Word came today from Nashville that Kenny Baker, one of the fiddlers who defined the bluegrass sound through his long tenure as a Blue Grass Boy with Bill Monroe, has died. Baker was 85 years old, and by all accounts led a full life. He had suffered a stroke earlier this week.
I didn't know Kenny Baker, never got to hear him play live. I did have a brief telephone interview with him in 2002 as he was promoting what I believe was his final album "Spider Bit the Baby." Bluegrass Now had assigned the album to me for review and I thought I would take the opportunity to speak to a living legend so I arranged a phoner with Baker.
Turns out, BN didn't use my review, and looking back I don't blame them- it was an odd piece of writing; I was trying to do something a little different.
I unearthed the review this afternoon on backup disc and thought I would share with you today what I wrote about Kenny Baker- and what he shared with me-in August 2002. I recall that conversation fondly and am saddened today to hear of his passing.
Kenny Baker- "Spider Bit The Baby!" (OMS Records-OMS-25110) 40:11
Kenny Baker is a bluegrass fiddling legend. His standing as a recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship (1993) and a member of the International Bluegrass Association Hall of Honor, having served the longest tenure of Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys, and recording innumerable solo albums and making session appearances attest to his legacy.
What may be less well known is the vibrancy, passion, and energy he brings to his current project, "Spider Bit The Baby!" With the twin fiddle kick off of the title track, one is taken back to a time when bluegrass was New Country.
Baker is a man who respects the genre he helped define and is sensitive to the parameters of the sound. His light swing approach is proof that 'traditional' bluegrass has always incorporated less conventional elements and approaches. Delicate mandolin from Aubrey Haynie provides additional spark to the recording, especially the title tune and Springtime," the Sonny Osborne number.
One could ramble at length about tunings, "instrumental interplay," and "freshness brought to familiar gems," but that would be extraneous. Mr. Baker says it so much more effectively than I ever could:
On Blaine Sprouse, fiddler on several cuts: "I don't need to rehearse with Blaine. He can look at me and know that I'm going to throw something at him. He is a real good player. I've known him since he was a boy. Is it fun to play fiddle? Depends. You got good horses to ride, crickey it's good; you got loafers, it ain't no fun. Blaine is good."
On waltzes: "I like waltzes. I enjoy playing a nice melody. I can feel them."
On song selection: "I picked tunes I wanted to redo. I wanted to do these old numbers I recorded years back; I don't know if I've done them better- that's hard for me to say. A lot of these numbers I recorded with Bill. That Mississippi Waltz is one of his so is Lonesome Moonlight Waltz, Ashland Breakdown. I played with Bill longer than anyone. He always treated me fine. Didn't owe me a penny. But, I had to stand up for myself at the end (1984) and quit before a tour in Japan. I recorded with him after that though. It was fine- a long time ago. You forgive that stuff."
On Hugh Moore, album co-producer and banjo player: "I felt his style would suit my playing better than some others. A lot of banjo players want to play too hot; I want to swing and they want to jump it. I want to play with someone who'll play the way I want."
On working: "I was a coal miner for many years. It wasn't too bad. Gave you something to do and they paid alright. I figured, 'Get too lazy to work, get your fiddle out.' That's what I did."
On Aubrey Haynie: "I met him when he was just six or seven years old or so. He is a real fine musician, a great guy- very well mannered. He is real nice to play with."
On reviews: "Now, don't you say nothing bad about this 'un!"
Mr. Baker, I wouldn't dream of it! "Spider Bit The Baby!" is a bluegrass album of significant merit.
I'm listening to "Spider Bit the Baby" today as I type- Hanyie was just in the middle of an extended break on High Country before Baker swooped in for an extended lead- and the album sounds as exciting today as it did when I last listened to it, probably back in 2002.
"Spider Bit the Baby!" and several other Baker albums- including his classic "Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe" album- are available online and as digital downloads.
Another bluegrass legend lost.
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