Fiddler was a mainstay in Bill Monroe's genre-defining band
The influential bluegrass fiddler Kenny Baker, a mainstay of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys for 23 years, died July 8 in Gallatin, Tenn., after suffering a stroke. He was 85.
No musician enjoyed a longer tenure in Monroe’s groundbreaking bluegrass ensemble. Baker debuted behind the vocalist-mandolinist in December 1957, and did four tours of duty with the Blue Grass Boys.
As Monroe’s biographer Richard D. Smith wrote, “Baker had considerable western swing influences, but it was his knowledge of old-time fiddling and his advancement of it to a near-classical form that enraptured Monroe.” The bandleader invariably introduced Baker onstage as “the greatest fiddler in bluegrass music.”
Born near Jenkins, Kentucky, Baker was the son of an old-time fiddler, but he counted swing musicians Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller and hot jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli among his influences. He played semi-professionally in eastern Kentucky during the ’40s, but made his living primarily as a coal miner and farmer. He joined Monroe’s unit after breaking in with country singer Don Gibson on Knoxville radio station WNOX.
The dour Baker brought great virtuosity and a smooth, jazzy sensibility to Monroe’s music. He was featured prominently on the bandleader’s dream project, an album of fiddle tunes played by Monroe’s uncle Pendleton Vandiver; recorded over a three-year period and released in 1972, “Bill Monroe’s Uncle Pen” is considered a classic of the genre and one of Monroe’s finest works.
Baker – who chafed at the low wages paid by Monroe and left the Blue Grass Boys three times to return to mining – exited the group abruptly, after 16 consecutive years in the band, when he walked offstage in the middle of a concert in Jemison, Ala., in 1984. The two musicians reconciled in 1994, when Baker appeared at Monroe’s Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival. (Monroe died in 1996.)
Already established as a leader via a series of albums for David Freeman’s County Records, Baker soon began a decade-long partnership with dobro player Uncle Josh Graves in 1984.
He received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in 1993, and was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame in 1999. In the new millennium, he recorded for the OMS label.