Sunday, June 2, 2019


(It's extraordinary the things you discover in this job, one being the difference a space between 2 words can make. And the similarity. 'Dead Grass' is the name of an album by the late great fidler extraordinaire Vassar Clements, of whose music I have been a fan since I was 15. 'Deadgrass' is the name of a band who peddle the self same concept as did that album, albeit as a current working live band. And whose bio seems resolutely to avoid any reference to the earlier. Funny that.)

So, 'Dead Grass', then? More or less as it says on the tin, the music of the Grateful Dead through a bluegrass filter. Arguably not as great a leap as it sounds, Garcia's pre-Dead background in jugbands and his lifelong love of and sidetracking into banjo based acoustic hillbilly music being well known. I have racks of this stuff from Old and in the Way, through myriad duet sets with David Grisman, a celebrated mandolin player, also a member of OaitW. Vassar Clements, himself no stranger to Garcia and the band, having played on 'In the Wake of the Flood' and been also a 3rd member of OaitW, was, or certainly looked, much older school than his cohorts, and had an interesting life.

Born in 1928 and self-taught on the fiddle, he soon came to the attention of Bill Monroe, joining his Bluegrass Boys, barely as he turned 20. After a few years live experience he was ready for greater recognition, spending time with many of the bluegrass giants, including playing, alongside Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs on this masterpiece. However, the middle of the 60s saw him fall prey to the bottle, and it seemed it had fully let him down, he scraping by in dead-end jobs.

Newly sober and developing a new name for himself, in sessions, he was fortunate enough to find himself swept up into the commotion of a groundbreaking moment in american music, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's 'Will the Circle Be Unbroken', in 1972.

This fabulous collaborative piece of work was the idea of the Dirt Band and their then manager, to team up their no mean talents with those of the generation behind them, putting a bunch of longhaired hippies into the room with a bunch of distrustful short-back-and-sides elder statesmen, like Roy Acuff, Jimmie Martin and the aforementioned Scruggs. Astonishingly it gelled, the recorded between song dialogue reflecting the initial suspicions. Clements featured heavily, arguably, alongside Doc Watson, the blind guitar-picking maestro, coming off the best of an impressive roster. From there, his second wind was off, Grateful Dead sessions, work with an immediately post Allman's Dickey Betts and a solo career.  As mentioned earlier, he joined up with Jerry Garcia, Dave Grisman, bass player John Kahn and another ex-Bluegrass Boy, Peter Rowan, on guitar, to form Old and in the Way. With Garcia on banjo, they had a modus operandi of playing both traditional songs and grassed up covers of contemporary songs. Whilst no Dead songs made it on to any of their records, I would think it strange if they didn't sneak the odd one into their live sets, no doubt fuelling the idea for 'Dead Grass', which appeared in 2000, arguably helped along by the 'Pickin' On' series. For me, 'Dead Grass' has the greater whiff of authenticity, Clements being a tangible link to the band, the songs remaining songs, proper songs with vocals, rather than the slight sterility of meticulously rehearsed instrumentals.

In the intervening years Clements had remained busy, taking forward his concept of Hillbilly Jazz, a freewheeling amalgam of blue grass, western swing, jazz and old-times standards. The similarly entitled 1975 album is a thing of some wonder. Seldom ever can Bob Wills and Benny Goodman have sat alongside each other in the song credits. Very much Clement's project, backing musicians included David Bromberg and longtime Elvis drummer, D.J. Fontana. I remember reading about this record a year or two after 'Will The Circle', never ever seeming to be able to find a copy. I finally remedied that about 15 years ago, about the time Amazon were becoming a player, and from whom you could get anything. A joy better late than never.

There were a few more similar recordings, but the ever itchy fingered Clements kept stretching his boundaries, including a fascinating duet live recording with Stephane Grappelli, their styles seemingly poles apart, the Hot Club de Paris translated to a log cabin in the Appalachians. It shouldn't, but it works, believe me. Towards the end of his life; he died in 2005, he was exploring the blues, his final recording being 'Livin' With the Blues', another belter, alongside the likes of Elvin Bishop, Maria Muldaur and likeminded genre-defining harmonica man, Norton Buffalo.

I love fiddle music and how it can touch any style. If my top three exponents include Sugar Cane Harris and Dave Swarbrick, Clements is surely the king.

Oo, before I forget, final word, Deadgrass.


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