Tuesday, August 16, 2005

OBT: Vassar Clements


Fiddle virtuoso Vassar Clements dead at 77

NASHVILLE (AP) — Vassar Clements, a fiddle virtuoso and A-list studio musician who played with Paul McCartney and an array of others, died at his home Tuesday after a battle with lung cancer, his daughter said.

Clements, 77, was hospitalized for 18 days earlier this year, receiving chemotherapy and other treatment.

"He had no quality of life since he'd been diagnosed," said daughter Midge Cranor, who added that the cancer had spread to his liver and brain.

Clements' last performance was Feb. 4 in Jamestown, N.Y., Cranor said.

His work bridged a variety of styles, including country, jazz, bluegrass, rock 'n' roll and classical.

"When the rhythm is good, I can play it," he told The Associated Press in a 1988 interview.

During his career, he recorded on more than 2,000 albums, joining artists as varied as McCartney, Johnny Cash, Bonnie Raitt, the Grateful Dead, Bruce Hornsby, Hank Williams Jr., the Byrds, Woody Herman and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

Clements, a Kinards, S.C., native who grew up in Kissimmee, Fla. also recorded more than two dozen albums of his own.

The 2005 Grammy for best country instrumental performance went to Earl's Breakdown, by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band featuring Clements, Earl Scruggs, Randy Scruggs and Jerry Douglas.

He even once recorded with the Monkees — by happenstance. He was working on a recording session when someone asked him if he wanted to stay and play on another one.

"I didn't know until later it was the Monkees," he said.

Clements, who appeared in Robert Altman's 1975 film Nashville, taught himself to play at age 7 and had no formal training. The first song he learned was There's an Old Spinning Wheel in the Parlor.

"It was God's gift, something born in me," he said about his talent. "I was too dumb to learn it any other way. I listened to the (Grand Ole) Opry some. I'd pick it up one note at a time. I was young, with plenty of time and I didn't give up. You'd come home from school, do your lessons and that's it. No other distractions."

"I don't read music. I play what I hear."

He was employed at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for a year in the mid-1960s, working on plumbing. At various times, he also worked in a Georgia paper mill, was a switchman for Atlantic Coast Railroad, sold insurance and had a potato chip franchise.

But music was always part of his life.

"I'd always play. Square dances, anything," he said.