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Fiddler virtuoso Vassar Clements dead at 77

Musician recorded on more than 2,000 albums
/ Source: The Associated Press

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. He was 77.

Clements was hospitalized for 18 days earlier this year, receiving chemotherapy and other treatment. He had been under hospice care in recent weeks.

“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 — whose wife, Millie, died in 1998 — last performed Feb. 4 in Jamestown, N.Y., Cranor said.

“God blessed me in that I was able to hold his hand when he died,” she said.

Clements’ work bridged various 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 got his start in bluegrass, but he was equally comfortable playing bebop and jazz and rock ’n’ roll and he loved all those genres,” said Jeff Hanna of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, which tapped Clements for their landmark “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” Americana albums and also toured Japan with him. “He could sit in with anybody.”

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.

Besides being a gifted musician, Clements was fun to be around, Hanna said.

“He was incredibly hip,” Hanna said. “He was just one of those guys. He was still the dapper Dan. My wife always said he was such a handsome devil. He always dressed impeccably.”

‘It was God’s gift’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.”

Country and bluegrass singer-musician Ricky Skaggs said Clements developed his own style and influenced many young fiddle players in the 1970s, including Skaggs.

“He started learning licks from steel-guitar players, horn players, jazz guitar players. He learned from those guys and made a whole style of music and vocabulary, really, for fiddle players,” Skaggs said. “I learned a lot of his licks. I asked him one time to show me one I couldn’t figure out. Of course it made total sense when he did it. I loved him as a friend and admired him so much as a musician.”

Clements 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 the 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.

Funeral arrangements are pending, but Cranor said they would be held at a chapel in Mount Juliet, Tenn., and would be low-key. Her father wouldn’t want a big to-do at the Ryman Auditorium or the Grand Ole Opry House, she said.