R.I.P. Butch

I’m am very sorry to report that mandolin legend, Butch Baldassari passed away yesterday, January 10. Here is his obituary from the Tennesean News:

“Acclaimed musician Butch Baldassari, a mandolin virtuoso whose work bridged genres, communities and centuries, died today at Saint Thomas Hospital’s Alive Hospice unit, 20 months after being diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. He was 56.

Mr. Baldassari was a recording artist, a producer, a writer, a bandleader and a teacher. At Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music, he served as adjunct professor of mandolin.

Beginning in 1991, he was the leader of the Nashville Mandolin Ensemble, a group that helped revive the dormant mandolin orchestra tradition that had begun in America in the 1800s. The Mandolin Ensemble’s performances and recordings featured mind-bendingly diverse music, from Tchaikovsky to bluegrass to the theme from Star Trek .

"Most mandolin players have seen pictures of the old mandolin orchestras … but hardly anybody today has ever heard one," Mr. Baldassari told The Tennessean in 1996. With the Nashville Mandolin Ensemble, he worked to change that.

Raised in Scranton, Pa., Jerome Baldassari didn’t become a professional musician until he was 35 years old. After graduate work at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, he worked in casinos as a craps table croupier. He played bluegrass on the side, however, joining a group called the Weary Hearts. That group, which included Ron Block, Chris Jones and Mike Bub, moved to Nashville in 1989 but did not stay together to record a follow-up to their 1989 debut album, By Heart.

Mr. Baldassari sought to extend his work beyond bluegrass, and a trip to the Classical Mandolin Society of America convention in Louisville, Ky., focused his attention on the notion of founding a mandolin orchestra. Upon his return to Nashville, he posted signs soliciting players for the Nashville Mandolin Ensemble. In June 1991, the orchestra was a reality, with mandolins, mandocello, mandola, guitar and bass playing at once.

"My mission is to take that turn-of-the-century concept and make it modern," he said.

Never one to focus only on one project or concept, Mr. Baldassari continued to play bluegrass, with award-winning band Lonesome Standard Time from 1992 until 1996. He also recorded with Alison Krauss, fiddler Richard Green (in Green’s band, The Grass Is Greener), dulcimer master David Schnauffer, guitarist John Mock and a bevy of other stylistically diverse musicians. He wrote liner notes for others’ albums, wrote for Mandolin Magazine and recorded well-received solo album projects.

After Mr. Baldassari’s diagnosis in May 2007, numerous friends and admirers worked to celebrate his influence and to raise money to help defray his medical bills.

In October 2007, Dierks Bentley, Mark O’Connor, Ricky Skaggs, Bela Fleck and many others performed a benefit concert at the Blair School.

"Butch really encouraged me, musically," Bentley said at the time. "I took mandolin lessons from him, and he’s full of information."

In a December e-mail, Mr. Baldassari noted that his illness had left him unable to play the mandolin, but he wrote, "Although I can’t play for now, the music in me is still very much alive. It feeds my soul and excites me every day."

Survivors include his wife, Sinclair; his son, Blake; his mother, Pat Baldassari; and several siblings.

Details of a memorial service have yet to be announced. Condolences may be sent to 125 43rd Ave. N., Nashville, TN 37209.”