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Who Kenny Baker
What 'Greatest fiddler in bluegrass,' Kenny Baker, dies at 85
When July 9, 2011
Where Nashville, TN

Kenny Baker, the longtime member of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys band whose polished “long bow” sound made him one of bluegrass music’s most emulated fiddle players, died Friday, July 8, in Nashville. The 85-year-old musician, who lived in Sumner County, suffered a stroke earlier in the week.

“For me, Bill Monroe never sounded as good as when Kenny was playing with him,” said Country Music Hall of Famer Bill Anderson, who shared the Grand Ole Opry stage with Monroe and Mr. Baker on many nights in the 1960s and ’70s. “God, what a touch he had on the fiddle. He was just so good.”

Known as “The Father of Bluegrass,” Monroe introduced Mr. Baker to audiences as “The greatest fiddler in bluegrass music.” While such a tag is inherently subjective, Mr. Baker’s style certainly changed both Monroe’s sound and the sound of the fiddle in bluegrass. He was the genre’s dominant fiddler of the 1970s, and he has influenced generations of players.

“He brought a smoothness to the music that hadn’t been prevalent before,” said Eddie Stubbs, a WSM and Grand Ole Opry announcer who logged many years as a fiddle player in bluegrass band The Johnson Mountain Boys. “His playing impacted not just up-and-coming talent but also people who were already playing professionally. He was Monroe’s instrumental voice during a very important time in the music.”

Born in the far eastern Kentucky town of Jenkins, Mr. Baker began playing fiddle at age 8 before switching to guitar. He worked for Bethlehem Steel in Kentucky coal mines as a teenager, and he joined the Navy during World War II. He was transferred into a military entertainment outfit because of his guitar skills, but while in the service he began playing fiddle again, and he worked to master the fiddle after he left the Navy.

Ultimately, he arrived at a style that was rooted in old-time fiddling forms but that also nodded to jazz, swing and even classical violin. He first joined the Blue Grass Boys in 1957, though his stints with Monroe were sporadic until he embarked on a 16-year stretch beginning in 1968. He was the key band member for that time, serving as an onstage foil to Monroe, and the International Bluegrass Music Museum credits him as playing longer than anyone else with the Blue Grass Boys.

Aside from his work with Monroe, which included a starring role on Monroe’s much-lauded Uncle Pen album, Mr. Baker contributed to classic albums including Tom T. Hall’s Magnificent Music Machine and the Osborne Brothers’ Bluegrass Collection. He also released numerous solo instrumental albums, most on County Records, that were the basis of many fiddlers’ education on their instrument.

Mr. Baker left Monroe’s band acrimoniously in 1984, and the two men did not reconcile until 1994, when they reunited at Monroe’s Bean Blossom bluegrass festival. In the meantime, Mr. Baker played numerous shows with Dobro great Josh Graves.

“Ornery and irascible, cheerful and charming, demanding musically yet frequently found jamming all night with sleepy, mediocre musicians, stubborn and bullheaded, witty and warm, Kenny Baker, like bluegrass music itself, is complex, contradictory and deep,” wrote music scholar (and western band Riders in the Sky leader) Douglas Green in the liner notes to Mr. Baker’s 1976 album, Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe.

In 1993, Mr. Baker received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Funeral arrangements and survivor information are incomplete.

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Contact Peter Cooper
The Tennessean


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