It’s a question a lot of my bluegrass fiddle students ask: if you had to pick just a few albums that I should listen to and study, which ones would you recommend?
I usually recommend a short list of three albums, for starters. It’s a nice, manageable number.
All three albums on this list are fairly traditional, and that’s for a good reason. When you’re just starting out as a bluegrass fiddler, it’s important to learn the basic musical language of the genre. To understand what’s happening in bluegrass now, you need to understand what came before it.
The fiddlers in my top three not only know the language of the genre inside and out, they invented it.
Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe by Kenny Baker
As The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is to pop music, as Elvis’s Sun Sessions are to rock ‘n roll, as Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue is to jazz, so Kenny Baker’s Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe is to bluegrass.
It’s one of those albums that just about every musician in the genre owns a copy of and has played a hole in. Just about every tune on the album has become a bluegrass standard. And it’s one of the most widely emulated bluegrass fiddle albums.
There’s even a freakishly accurate note-for-note transcription of the album, written in the 1970s by an unknown (at least to me) Japanese Kenny Baker fan, that’s been passed hand to hand, like samizdat in the former Soviet Union, by bluegrass fiddlers for decades (and if you’d like a copy, just email me — I’d be happy to send you a PDF).
Last year, banjo player Noam Pikelny of the The Punch Brothers took the study of Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe to a new level with his album Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe, in which he and a crack band of the best in bluegrass play the whole album in its original track order, from start to finish. That album was just nominated for a Grammy. The legend lives on…
Fiddle Patch by Bobby Hicks
Bobby Hicks is best known as the longtime fiddler for Ricky Skaggs’ bluegrass band Kentucky Thunder, but his career started long before that. In the 1950s, Hicks was a member of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys and became an unofficial understudy of the great country swing fiddler Dale Potter, who played on a number of Bill Monroe sides as one of the busiest session players Nashville during that era.
Potters impact on Bobby Hicks can’t be overestimated. The title track to this album, the Dale Potter tune “Fiddle Patch,” is an almost note-for-note performance of Potters recording of the tune with Chet Atkins in the ’50s.
Crossing the Catskills by Vassar Clements
To call Vassar a traditional bluegrass fiddle player is only half right. When Vassar rose to fame playing with John Hartford, Old and in the Way and hundreds of other artists as a session player in the 1970s, he was considered a progressive bluegrass musician.
Like many Nashville session musicians of his generation, he was strongly influenced by jazz. Vassar incorporated the musical language and harmonic palette of jazz into bluegrass in a way that sounded revolutionary at the time.
Now Vassar’s innovations just sound inevitable, like the logical next step in the evolution of the genre. So many other players picked up on what Vassar was doing, that now those sinewey chromatic runs and jazzy sixths sound like straight-up traditional bluegrass.
The performances on Crossing the Catskills have a loose, relaxed feel to them. The stipped-down, understated accompaniment gives Vassar plenty room to roam. And roam he does, through a collection of some his signature tunes (like “Florida Blues” and the title track) as well as some standards (“Bill Cheatem” and “Paddy on the Turnpike”), and even a Beatles tune (“Norwegian Wood”).