Since first appearing with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys in 1949, Vassar Clements has become one of the true giants of the bluegrass world. Although his early recordings reflect a fairly mainstream bluegrass sound, by the ’60s and ’70s, Vassar had developed a wild jazzy sound that made him the first great progressive fiddler to emerge from the bluegrass field.
After appearing on two landmark albums of the ’70s, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" and "Old And In The Way" with Jerry Garcia and David Grisman, Vassar attracted legions of bluegrass/hippie/jazz types who were turned on to the aggressive, somewhat crazed sounds that had never before been heard from a fiddle. Featuring continuously shifting double stops on all parts of the neck, chromatic runs and jarring offbeat phrasings, Vassar came to be the most easily recognized bluegrass fiddle player in the business.
Since those days, Vassar has kept one foot planted firmly in the bluegrass world, the other in the jazz world. Now usually found fronting his own band, Vassar is still often called upon for special appearances both live and on recordings from such diverse performers as Linda Ronstadt, Tony Rice, and the Rolling Stones. This interview took place at the Warfield in San Francisco in March, 1996.
…Why don’t we talk a little about your beginning career on the fiddle, and what possessed you to take up the instrument?
It’s hard to say what possessed me… I didn’t have any training, I didn’t have anybody to show me. My step-father got a guitar and a fiddle, maybe the guitar was a little bit before, but it was right close to the same time. He got a guitar and a fiddle from a used furniture store and brought them to the house. Nobody knew anything about it. I didn’t know what you were supposed to do with it, or that you were supposed to put rosin on the bow or anything else. And so I tried to learn guitar and fiddle about the same time. And something just kept drawing me to the fiddle. Every time I’d see the two instruments, I’d go to the fiddle.
You were how old?
Seven. So that’s the way it all started.
Did you put a lot of time in?
A lot of time.
Hours and hours every day?
Yeah, because the first thing, I just had to figure out what to do. It took forever to do that. I’d get to listen to the radio maybe an hour on Saturday night and hear the Grand Ole Opry, and I heard what one was supposed to sound like, but I didn’t know how to make it sound like that.
How long did it take before you started getting some good music out of it?
Oh, I wouldn’t let anybody know I was even trying, except my mother, around the house there. At first I found out you had to put rosin on the bow to make any sound on the strings. And then I had to get tunes that I would hear on the Opry in my head, and just pick them out a note for a note. Da, da, da, you know, stuff like that.
But you had no way to tape them or anything…
No, no. Not back then. We had a battery radio. I never heard of a tape recorder.
A lot of fiddle tunes go by pretty quickly, to store them in your mind…
Oh, they go by fast! But if somebody would sing something, you know, when you’re a kid you can remember things better, and I’d have these tunes in my mind –– not fiddle tunes…
So they were more singing pieces that you were playing.
Yeah, because these fiddle tunes would go by so fast, I didn’t know what was happening. But Roy Acuff or somebody like Red Foley would sing a song, and I’d kind of keep the melody.
When did you sort of venture out and start playing in front of people?
Oh, let’s see, I was probably ten or eleven years old. Somebody at school found out that I was trying to play, or learning to play. And they thought it was great. I thought they’d look down on me, you know, “What in the world is he doing playing that old stuff?” And then I got to trying to play for square dances and stuff like that.
You tend to use longer bow strokes than a lot of people…
Yeah, and I guess it’s because I taught myself, I don’t know. I was trying to make it flow. I grew up with big bands, listening to that stuff, and it sounded like their music was just flowing, like water, and I was trying to make the fiddle do that…
When did you start getting out –– was Bill Monroe your first big job?
Yeah, he was the first one. I can’t remember how old I was. I was still in high school. And I’d get homesick and go back home. That was my first time away from home. But I met him when he came through Florida. My step-father knew Chubby Wise, who was playing fiddle with him. And once or twice he got him to come over to the house. And I wouldn’t even try to play fiddle or anything, because Chubby –– ooh, play fiddle around him? But I could play rhythm guitar a little bit, and I just sat in there with them. So that’s the way that all started. I came to find out that Monroe was looking for a fiddle player, and my mother let me go up there. I had a round-trip ticket, and probably fifty cents in my pocket. And I got the job.
Were you pretty comfortable with that? Were you sure you could do it?
No, I wasn’t comfortable with it. No, I was scared to death. I knew his tunes, his songs, but I didn’t know any breakdowns. I knew “Orange Blossom Special” and “Old Joe Clark” and “Boil Them Cabbage Down” and “Rubber Dolly.” And when I auditioned for him, he would call off these songs for me to play them. And I knew all the songs, because I had copied Chubby. And he says, “Do you know any breakdowns?” And I said, “A few.” And he said, “Do you know ‘Orange Blossom Special’?” He happened to hit the one I knew. So he didn’t ask for any after that. I just kind of bluffed my way through, and he took me under his wing and showed me a lot of stuff.
You have a very distinctive, very progressive style of playing. At this point, had you developed that yet, or were you pretty straight with your playing?
No, I hadn’t developed it. I still haven’t. It’s a never-ending thing. But I think subconsciously, big band things I had heard would come out of my instrument, even though it was bluegrass or whatever.
It seems like on the recordings you did with Monroe back then, you sound pretty much like his other fiddle players did at that point.
Yeah, when I started, I copied Chubby, every note. But then when he did new tunes, I didn’t have Chubby to go by, so I had to do it my way. So I don’t really remember how they turned out. But I started getting, I guess, my own style of things. I know now that it was, but then I didn’t know it. I didn’t know if it sounded like somebody else or what.
Had you started writing at that point?
No, I think the first tune I ever wrote was that “Lonesome Fiddle Blues.”
Pretty good first tune!
Yeah, I don’t know how it ever came about. It just happened. I played that thing all the time…
[For the full text of this interview, purchase the Winter 96/97 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]