Monday, July 11, 2011

Kenny Baker, Fiddler Player for Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys- 1926-2011

Rich Kienzle from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had a wonderful article in this morning's newspaper about a master fiddle player the world of bluegrass and country music lost this past week, Kenny Baker:
Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys had a number of great fiddlers.  Chubby Wise, part of the so-called "classic" 1940's band with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs was one.  Later came Gordon Terry, Vassar Clements, Bobby Hicks, Richard Greene (yes, the Richard Greene) and Buddy Spicher. But Bill Monroe himself always considered Kenny Baker the greatest he ever employed. Baker, who worked with Monroe in 50's, 60's 70's and 80's, died Friday in Gallatin, Tennessee, not far from Nashville, of a stroke he suffered earlier in the week. He was 85.

Each of Monroe's fiddlers brought a distinctive voice to the Blue Grass Boys. But Baker's smoother "long bow" style, which drew from his admiration of Texas-style breakdown fiddling, western swing, honky tonk and even jazz violin, satisfied Monroe the most, the likely reason he spent more time holding down the Blue Grass Boys' fiddle spot than anyone else.

A native of Jenkins, Kentucky and the son of a fiddler, Baker, who worked as a miner early on, started as a western swing and honky tonk fiddler.  In the 50's he worked with country singer Don Gibson's band, but found he admired 50's Monroe fiddle numbers like "Roanoke." He joined Monroe for the first time in 1957 and was in and out of the band (and music) over the next three decades. Monroe's admiration for Baker's playing was such that he featured Baker on the 1972 album Bill Monroe's Uncle Pen, a collection of the fiddle tunes Monroe learned as a boy from his fiddling uncle, Pendleton Vandiver (immortalized by the Monroe tune "Uncle Pen").

Baker and Monroe had their problems, some due to their mutually volatile personalities, and the fiddler's 1984 departure from the band was acrimonious (as was were the departures of other Blue Grass Boys, including Flatt and Scruggs). Baker reconciled with him at Monroe's annual festival in Bean Blossom, Indiana in 1994. A year later, a stroke ended Monroe's career.
Baker made his own records and in later years, worked with former Flatt and Scruggs Dobroist Josh Graves until Graves died in 2006.  In 1999, in honor of his achievements and musical influence, he was voted into the International Bluegrass Museum's Hall of Honor, the equivalent of induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame.  He largely withdrew from performing in the past few years.  

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