Kenneth Clayton ‘Kenny’ Baker remembrances

Kenny Baker: June 26, 1926 – July 8, 2011

As previously reported, Kenny Baker passed away recently at the Sumner Regional Medical Center in Gallatin, Tennessee, due to complications from a stroke.

Subsequently, colleague David Morris looked at Baker’s long tenure with Bill Monroe and the profound influence that Baker had on bluegrass fiddle since drawing his first bow for Monroe in 1957.

Baker was not only a superb, original bluegrass fiddler who influenced a generation of followers; see  the host of recordings that he did with Bill Monroe and his many albums recorded for County Records, recorded from 1968 onwards, he was a flatpick guitar player of considerable merit as his recordings with Josh Graves for Puritan Records attest.

He was a finger picker also, playing in a four-finger style (in open G tuning).

However, it is as a smooth, long-bow style fiddle player that Baker is known best. He cut not far off 300 numbers while with Monroe and many more with Blaine Sprouse, Bobby Hicks, Howdy Forrester, Billy Baker and Joe Greene, and, as a session player with  Jimmy Martin, Bill Clifton and Mac Wiseman, among others.

He composed Baker’s Breakdown, Big Sandy River, Farmyard Swing, Frost On The Pumpkin, High Country and Windy City Rag, to mention just a small sample for which he is credited.

In his liner notes to Kenny Baker plays Bill Monroe  (County Records 761, released in 1976), Doug Green describes Baker thus:

“Ornery and irascible, cheerful and charming, demanding musically yet frequently found jamming all night with sleepy, mediocre musicians, stubborn and bull-headed, witty and warm, Kenny Baker, like bluegrass music itself, is complex, contradictory, and deep.”

Baker’s fiddle playing had so much soul; he felt his music through his hands, and his feet!

A few notables in the bluegrass music business have shared their remembrances of Kenny Baker with us.

Blake Williams, who, for many years while a Blue Grass Boy, stood next to Kenny Baker, remembers ….

“I was at a festival in Jackson, KY in 1974 and heard Kenny Baker play Footprints in The Snow and the hair stood up on the back of my neck. I am so thankful to have played and recorded with this masterful musician. His long bow and double-stop sound was truly unique. A great talent!”

Richard Greene, a Blue Grass Boy during the 1960s, invokes the a-picture-paints-a-thousand-words maxim, citing this video of a performance of I’m On My Way Back To The Old Home

“This says it all! He invented the key of Bb and this example is quintessential bluegrass fiddling. What a master!!

Ron Stewart, one of the greatest living bluegrass fiddle players, notes …..

“It saddened me greatly when I heard of Kenny’s passing. He was a friend, and one of the greatest fiddlers of all time. I first met Kenny when I was just a child, growing up near Bean Blossom, and Kenny always took the time to talk with me and fiddle with me. I remember being a guest with Bill Monroe several times, starting at nine years old, and Kenny was always a gentleman and was very supportive of me. I’ve never forgotten that, and never will.

I got the chance to fiddle again on stage with Kenny a few years ago at the JD Crowe festival in Willmore, KY, and we twinned several tunes, one of which was Molly and Tenbrooks (on which Kenny took the definitive break on the Live at Bean Blossom album recorded in 1979). Kenny Baker brought a unique style of fiddling to Bill Monroe’s music and the fiddle in general, and we all owe him and his memory a great debt for the contributions he made, at least I know I do.

I will miss him, and his playing, but I treasure the memories I have of pulling in the gate at Bean Blossom and hearing that fiddle and the man behind it, UNMISTAKABLE tone, taste, and smooooth as silk!”

David S. Crow, a fiddle player for the Osborne Brothers for many years and former president and board chair of the International Bluegrass Music Association, is now a lawyer in Nashville, Tennessee ……

“Kenny Baker was an amazing fiddle player, but I want to speak to his role as a mentor to generations of young fiddle players.

I first got to meet Kenny when I was about 10 years old. I had attended the Augusta Heritage Center’s Bluegrass Week at Davis and Elkins College in Elkins, WV. Kenny was the fiddle teacher for the week.

After a great week of classes and concerts, I was ready to take the plunge into all of Baker’s recordings. After the big Thursday night concert, I went to the record table with my entire life’s savings intent on buying one of every record on the table. Baker intently stacked all the albums together (which I believe at that time was 12 plus an album Flying South that he recorded with Josh Graves) and he handed them to me. I then calculated the payment due and slid a large wad of one dollar bills across the table (freshly removed from my piggy bank). Baker just smiled and slid all of the money back across the table and said ‘just send me a record of yours when you make one.’

No young fiddle player has ever treasured his collection of Kenny Baker records more than I, and few have played them more frequently.”

Matt Glaser, a one-time member of Fiddle Fever, helped to launch the String Department at the prestigious Berklee College of Music. He is now their Artistic Director for the American Roots Music Program ….

“What an amazing player and tunesmith he was…the Mozart of bluegrass fiddle…..I remember buying Portrait Of A Bluegrass Fiddler on vinyl when I was a kid….Kenny looked so tough and cool on the cover……the tunes were so great…as many people have said, he made Bill Monroe’s music comprehensible for regular people! we will be playing his tunes at grey fox this Friday with a large orchestra….r.i.p. Kenny!”

Peter Rowan, former Blue Grasss Boy recalls…

“Kenny Baker wrote the book on bluegrass fiddling. Bill Monroe relied on Kenny as his own right hand to draw those high lonesome tones out of the fiddle.”

Jim Moss, a fiddle player of note and a bluegrass historian, adds …

“I remember Baker talking about the first time he realized the impact of his fiddle tunes on the Bluegrass scene.  This was when he wrote and recorded Johnny the Blacksmith.  He was teaching me the correct way to play the tune at the time, in his living room. He said ‘I was at a festival and noticed that a lot of people where playing it. All over the grounds I could hear this tune being played.’ It was a significant moment for him as he realized that he just created a standard at that point. Baker said, ‘There is not much to that tune, but It just caught on.’ I use that tune to warm up on as it gets your fingers working.

He also wrote Big Sandy River which Monroe allowed him to record on his album. The deal was that he would share the publishing rights with Monroe. I remember we were in his kitchen. I asked him if he felt that he was being ripped off?

Baker said, ‘NOooo brother, that was a good deal for me. Monroe didn’t have to do it. He could have recorded one of his tunes instead. It was a gift.  Monroe could sell a lot of records. That means a lot of royalties. Man, Monroe had a much bigger audience than I had.’ ”

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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.