We received news from the USA this week of the passing of legendary fiddle player Kenny Baker.
Kenny Baker, born in Jenkins Kentucky in June 1926, was considered to be one of the most influential fiddlers in bluegrass music. In fact, he served more years in Bill Monroe’s band than any other musician. Kenny Baker’s long-bowing style, added a smoothness and clarity to his fiddle playing and he was chosen by Monroe to record the many fiddle tunes passed down from Monroe’s uncle, Pen Vandiver.
Both his father and grandfather were fiddlers, and by eight years of age, Kenny himself had picked up the fiddle. After a stint in the navy, Baker returned to Kentucky, where he worked in the coal mines and played fiddle and some guitar at local dances. By 1953, country singer Don Gibson recruited Kenny to play with his band at radio station WNOX in Knoxville, Tennessee. It was during this time that Kenny Baker built on his style, and was influenced by the smoother jazz-violin style of Stephane Grappelli. Kenny also began to develop his long-bowing style of playing, which blended and elongated notes much more than the traditional chop of bluegrass fiddle. Of his own fiddle style, Baker would later comment that bluegrass is nothing but a hillbilly version of jazz music.
Doc Hamilton from the USA has published a group of photos of Kenny Baker here on his Photo Gallery.
Vale the greatest fiddler of them all! Baker’s fiddle had a singing tone that had no equal. A true stylist (he remade Monroe’s repertoire into his own), a prolific composer (Bluegrass in the Backwoods, Windy City, First Day in Town and so many other classics) and a keeper of the old time flame (he knew hundreds of tunes); Baker was the definitive bluegrass fiddler.
I had the pleasure of spending time with him at a festival in 2003 and he was everything of the legend: a little bit grumpy, yet at the same time charming and self-effacing. He was vitally interested in music and fiddling and delighted to talk about it. The greatest compliment I have ever received in my 35 years of playing the fiddle was him standing behind me and nodding sagely as I played ‘Dusty Miller’ while jamming in the fields. While watching his show (with Josh Graves), I could tell his best years were behind him, but when he absolutely ripped into the intro to ‘Road to Columbus’ it was pure Baker magic.
Most Australians might not know that he visited here during World War 2. He fondly remembered Brisbane, while en route to New Guinea. It was there that his fiddling career really got started when he was asked to play for a square dance for the forces.
I will remember him fondly as I continue a lifelong quest to play the double stop passages in ‘Grassy Fiddle Blues’. As he would say ‘Here’s one of my highly favourites..’
Hear hear. I think Kenny Baker is my all time favourite fiddler. I can recall slowing down the tape recorder trying to adapt his terrific playing on Jerusalem Ridge to guitar….definitely one of my highly favourites as well.