Arguably the world’s greatest fiddler — called the Isaac Stern of country, the Miles Davis of bluegrass — Vassar Clements, 76, who came to wide attention through his stunning appearance on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1972 landmark album Will The Circle Be Unbroken, has been diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer.
A note dated August 8 on his website reads,
- It is with great sadness we must report to you Vassar’s current health situation. Last week, the doctor had ordered an MRI which showed that the cancer had moved into Vassar’s brain. This development was going to be treated with aggressive radiation. After two days of treatment, Vassar has decided to stop any further medical intervention.
Vassar is resting comfortably with family and friends. Hospice has been called in and will be taking care of him once he is out of the hospital. Both Vassar and his family have been so appreciative of your cards, notes, love and support. We can only ask now that you all pray for his peaceful passing devoid of suffering and pain.
…We can only pray that Vassar makes this next transition as gracefully as he played his fiddle. Listen to the mockingbird sing…
Adept as composer and performer on seven instruments — violin, viola, cello, bass, mandolin, guitar and tenor banjo — Clements is best-known for his eclectic, jazz-inflected fiddle work in a career that has spanned fifty years. Clements’ association with bluegrass legend Bill Monroe began when he was only 14 years old and still in school, and he was a Bluegrass Boy from 1949 until 1956. From 1957 to 1961 he performed with bluegrass stalwarts, Jim & Jesse McReynolds. In 1962 he took a break from music, but returned to it when he decided to make Nashville his home in January, 1967.
The South Carolina native did recording sessions, played tenor banjo in Nashville ‘s “Dixieland Landing” club, and toured with Faron Young, doing occasional solo dates on the side. In 1971 he joined John Hartford and his “Dobrolic Plectral Society,” initiating a professional and personal relationship that has endured the years. When the group disbanded after only ten months, the fiddler joined the Earl Scruggs Revue.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will The Circle Be Unbroken, produced by William McEuen, was a popular extravaganza of many of bluegrass, country and folk’s greatest artists including Roy Acuff, Mother Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Merle Travis, Jimmy Martin, and of course Clements, which introduced him to a much broader and younger audience and reinvigorated his career. Within months, Clements was recording or performing with Dicky Betts, Jerry Garcia, The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers, Linda Ronstadt, David Grisman, Paul McCartney, and many others.
In 1973 the classic Old & In The Way bluegrass album was recorded in San Francisco during a live performance with Clements, Garcia, David Grisman, Peter Rowan, and John Kahn in their best Monroe ensemble mode, further raising Clements’ profile and stature.
Since 1973, when he signed his first major label deal with Mercury/Polygram records, Clements has recorded over 30 albums ranging from country and bluegrass, to waltzes, swing and jazz.
He will be missed greatly.