I’m Going Back To Old Kentucky #207

From October 1, 2010 through to the end of September 2011, we will, each day, celebrate the life of Bill Monroe by sharing information about him and those people who are associated with his life and music career. This information will include births and deaths; recording sessions; single, LP and CD release dates; and other interesting tidbits. Richard F. Thompson is responsible for the research and compilation of this information. We invite readers to share any tidbits, photos or memories you would like us to include.

  • April 25, 1928 Vassar Carlton Clements was born in Kinard, Florida.  *
  • April 25, 1928 Ralph Lewis [guitar] was born in Big Laurel, Madison County, North Carolina.  **
  • April 25, 1962 Recording session – During a day-time session at the Columbia Recording Studio Bill Monroe recorded There Was Nothing We Could Do, I Was Left on the Street and Cheap Love Affair. Frank Buchanan [guitar], Tony Ellis [banjo] and Bessie Lee Mauldin [bass], and Benny Williams and Red Stanley [fiddles] completed the line-up of musicians in the studio. The producer was Owen Bradley ***
  • April 25, 1975 Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys began a seven-date tour of Scotland and England.  ****
  • April 25, 1997 The monument – a 20-foot high obelisk – over Bill Monroe’s grave at Rosine Cemetery was dedicated.   *****
  • April 25, 2001 The now-defunct Bill Monroe Foundation paid a 10% deposit – $112,500 – for the purchase of Bill Monroe’s 1923 Gibson F5 mandolin.  ******

* Vassar Clements first played fiddle with Bill Monroe in the early 1940s while still a teenager.

He became a fully fledged Blue Grass Boy, replacing Chubby Wise, in 1949 and later, after a break from the band, he rejoined in 1955 to provide a twin fiddle set-up with Bobby Hicks. Clements returned for another short stint, playing bass, in 1959 and again, on fiddle, in the early 1960s. Byron Berline replaced him after a last, brief spell in the early months of 1967.

Clements was involved in five recording sessions, including Bill Monroe’s first Decca session on February 3, 1950. Recordings on which he is featured include New Mule Skinner Blues, Memories of You, I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome, The Old Fiddler, Used to Be, Brown County Breakdown, I’m Going back to Old Kentucky and Train 45 (Heading South).

“Vassar is the blues fiddler, you know,” – Bill Monroe.

** Ralph Lewis joined the Blue Grass Boys in July 1974 and stayed with the band until May 1976. During that period he went on tour to Japan and Europe.

Lewis, who plays fiddle and mandolin as well as guitar, would occasionally put down the guitar in concert to play twin fiddle alongside Kenny Baker.

He participated in three recording sessions, all in March 1975. He can be heard singing on the recordings of Show Me the Way, Mary Jane, Won’t You Be Mine? and Thank God For Kentucky, all of which are included on the LP The Weary Traveler (MCA 2173), released on January 5, 1976.

For many years prior to joining Bill Monroe, Lewis and his older brother, Erwin played as a duo, calling themselves the Carolina Pals.

He left the Blue Grass Boys in order to spend more time with his family, which he still does today, playing with his sons, Marty and Don, in the Asheville, North Carolina-based band Sons of Ralph and running the small refrigeration business that he owns.

*** All three recordings are included on the LP Bluegrass Special (Decca DL 4382).

**** The first concert was staged at Greyfriars Monastery, Uddingston, near Glasgow, Scotland. He continued with show dates in England at Redcar, Yorkshire; Newmarket, Suffolk; Liverpool; Birmingham; Eastbourne, Sussex; and Hammersmith, London.

With Bill Monroe were Kenny Baker [fiddle], Ralph Lewis [guitar], Bob Black [banjo] and Randy Davis [bass].

The quintet traveled over to the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany, where Bill Monroe was top of the bill at the Neusudende Country Meeting festival. Recordings from his sets on May 17 have been released on the Bear Family set Far Across The Blue Water: Bill Monroe In Germany (1975 & 1989) (BCD 16624 EK).

***** The obelisk was carved from a single 20 ton block of white granite.

****** The Foundation was only able to pay a further $50,000 and the deal fell through. Consequently, the placement of the instrument was left in limbo for several years.

The mandolin is now on display in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville.

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.