Kenny Baker, longtime fiddler for Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, died of a stroke last week in Tennessee at the age of 85.
Kenny’s passing didn’t make headline news [although the “newspaper of record” did finally publish an obituary: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/02/arts/music/kenny-baker-bluegrass-fiddler-dies-at-85.html?_r=1&ref=obituaries] , and unless you were reading a bluegrass blog or heard it through the bluegrass grapevine, you might not have known about Kenny’s passing at all.
But for fans of traditional bluegrass, and particularly for bluegrass fiddlers, Baker’s contribution to the sound and musical vocabulary of the genre was in a league with the brand-name band leaders who get most of the credit.
His smooth “long-bow” style of fiddling is as essential to the classic bluegrass sound as Earl Scruggs’ three-finger banjo style, Bill Monroe’s “high lonesome” tenor and Lester Flatt’s guitar “G-run.”
When I teach beginning bluegrass fiddlers, I assign two albums as required listening — I refer to these as the Old and New Testament. The Old Testament is Kenny Baker’s “Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe” and the New Testament is Bobby Hicks’ “Fiddle Patch.”
But if you were learning to play bluegrass fiddle and had to pick just one album to learn from, “Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe” would be your best bet. On this album, Kenny takes the Scots-Irish and blues influences that are the heart and soul of bluegrass and adds a touch of western swing…and nothing else. There was nothing extra in Kenny Baker’s playing, no hokum, flash or filigree.
More than anything else, I think Kenny Baker’s restraint, that elemental quality in his playing, helped sell the notion that bluegrass was an ancient music, worn smooth over the ages like a river rock. And of course that wasn’t the case.
Bluegrass was built from parts in the mid-twentieth century, drawing on a range of musical influences, from blues to ragtime to country to Scots-Irish old-time fiddling. It’s only about as old as be-bop.
I got a chance to meet Kenny Baker when I was playing the Mountain Top Bluegrass Festival in Tarentum, PA, with the James King Band. Breakfast for the performers was being served up in a cabin on the festival grounds and I found myself sitting at table eating biscuits and gravy with Eddie Adcock, James King and Kenny Baker. To a bluegrass-obsessed Midwesterner, it seemed a bit like having breakfast with Mount Rushmore.
Onstage, Kenny Baker was a gruff, imposing figure, but when I finally got a chance (and the courage) to talk to him, I found him to be gracious and kind. He took the time to answer all of my questions, all of which I’m sure he’d been asked thousands of times before.
I was especially curious to know more about Bluegrass in the Backwoods, one of Kenny’s most beautiful and mysterious tunes. Bluegrass in the Backwoods draws on so many different influences, the challenge in playing the tune, at least for a bluegrass fiddler, is to make it sound like bluegrass. In this tune, I hear shades of gypsy jazz, classical music, even Russian or Ukrainian music.
So I asked him about Bluegrass in the Backwoods, where it came from, what inspired it. At first he misunderstood me and shot back, a little gruffly, “I wrote it.” After I made myself a little clearer, he thought for a moment, shrugged, told me a story about another tune he wrote and promptly changed the subject.
And maybe the point was, sometimes the inspiration for a tune just comes out of the blue. Who knows where it comes from, really?
But wherever it came from, when Kenny Baker played it, he made it sound like it had always been there.