Moments in Bluegrass: BG75 #12 – Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe

Following an invitation that the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) extended to its members that they share a memory from “75 years of bluegrass,” we thought that we would collect a few to share with you.

Aynsley Porchak, from Woodstock, Ontario, began playing fiddle when she was nine years old, having been introduced to bluegrass music through the music of Kenny Baker and Bobby Hicks. It led to her quickly falling in love with the music. 

She has bachelor’s degrees in both English and bluegrass music from East Tennessee State University, and from 2014 through to-2018 Porchak was a member of the university’s Bluegrass, Celtic and Country Pride Bands.  

An experienced contest fiddler, she won the Grand Master Fiddler Championship in 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee, and two years later she became the Canadian Grand Master Fiddle Champion, making her the first person to win both competitions.

Porchak is passionate about teaching and giving back to bluegrass music. When she isn’t on the road, she teaches privately and in the Junior Appalachian Musician (JAM) program on the ETSU campus. She also keeps busy with session work recording for other musicians. Also, she has created a series of educational videos that teach schoolchildren about traditional music instruments, and shows them their place in regional musical history. This series entitled Recollections at the Reece: The Music of Our Home is part of the in-house display at the B. Carroll Reece Museum. 

During 2017 and 2018 Porchak she was part of a three-piece Celtic ensemble called Atlantic North, with whom she helped to make a self-titled EP. 

She joined Carolina Blue in December 2017 and features on the band’s two subsequent CDs.

A rising star in the bluegrass music community, Porchak was named IBMA Momentum award winner for Instrumentalist of the Year in 2018.

She has composed several fiddle tunes although none have been recorded yet. 

Porchak, who has a great interest in 1940s and 1950s-era fashion, lives in Johnson City, Tennessee, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. 

 She shares her thoughts on what many consider the most influential album of fiddle music ever recorded.

“On March 29th and 30th of 1976, Kenny Baker assembled a prestigious line-up of musicians to record Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe, his seventh album for County Records. With Joe Stuart on guitar and Vic Jordan playing banjo, who had both previously served stints in Monroe’s band, as well as future Blue Grass Boys bassist Randy Davis and banjoist Bob Black, Baker compiled and arranged twelve of Monroe’s instrumentals in an effort to pay tribute to his legendary boss. Douglas B. Green’s album liner notes recall how Monroe himself, being famously noncommittal about his participation in the session, appeared at the studio with his mandolin, and at Baker’s request, played on each song with his trademark flair, invigorating the rest of the session.

The instrumentals ranged from the energetically driving Wheel Hoss to the hauntingly beautiful Lonesome Moonlight Waltz, and with the inclusion of three previously unreleased tunes (Road To Columbus, Mississippi Waltz, and Fiddler’s Pastime), the record provided both an updated overview of several of Bill Monroe’s classic instrumentals and a selection of exciting new offerings that sparked Baker’s creativity. The result was a work of such quality that it only added to Kenny Baker’s already well-established reputation as one of the finest fiddlers in bluegrass music.

The aftereffects of the album were also remarkably significant. Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe not only became memorable for its historical importance as the first time that several well-known instrumentals were recorded (as well as the unusual addition of Monroe as a sideman), but also for its status as a musical benchmark and learning tool today. I personally have studied stylistic nuances from this record’s fiddle breaks for years, and I am still amazed today at the balance between the old-time fiddling tradition and Baker’s own brand of innovation that is displayed. However, a quick survey of some of bluegrass music’s top young fiddlers shows this to be an opinion that is widely shared.”

“Many believe this album to be, myself included, the quintessential album of bluegrass fiddling. This album was introduced to me by a friend when I first was getting interested in fiddling around age 15. I feel like every time I listen to the album, I hear something new or different than before. It constantly inspires and challenges me to listen more closely.”

– Leanna Price, The Price Sisters 

Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe was one of the first bluegrass albums I really dug into and learned front to back. You can’t beat it! I learned Fiddler’s Pastime from that album, and a twin fiddle arrangement of the tune with Laura Orshaw became the title track for my new solo album and hopefully a way for me to pay homage to Kenny, Bill, and Vassar (who apparently co-wrote it with Bill).”

– Bronwyn Keith-Hynes, Mile Twelve

“Every time I hear [Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe] I’m inspired to get my fiddle out and learn from it. I spent many hundreds of hours rewinding that cassette over and over trying to learn what was there. The album is not only a workshop on Kenny’s tone, taste, intonation, innovation, phrasing, and timing, but it’s also a doorway into Monroe’s genius as a tunesmith. When Kenny played these tunes you almost forgot about the original cuts of them. The album is the knowledge we all need and the class is called Bluegrass Fiddlin’ 101.”

– Jason Barie, Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers

Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe not only issues a call to fiddlers to learn from the past, but also inspires other instrumentalists to further innovation. Nearly four decades after the initial album, banjoist Noam Pikelny drew upon the 1976 recording to create Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe, a creative reimagining of the iconic session. Pikelny found inspiration in the elegance of Baker’s fiddling, which maintained the melody throughout while crafting variations to fit around the notes. The album retained the same tempos, key signatures, and track order, while still providing the musicians with opportunities to showcase their talents in a more traditional setting. Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe not only won the 2014 IBMA Album Of The Year award and received a 2015 Grammy nomination for Best Bluegrass Album, but also sparked a return to the recording that inspired it all.

From a historical perspective, Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe is certainly an integral part of bluegrass music, but it would be a disservice to simply classify it as that. Baker’s masterful album has since become one of the definitive bluegrass instrumental recordings, and has certainly added to his evident legacy as one of the most celebrated fiddlers in the genre. It has inspired many musicians with its technical skill and tasteful musicality, and it has maintained its status as a benchmark in bluegrass recording excellence for decades. To me, this makes Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe certainly worthy of being considered a valuable milestone in bluegrass music history.”

Bill Monroe’s version of Lonesome Moonlight Waltz was released on a Decca single (32966) in 1972. 

Road To Columbus, a bluegrass jam session standard, was never recorded by Bill Monroe ….. 

Wheel Hoss was paired with Put My Little Shoes Away for a 78rpm disc in October 1955 (Decca 29645) …….. 

OK, readers, does this story trigger any thoughts of bluegrass music in days gone by? What related event would you like remembered? Please share in comments. Thanks.

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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.