DIARY - 21 AUGUST 2005 - VASSAR CLEMENTS OBITUARY
CLEMENTS RIP AT 77
APRIL 25, 1928 - KINARD, SOUTH CAROLINA
DIED AUGUST 16, 2005 - NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE
FIDDLER TO THE STARS BURNS OUT
Clements & David Grisman
veteran fiddler and some time actor Vassar Clements has died at 77 after
a spirited battle with lung cancer.
Clements was hospitalised for 18 days earlier this year, receiving chemotherapy
and other treatment.
He was admitted to Summit Hospital on August 4, and tests revealed that
small-cell lung cancer had spread to his brain and liver.
He was discharged on August 10 after he refused further treatment.
Since March 10, he had endured five rounds of chemotherapy.
"He had no quality of life since he'd been diagnosed," said
daughter Midge Cranor.
Dying at home was Vassar's last wish when he refused additional treatment
"I was holding Papa's hand and talking to him when his heart stopped,"
said Midge, who has handled her dad's business and personal affairs since
her mother, Millie, died July 12, 1998 - also the victim of cancer.
Vassar moved in with Midge and her husband, George Cranor, in Goodlettsville
2½ years ago.
"I was alone with him in the room," Midge said. "I had
been washing his hands and his face.
He'd been doing a little laboured breathing. And I said 'Papa, you know
you've fought a battle. God knows best. He has a plan. He's going to take
you from us. It's OK. Mom's been waiting for you for seven years to come
and lay beside her. You go on and go.'
"It was just a matter of seconds. I felt of the jugular vein, I felt
of his pulse and laid my head on his chest. His heart had already stopped.
I looked at the clock. And it was 7:20."
The gentleman fiddler, who worked with everyone from Jimmy Martin to the
Grateful Dead, had a typically humble response when asked how he wanted
to be remembered.
He told his daughter: "I just want to be remembered."
Rhodes Scholar and singing actor Kris Kristofferson, touring Australia
and one of many artists to enjoy Vassar's fiddling on record and stage,
said "He was the nicest person I ever met in the music business."
last performance was February 4 in Jamestown, New York, Cranor said.
His work bridged a variety of styles, including country, jazz, bluegrass,
rock 'n' roll and classical.
Clements made more than 30 albums in a colourful career he described
as Cowboy Jazz.
He recorded on more than 2,000 albums, joining artists diverse as
McCartney, Johnny Cash, Bonnie Raitt, the Grateful Dead, Bruce Hornsby,
Hank Williams Jr, The Byrds, Woody Herman, The Band, John Prine and
the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
in Robert Altman's controversial 1975 movie Nashville and won a Grammy
earlier this year.
It was for
best country instrumental performance on Earl's Breakdown, by the Nitty
Gritty Dirt Band featuring Clements, Earl Scruggs, Randy Scruggs and Jerry
Clements 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' work ethic mixed well on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band Will The
Circle Be Unbroken sessions with legends such as Roy Acuff and Mother
And his penchant for experimentation melded well with the Dirt Band, a
group he later joined for a tour of Japan.
"He loved it over there, and they loved him," said Nitty Gritty
Dirt Band member Jeff Hanna.
"When we went onstage in Japan, there were people holding up 'Vassar
SOUTH CAROLINA TO MUSIC CITY
grew up in Kissimmee, Florida, and taught himself to play at the age
of 7 and had no formal training.
The first song he learned was There's an Old Spinning Wheel in the
Clements was employed at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida for a
year in the mid-1960s, working on plumbing.
He also worked in a Georgia paper mill, was a switchman for Atlantic
Coast Railroad, sold insurance and had a potato chip franchise.
was always part of his life.
"It was God's gift, something born in me," Clements modestly
explained of 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."
"When the rhythm is good, I can play it," he told The Associated
Press in a 1988 interview.
He was just 14 when began an association with Bill Monroe.
He officially joined Monroe's band, the Blue Grass Boys, in 1949, remaining
there for seven years.
In 1957, he began working with legendary bluegrass act, Jim & Jesse
But in 1962 he took a long hiatus from the music industry but returned
in 1967 as a Nashville session musician.
"I'd always play. Square dances, anything," he said
with Faron Young and performing solo dates, he joined John Hartford's
ensemble, the Dobrolic Plectral Society, in 1971.
He worked with guitarist Norman Blake and Dobro player Tut Taylor.
They recorded Aereo Plain, an influential album considered to be
the first Newgrass album.
The band existed for less than a year, but Clements soon found work with
bluegrass icon Earl Scruggs, who was pushing musical boundaries with his
sons in the Earl Scruggs Revue.
Clements gained an even wider audience after participating in the recording
sessions for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's 1972 album, Will the Circle
The exposure led to work on Grateful Dead's Wake of the Flood and
Jimmy Buffett's A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean.
Clements teamed with Grateful Dead leader Jerry Garcia on banjo for Old
& in the Way - a bluegrass album that also featured guitarist
Peter Rowan, mandolinist David Grisman and bassist John Kahn.
The 1975 album, Hillbilly Jazz, featured Clements playing Western swing
and jazz standards with a group featuring guitarist David Bromberg, steel
guitarist Doug Jernigan, former Elvis Presley drummer D.J. Fontana and
a solo recording artist, Clements recorded albums released on several
labels, including Mercury, MCA and Rounder.
His most recent project, 2004's Livin' With the Blues, included
guest appearances by Elvin Bishop, Norton Buffalo, Maria Muldaur and
The first time Marty Stuart heard Clements playing on a recording
he was stunned.
"It was the most lonesome, scary sound coming out of a fiddle
I'd ever heard,' Marty said.
the mandolin, and once I heard this music, I ditched everything I ever
knew and went back and tried to play mandolin like Vassar played fiddle.
Years later, I played the Opry, and I saw this man playing fiddle. He
stood straight, with his eyes closed and he was playing the prettiest
music you could ever imagine. It froze me on the spot. This man is probably
my favourite fiddle player on earth."
The eulogies came from far and wide.
"He was one of the greatest, most creative fiddlers in country and
bluegrass music history," said Mark O'Connor, a virtuoso fiddler
who counted Mr. Clements among his musical heroes.
Clements was recognised for his remarkable improvisational and interpretive
skills, his early work as a bluegrass fiddle player was quite influential.
"There was such a feeling of authority in his bluegrass playing,"
said Nashville radio station WSM-AM 650 air personality and country music
historian Eddie Stubbs.
"His tone was so rich and powerful."
In 1980, Playboy playmate Martha Elizabeth Thomsen named Mr. Clements
as one of her favourite performers, along with Mick Jagger, Blondie and
survived by his daughters, Midge Cranor of Goodlettsville, Terry Mason
of Tallahassee, Florida, Renee Clements of Thomasville, Georgia, and Terri
Swain of Fairview, Tennessee, a son, George Wilkerson of Florida; a sister,
Janice Hendershot of Claremont, North Carolina; and a cousin he considered
as a brother, Carroll Clements of Jacksonville, Florida.
Funeral details were incomplete for this obituary.
Bond Funeral Home in Mt. Juliet is handling arrangements.
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