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Remembering Kenny Baker at Grey Fox

28 July 2011

The great fiddler Kenny Baker died on July 8th. Exactly one week later, the ad hoc Kenny Baker Memorial Orchestra assembled on the main stage at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival to “play homage” to this titan of American musican. The “orchestra” was the brainchild of Matt Glaser, himself a renowned fiddler and a guiding light of the American Roots Music Program at Berklee College of Music.

Since the Grey Fox program was already in place long before Baker passed, there wasn’t a block of time available for a full-blown tribute. Glaser and company therefore had to make the most of a brief interlude on Friday afternoon between sets by Michael Cleveland and Tim O’Brien.

The assembled multitude managed to pack four tunes into ten minutes. In my view, the heart of the medley was the second tune, “Cross-eyed Fiddler,” a Baker original, appropriately enough. Have a look and a listen…

Now, without clicking “replay,” how many of the performers can you name? If you’re from New England, chances are you recognize a face or two, as many are based in the region. With the likes of Baker and Hazel Dickens leaving the stage, and with players like O’Brien, Cleveland and Glaser well established in their careers, it’s time for a new generation of players to make their marks. Most of the performers in the “orchestra” are in their twenties; many are in highly regarded bands such as The Deadly Gentlemen, Della Mae or the Red Stick Ramblers. For those of you who haven’t updated your Who’s Who in Bluegrass lately, I’m providing, free of charge, the following video guide. This clip shows the entire Baker tribute medley, with the bonus feature that all players are identified. See how many pickers you can I.D. before their names show up on screen. Extra points if you can pick out the musician who is also an MD specializing in Emergency Medicine.

Only a stone could resist being moved by that last image of the players filing out to “The Dead March,” finally leaving just Cleveland on stage, like a solitary candle. Wish I could tell you more about “The Dead March.” It’s a late Monroe composition, a tune Glaser said that the Father of Bluegrass “remembered,” but I haven’t been able to dig up much beyond that. I suspect that as many people know the tune from a celebrated television performance by the meteoric supergroup Muleskinner as from any of Monroe’s recordings.

“The Dead March” is a keeper, but in the end, it’s “Cross-Eyed Fiddler” that really sticks with me. This seems a hugely underappreciated fiddle tune. It’s not an old composition and it’s under copyright, but those conditions haven’t kept other tunes (“Rebecca,” “Ashokan Farewell,” “Josephine’s Waltz”) from entering the fiddling canon. Perhaps it’s the title that holds it back— “Cross-Eyed Fiddler” doesn’t seem to fit its jaunty tone.

In any event, I love how the players at Grey Fox really get into the swing of the tune. You can see them all, little by little, put their bodies into it, swaying and bouncing to the melody. One of the things that made Baker a great musician— perhaps the thing— was that there was at once a looseness and formality to both his playing and his compositions. If you’ve ever seen a photograph or a video of Baker, there’s a kind of severity to the way he carried himself. He had this ramrod-straight posture, and no one— not even Bill Monroe— looked meaner in a perfectly blocked cowboy hat. His playing had a definite precision, too, but look closer and you can see how relaxed his technique remained, even when playing at speed. Like so many master musicians, he made it look easy.

Many people feel that to say that he “co-wrote” the classic tune “Jerusalem Ridge” with Monroe is to give Baker too little credit. Whatever the case, if you compare how he plays the tune to the whole host of subsequent renditions, what stands out is how spare and clean his version is. Every motion of the bow is like a punctuation mark. At the same time, however, was there ever a more baroque and passionate fiddle tune than this? There it is: the marriage of contradictions so often found in great art. For the philosophers following along at home, you could say that while there was much that was Apollonian in Baker’s demeanor and bearing, a Dionysian side always came out in his music. Whatever wonders future generations of musicians have to offer us, we will miss Kenny Baker.

A Word or Two More On Grey Fox

The biggest no-show at Grey Fox this year was not Peter Rowan, who managed to make it, albeit a little later than expected. No, the big no-show was the colossal, end-of-time rain storm that shows up like clockwork— except when it doesn’t. Even the storm’s usual sidekick, Insufferable Heat, barely stopped by. This, combined with the usual strong line-up and the off-the-hook campsite jams, made for a glorious festival. But don’t take my word for it: in a bid to put me out of business, Grey Fox has really ramped up its online media. Check out the festival blog for boatloads of videos. I’m particularly impressed by— and partial to— the several videos that capture the campsite jams. As we all know, some of the best playing goes on in these informal gatherings, and the experience is even more ephemeral than a live concert. After all, Del McCoury and his boys will play together another day, but most jams are fleeting hook-ups, so to speak. Those of us who care about this stuff need to do a better job of documenting these magical moments. Hats off to the media crew at Grey Fox for its progress on that front.

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S. The Emergency Medicine specialist is Kalev Freeman, one of the fiddlers lurking in the rear on the right side of the stage.

P.P.S. Thanks to Nick DiSebastian, Ben Pearce, Fred Robbins, Mary Burdette and Matt Glaser for their scholarly assistance.

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