly roots shine through the musical language of jazz. 


  1. Track: “If That’s Love”
    Album: Back Porch Swing
    Label: Chrome Records
    Year: 1998

The cover of this LP proclaims “Vassar Clements and his Little Big Band.” So, Clements is going back to his earliest days, when he first learned the fiddle by mimicking melodies from big band shows on the radio. There’s a wide range of repertoire here: early New Orleans jazz by Jelly Roll Morton, a standard by Johnny Mercer, and originals by Clements and friends.

But it’s not all big band fare. “If That’s Love” is a funky, bluesy tune by Fred Bogert, a multi-instrumentalist who produced this album and sings the lead on this track. Clements’ improvisations are angular and wild, nicely paired with Paul Zonn on clarinet.


  1. Track: “Mr. Bojangles”
    Album: Full Circle
    Label: OMS Records
    Year: 2001

The title Full Circle refers to Clements embracing his musical background in bluegrass, yet also looking ahead to the future of that genre. So, he teamed up with some top-notch younger musicians as well as some longtime companions to make the point. Among the old guard are dobro player Josh Graves and harmonica virtuoso Jimmy Fadden (of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band), playing alongside young banjo superstar Béla Fleck.

Jeff Hanna (also of NGDB) sings Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles.” It starts simply enough, but when that fiddle comes in, the familiar song takes on a surreal quality.


  1. Track: “Dirty Drawers”
    Album: Livin’ with the Blues
    Label: Acoustic Disc
    Year: 2004

Released less than a year before Clements died, Livin’ with the Blues is the fiddler’s most blues-focused album. Among those laying a solid blues foundation are some experts in that genre: bassist Ruth Davies and guitarist Bob Brozman. Special guest singers include Maria Muldaur, Marc Silber, and Elvin Bishop. 

Bishop sings on “Dirty Drawers,” his own composition. It’s a down-and-dirty arrangement, with an aching fiddle solo emerging from a thick instrumental web at 2:12.


Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/David Gans.

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