Bill Monroe played with some fine fiddlers over the decades – Chubby Wise, Vassar Clements and Bobby Hicks, for starters. But for his 1972 tribute to Pendleton Vandiver, there was only one real choice to play the fiddle tunes that the father of bluegrass learned from his beloved Uncle Pen – Kenny Baker.
Tributes to Kenny after his death last week from complications of a stroke flowed faster than a mountain stream after three days of rain. But the highest compliment was paid years ago by his former boss, who recalled, “There’s never been a better one.”
Being a sideman to Bill Monroe was never easy. The rule, or so it seems from countless players who passed through the Blue Grass Boys, was his way or the highway. That must have been an especially bitter pill to swallow for someone with Kenny’s talents, and he did leave – frequently. It wasn’t always about the domineering boss. Sometimes, Kenny just needed to make money so he returned to the mines or worked his farm. But Kenny couldn’t do without the music. And Bill, in turn, couldn’t be without the talent.
“Kenny Baker was the most identifiable sound in Bill Monroe’s band, other than perhaps Bill Monroe, himself,” says guitarist Jim Hurst, who played twice with Monroe, including once as a 7-year-old who had to stand on a chair to play bass for the master.
His dad was a fiddler, too, but music was not Kenny’s initial career choice. First he worked in the Kentucky coal mines, then served a tour in the Navy. His first lasting gig was with Don Gibson, replacing Marion Sumner in the western swing band.
Then fate played its hand. One night in 1957, when the Blue Grass Boys and Gibson’s band shared a bill, Monroe hired Kenny. They were together, off and on, for 25 years. By the time he left the band — for good — in 1984, Kenny Baker had changed bluegrass fiddling – also for good. His long bow strokes and note choices sometimes had an almost jazzy feel that would be right at home in some of today’s edgier bands. Kenny would chuckle at that comparison. After all, he once defined bluegrass as “nothing but a hillbilly version of jazz.”
While much of the attention after Kenny’s death focused on his ties to the most famous name in bluegrass, he leaves a weighty discography of his own. His 13 albums include Portrait of a Bluegrass Fiddler (1969), Baker’s Dozen (1970), Frost on the Pumpkin (1976) and Spider Bit the Baby (2002).
There were also some terrific collaborations, including Dry and Dusty (1973) with Alan Murphy and Bob Black, and his stint with The Masters, a bluegrass supergroup that also featured Josh Graves, Eddie Adcock and Jesse McReynolds.
But for his most enduring work, turn no further than his most enduring gig. Uncle Pen and Wheel Hoss were recorded by the Blue Grass Boys before Kenny joined the band. But it’s well worth the time to find versions featuring Kenny on the fiddle. His are the definitive versions of two the bands best songs, and many others, too.
Kenny Baker didn’t write the songs, but he wrote the book on bluegrass fiddling. Give him a fresh listen, in the context of the era, and hear an artist far ahead of his time. And the next time hear Patrick McAvinue or some other young fiddle whiz, tip your hat to Kenny Baker, who showed the way.