Still unbroken

I recently learned that an old friend who lives in Manhattan now plays mandolin in a bluegrass band.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised: Ignited in no small way by the O Brother/Down from the Mountain odyssey, the mountain-music revival has firmly taken hold in urban areas.

And the ears tuned into the trend are getting younger and younger.

For veteran musicians such as Vassar Clements, the revival couldn’t be timelier. Older bluegrass players, long revered by those in the know, are now resurfacing in the public eye. A venerable sage of the art, Clements is considered one of the world’s finest and most versatile fiddle players.

In 1973, Clements played a San Francisco gig with Jerry Garcia, David Grisman and Peter Rowan, among other famous faces. The resulting album, Old and in the Way, became the best-selling bluegrass recording of all time, and some fans still equate Clements’ name solely with that project.

But the fiddler has long been the master of many sounds, having delved into country, pop, rock, jazz and swing over his long career. And you can add proficiency on viola, cello, bass, mandolin, guitar and tenor banjo to his scroll of accomplishments.

Clements’ career began more than 50 years ago in 1949, when, at age 14, he began playing with Bill Monroe as a regular Bluegrass Boy. Jump to 1972, when Clements recorded “Will the Circle be Unbroken” featuring The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and a spectrum of bluegrass, country and folk musicians. For the first time, this project introduced the glory of Clements’ fiddle to young audiences not necessarily familiar with traditional mountain music. Besides his work on Old and in the Way, the fiddler soon found himself playing and recording music with well-known musicians from The Allman Brothers to Linda Ronstadt to Paul McCartney.

Though unavailable to talk to Xpress because of a bout with bronchitis, Clements has long reported that his natural interest in the popular jazz and swing music of his youth shaped his trademark style.

“Bands like Glen Miller, Les Brown, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James and Artie Shaw were very popular when I was a kid,” he once said. “I always loved rhythm, so I guess in the back of my mind the swing and jazz subconsciously comes out when I play, because when I was learning I was always trying to emulate the Big Band sounds I heard on my fiddle.”

“Hillbilly jazz” is one tag critics have applied to Clements’ magic. But the fiddler’s collaborations with former members of Miles Davis’ band and legendary jazz fiddler Stephane Grappelli were not his first influences in that vein: “I used to sit in with combos in Florida, and I even won dance contests during the Big Band era,” Clements recalls in his bio. “I was playing jazz along with them, but at this time, I had never heard of Grappelli, Joe Venutti or any of those great guys. Neither had I ever heard much Western swing by Bob Wills. Somehow, I think the swing style subconsciously has always come through in almost everything I’ve played.”

On the appropriately titled Full Circle (OMS Records, 2001), Clements revisits his roots with a little help from Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Peter Rowan, John Cowan, J.D. Crowe, Ricky Skaggs and WNC’s own Bryan Sutton, among a host of others.

Though it will surely be filed under Bluegrass, Full Circle maintains Clements’ signature eclecticism, including rock classics such as “White Room” by Cream and the Beatles’ “Yesterday.”

In Asheville, Clements will perform with famed newgrass flatpicker Tony Rice and The Larry Keel Experience. The latter act, wildly popular on the festival circuit, showcases the talents of its namesake front man, another standout guitarist.

Clements, Rice and Keel inhabit that exciting space where old meets new. These three musicians, from three distinct generations, come together in a love of experimentation — and the resulting harmony is something any listener can relate to.

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