- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 2, 2003

In every musical genre, a couple of musicians deserve the appellation “must see.” Their distinctive sound, amazing expertise and expansive body of work have simply made them the best at what they do.

Fiddler Vassar Clements, coming to the State Theater in Arlington Saturday night with the Carter Brothers, is a “must see.”

It’s hard to adequately describe what it is like to watch and listen to Mr. Clements play. Never forced, contrived, or flashy, his playing has just the right notes in just the right places. Yet it doesn’t seem controlled. There is always the excitement of new possibilities and unexpected pleasures.

“Because I don’t read music, I just play from the heart,” Mr. Clements says. “The feeling that’s right there then, that’s all I got going. So, that’s what I look forward to. I don’t have any set pattern to go by, so it’s always learning.”

Tim Carter of the Carter Brothers Band describes playing with Mr. Clements this way: “He’s such a free-spirited guy. He doesn’t care what key a song is in; he’s just going to play whatever he feels like is going to come out of his heart. There’s no telling where he’s going to take it. It’s always different every time, but it is always very cool. It’s just amazing to me. He’s 75 years old and still plays with the same edge he has had for the last 30 years or so.”

A player of unending energy and creativity, Mr. Clements has performed on close to 3,000 recordings during his more-than-50-year career. Even on his early tracks as a member of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, you can hear the beginnings of his distinctive sweet bluesy style. Starting in 1949, he spent seven years with Mr. Monroe and then four more with Jim and Jesse McReynolds. In Nashville in the late ‘60s, he recorded with country greats like Porter Wagoner, Buck Owens and Hank Williams Jr.

Mr. Clements’ personal breakthrough came in the early ‘70s as a key musician on three recordings that changed country and bluegrass music forever. The first was “Aereo-Plain” with John Hartford, Norman Blake, and Tut Taylor. Their innovative free-form, quasi-bluegrass style is considered the beginning of “progressive” bluegrass music.

The second album changed the course of country music. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, a long-haired, California folk-rock band, came to Nashville in 1972, and recorded a traditional country and bluegrass album called “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” with country greats like Roy Acuff, Mother Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson. Suddenly, country fans looked differently at young longhairs, and young pop fans actually looked at country music. Mr. Clements’ fiddle was featured on many of the cuts and was a highlight of the album.

Finally came “Old and In the Way,” featuring Mr. Clements, young bluegrass players David Grisman and Peter Rowan, and most importantly the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia. It is the best-selling bluegrass album ever made. And it continues to bring legions of younger fans to bluegrass and to Mr. Clements.

“In the first place, Jerry Garcia was in it,” says Mr. Clements when asked why it still sells. “The next place, you know you find four or five musicians from different parts of the music world and it comes together. Sometimes it works and sometimes it don’t. And this worked. For some reason or another, it was a little bit different. I don’t care, you can listen to every type of bluegrass there is — this sounds a little bit different.”

Since then, Mr. Clements has recorded with such performers as diverse as the Allman Brothers, the Grateful Dead and Paul McCartney; jazz greats like Stephane Grappelli and Dave Holland; and even the Boston Pops Orchestra. He has released close to 30 albums of his own in a variety of styles. Along with traditional and progressive bluegrass, Mr. Clements has developed his own personal style, which he calls “Hillbilly Jazz.” After he established himself in bluegrass, he let more of the big band jazz and swing of his youth come out. The result is a sound that is reminiscent of acoustic swing jazz of Django Reinhardt, but with a distinctive country twang.

The Carter Brothers, Dan and Tim, (Mr. Clement’s partners on stage Saturday night) also like to mix musical styles to create something their own. Growing up in North Carolina, Tim took to the bluegrass banjo and brother Danny was attracted to the blues guitar. After years of playing in separate bands in separate styles of music, the brothers decided to join forces. “It’s all about mixing electric guitars and banjo and mandolins, fiddles for us, in that really New Grass Revival kind of Tom Petty thing,” says Tim Carter.

It’s a mix that really seems to work well. It has attracted the attention and praise of the likes of Tim O’Brien, Mike Marshall, Darol Anger, Alison Brown and Mr. Clements.

“The main thing is, two brothers is always good together,” says Mr. Clements about the Carters. “They’re fine musicians and great people, just really down-to-earth people, and they do a great job. Everybody likes them. I know I do. Their music is good. In fact it’s great.”

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