This tender recollection of fiddle great Kenny Baker is a contribution from Blaine Sprouse, himself a noted fiddler with wide experience in the bluegrass world.
When I was about eight years old, I had been playing guitar for a couple of years, and was even sitting in at dances, playing at the Moose Lodge, the VFW Club and the American Legion in Martinsburg, West Virginia. It was about this time that I heard Kenny Baker play fiddle with Bill Monroe at a show in Salem, Virginia, at Lakeside Amusement Park. From the moment I heard the sweet huge, round dark warm tone that Kenny made whenever he played, I was bitten; no more guitar for this kid, it was going to be the fiddle, make it sound like Kenny, or not play at all!
So you see, as with several other fiddlers I know, J.B. Prince, Jimmy Campbell (may he rest in peace), Ward Brian Stout, Aubrey Haynie, Jimmy Mattingly, and Mike Hargrove to name a few, it was hearing Kenny Baker that changed our lives; no hyperbole, it literally changed my life. It was because I heard him play that I am where I am, that I was able to make a good living playing my fiddle, tour the world, get paid to do something I so love!
When I first moved to Nashville, Tennessee, I was very poor, no joke! I lived with Jimmy Martin, as I was a Sunny Mountain Boy first as a professional musician. I lived with Jimmy at his home in Hermitage, Tennessee, and made $50/day in wages, no matter whether we were out on the road for two weeks, if we only played 4 days, I received $200.00. Most months we only played 4-5 days, many winter months, only one or two.
So, it was during this time that I first started going out to Kenny Baker’s farm, to visit with him, and hang-out. I was 17 years old, and I was enthralled to be near my fiddle hero. I had first actually met Kenny at the Indian Springs Bluegrass Festival in Indian Springs, Maryland, about 1972 or so. He asked if I had my fiddle with me, and I did. Kenny asked me to go get it and play him a fiddle tune, and I did; Indian Killed a Woodcock was the tune, and I was so nervous I almost forgot the tune midway through it! He then took my fiddle and played the tune for me. He was very complimentary and said, “you’re doin’ great, kid, hang in there. Look me up when you get to Nashville.” And I did!
Kenny treated me like a son, he would find things to do on his farm, and we would work two to three days a week from about 8:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m., building/fixing fences, castrating pigs, mowing the pasture, herding cattle, whatever he wanted to do. Of course, we never hurt ourselves, and a good cold Stroths beer was almost always in hand. =)
It was such a wonderful time in my life, though I was poor monetarily, I was so rich in my life, being near the inspiration for my even playing fiddle. We’d have lunch around 11:30 and then go back out around 1:00 p.m. And at the end of the work day, Kenny would fix dinner, many times he’d make the best cornbread you have ever tasted! I still use his recipe for that. Then after dinner, we would take out our fiddles and play, and play, and play!
It was more than I could have ever have dreamt, and guess what? Kenny would actually PAY ME $20 a day for this! He knew how difficult it was financially for me, as he had struggled too for so many years. I would have gladly given him a million dollars a day for these moments, but HE PAID ME! Can you believe that? No, it is unbelievable, I know.
No one seems to know or at least to acknowledge the person Kenny was, how compassionate, generous to a fault, witty, intelligent, full of great wisdom, never hurting anyone if he could avoid it, he was always ready with the perfect one-liner. His great fiddling has overshadowed his wonderful character and his true greatness as a man.
In the years that followed, I was fortunate to work with James Monroe while Kenny was Bill Monroe’s fiddler. We traveled many miles together on the old Bluegrass Breakdown, the nickname given Bill’s old bus by the Blue Grass Boys, and aptly named! James and our band, the Midnight Ramblers, would ride the Bluegrass Breakdown to most festivals, as Bill and James worked almost all off the same festivals during that period of time, many of them were Monroe sponsored bluegrass festivals.
Kenny and I would play twin fiddle on the bus, at jam sessions at the festivals and on stage with Bill Monroe many times, even on the Grand Ole Opry. The Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival in Bean Blossom, Indiana, was a real gem. I remember for years and years Kenny and I would fiddle until daylight there at Ma and Pa Ward’s camp and their daughter, Linda “Lightnin'” Ward, played exceptional guitar, as did our dear friend from Lauderdale, Mississippi, Raymond Huffmaster. Kenny and I lived for these occasions!
So many great festival memories, Chatem, Alabama, and Jemison, Alabama, and the camp of our dear, dear friends, Erbie and Gertie Pearl Moore, all night jams there as well, year after year.
And of course we recorded many times together; he was always so encouraging to me, “you can cut it, kid, you got it!” He and I recorded for one of the first times on the Osborne Brothers’ Bluegrass Collection double LP set for CMH Records, and I was nervous beyond words, no idea of what the songs would be, what key, what arrangements. But Kenny was steadfast in the belief that I could do it, and I did. And I am so proud of the fiddling on that record. To this day, this record is a true classic and stands the test of time, in my humble opinion!
Of course, I was so thrilled to record on Bill Monroe’s Body and Soul record for MCA Records with Kenny, it was another dream come true. And the many times Kenny and I would record on his records for County Sales were gems I will never forget; thank goodness the tunes like Music City Waltz and Lisa Waltz are there for posterity, and for me to listen to and relive the memories of what fun times we had while recording them!
So it is with much sadness that I must say so long to my dearest friend in the world. I am thankful he lived such a grand, large life, and had so much happiness, in his playing and composing fiddle tunes, taking his music around the world. Kenny has left quite a legacy, unmatched in my opinion. He has written and recorded close to 300 fiddle tunes, and he interpreted Bill Monroe’s tunes as only Kenny could; Jerusalem Ridge would have never been the tune we know and love so much were it not for Kenny Baker’s interpretation of it. And this is true of so many of the Bill Monroe tunes Kenny played while he was with Bill.
He truly was like a second dad to me, and I am so glad to have been blessed with his friendship.