Music News & Reviews

Bluegrass great Kenny Baker dies at age 85

Kenny Baker's smooth style and uncanny memory of hundreds of tunes made him a favorite with bluegrass music fans.
Kenny Baker's smooth style and uncanny memory of hundreds of tunes made him a favorite with bluegrass music fans. International Bluegrass Museum

When Kenny Baker played the fiddle, the notes flowed out like honey pours from a jar — smooth, thick and wide, according to his friends.

"All your great fiddle players in Nashville, when they heard Kenny, they knew there was a lot more to be had with a fiddle, a lot more to learn," said Ronnie Eldridge, a close friend.

"He was the best at hoedowns. Nobody could touch him on the waltz. He was a singer's dream," Eldridge said.

Mr. Baker, 85, a Letcher County native who spent many years performing with legendary bluegrass musician Bill Monroe, penned 92 instrumentals and tutored many others in his "long bow" fiddling style, died Friday, just a few days after his last jam session. Mr. Baker, who lived near Gallatin, Tenn., died of complications from a stroke.

Mr. Baker first picked up a fiddle when he was 5, according to his son, Kenneth Baker Jr., of Columbus, Ohio. Mr. Baker's father had been an old-time fiddle player.

Mr. Baker later turned to the guitar, but he eventually went back to the fiddle. He grew up inspired by jazz, his son said.

After joining the Navy during World War II, Mr. Baker was soon transferred off a destroyer escort ship to entertain troops in the South Pacific. After military service, he returned home to Letcher County, got married, worked in coal mines and played at barn dances on weekends.

He started playing the fiddle professionally with country musician Don Gibson in 1953. Mr. Baker went from playing Western swing and dance-band tunes to bluegrass music, performing with Monroe, who is known as the father of bluegrass music, beginning in 1957. After a few years, he went back to the coal mines in Eastern Kentucky. He returned to Monroe's Blue Grass Boys band in 1968 and left again in 1984, but he was reunited with the band in 1994 at Monroe's Bean Blossom bluegrass festival.

Monroe's well-known "Uncle Pen" album features Mr. Baker on the fiddle.

"He was just absolutely the backbone of that band," Eldridge said.

"They were at the White House one time. Bill Monroe's group was invited by Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter," Kenneth Baker Jr. said. "He liked to say when Rosalynn had a request, she came to Dad."

Many people went to bluegrass music festivals to hear Kenny Baker play the fiddle as much as they went to hear Bill Monroe sing, bluegrass music great Bobby Osborne said.

Many great fiddlers, past and present, are indebted to Baker, said Osborne, who performed with Mr. Baker and shared a dressing room with him at the Grand Ole Opry.

"I couldn't single him out as the top player of all time, but a lot of people would," Osborne said.

Mr. Baker's son said technique and a great memory made his father stand out.

"Dad would use the bow from tip to tip. That made his fiddling so smooth, and that was something different in the bluegrass world," Kenneth Baker Jr. said. "It was all by ear, and he had a tremendous ability to recall just about any song that people asked for — hundreds of songs."

Mr. Baker was particularly proud of the songs he wrote and recorded, his son said.

"At any of the major fiddle contests, probably a third of the tunes played will be Bill Baker tunes," Eldridge said.

Said Osborne: "The tunes that he wrote, they were so down to earth. The melodies that he put to his tunes were so easy to learn."

After 1984, Mr. Baker performed in many shows with dobro great Josh Graves.

In 1993, Mr. Baker received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1999, he was named to the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor in Owensboro.

In addition to his son, Mr. Baker is survived by his wife, Audrey Baker; another son, Johnny Lee Baker of Nashville; two sisters; a brother; four grandchildren; and several great- and great-great-grandchildren.

Services will be at 2 p.m. Tuesday at Burdine Freewill Baptist Church in Letcher County. Carty Funeral Homes in Jenkins is handling arrangements.

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