Vassar Clements was the first fiddle player whose playing I fell in love with. I’ve always just naturally gravitated to the guitar, but Vassar’s playing on the legendary Will the Circle Be Unbroken album made me sit up and pay attention. Fluid and yet forceful, hillbilly but bluesy, and as nimble-fingered as his banjo counterpart, Earl Scruggs, Vassar Clements played like nobody I’d ever heard before.
That particular record introduced Vassar to a while new audience of baby-boomer rock fans like me, but he’s been recording for 50 years, and playing for nearly all of his three-quarters of a century on this earth. He played at the Grand Ole Opry with Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys at the age of 21 in 1949, and since then he’s played with just about everybody who’s anybody in American roots music, from the Grateful Dead to Flatt & Scruggs, Jerry Jeff Walker and Jimmy Buffett to the Monkees. His career has spanned country, jazz and rock, and more bluegrass revivals than you can shake a bow at.
Full Circle sees Vassar returning to bluegrass, but also incorporating rock songs by some of the baby-boomers’ biggest names. I’ll admit that I approached this album with some trepidation after seeing and even listening to the first track, Cream’s psychedelic power anthem, “White Room.” It just doesn’t work as bluegrass for me. But I have to admit that the fiddling and picking on it, as on the rest of this CD, is first-rate.
The two Beatles songs are a bit obvious. “I’ve Just Seen a Face” was written by Paul McCartney more or less as a bluegrass song to start with, and Vassar is hardly the first to make it more overtly so with fiddle and banjo. And “Yesterday”? It’s only the No. 1 most covered Beatles song, and probably their hit that is least representative of what they were all about. And for the first minute or so, this version confirmed my prejudices; it’s played slowly, almost as a dirge, albeit with a nearly psychedelic feel; then after a brief pause, Bela Fleck’s banjo kicks in at double-time, Vassar switches on his jazz-grass mode, and this bird soars.
Clements has surrounded himself with a world-class band, including Sam Bush on mandolin, Josh Graves on dobro, Bryan Sutton on guitar, Anton Leos on banjo, and Kevin Grant on bass, plus a guest-list of Olympian proportions: Fleck, J.D. Crowe and Alan O’Bryant on banjo, Jim and Jesse McReynolds, Ricky Skaggs, Peter Rowan, and two charter members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Jimmie Fadden and Jeff Hanna. The latter two join in on a reprise of one of their biggest hits, Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles.” This could have been sentimental sap-fest, but instead it’s stripped down, almost deconstructed into its component parts, done almost entirely as an instrumental with only the first lines and the chorus sung.
Other highlights are the Flatt & Scruggs gem “Your Love is Like a Flower,” which sounds like it should have been written by A.P. Carter; the slow, bluesy ballad “When the Golden Leaves Begin to Fall;” Jim & Jesse’s hillbilly harmony on “Hard Hearted,” and a breakneck romp through Monroe’s “Tall Timber.” The biggest and most pleasant surprise is Vassar’s vocals on “Makin’ Music Macon Georgia Style” and “Face Lost in the Crowd.” It’s a delightfully crusty and lived-in voice, perfect for traditional country music like this.
In addition to “White Room,” I’m not crazy about Billy Troy’s newgrass “Out in the Middle of Nowhere,” and Jeff Hanna’s cover of the sentimental “The Old Home Place.” But every track is redeemed by the excellence of the playing and the passion of the musicians. Full Circle has something for any fan of acoustic and American roots music.