Kenny Baker, 1926-2011

A note from our friend Joe Wilson, on the passing of Kenny Baker.

Kenny baker “Today we say farewell to Kenny Baker, a brilliant and influential fiddler, and a National Heritage Fellow.  His wake is tonight in Jenkins, Kentucky, in the coalfields, near where he was reared.  He will be buried tomorrow close to his father and grandfather, both also notable fiddlers.

In tours of Masters of the Folk Violin, which the NCTA had on the road for portions of three years, legendary jazz fiddler Claude Williams would startle jazz and country audiences by putting his arm around this former coal miner and saying, “This is my good friend, Kenny.  He invented tone.”

Some of you will recall Kenny as the poker-faced lean fiddler in tightly rolled cowboy hat standing near Bill Monroe for some thirty years, framing his every sound, helping invent classic bluegrass. Yet Kenny never thought of himself as a bluegrass fiddler.  “I was supposed to be a swing fiddler when I played for Don Gibson,” he told me in an interview. “But I was always a coal miner on parole.”

He had an infectious sense of humor. He thought it very funny that his partner, dobrist Josh Graves, a veteran of the Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs bluegrass band, would speak to Claude Williams about “Lester,” never realizing Claude had no idea of who “Lester” was.

Then Claude spoke to Josh about “Ella,” not realizing Josh did not know about Ella Fitzgerald or Claude’s one-time partner, Charlie Christian, or that he had been a member of the Nat King Cole Trio.

In proposing a toast to Josh and Claude, Kenny observed: “What these guys have in common is that they would starve to death in a coal camp.”

Kenny was passionate in seeking the company of a dwindling group of fiddlers that he thought the very best of old-timers, I met the legendary “Blind Dick” (Richard Burnett) through Kenny, and he was also a fast friend of Tommy Jarrell and Herb Combs.

Kenny left many fine fiddle recordings, but there’s also a fingerpicked guitar CD that is a memorial to a peanut vendor.  He was a black man who sold peanuts and played guitar on the streets of Jenkins when Kenny was a boy.  Kenny’s take on his style is sparkling, wonderfully melodic, genial, and utterly distinct. Kenny explained, “Well, he let me watch him, and I thought his style should not die with him.” County Sales in Floyd, VA may still have it.

The other famous fiddlers on those tours – Cajun, Cape Breton, Irish, even an age 16 Alison Kraus – loved each other, but they were awed by Kenny Baker.  Yes, it was that nearly unbelievable tone.  But also his richly textured approach to a tune, with variations that gave one chills.  It was also his approachability. Kenny mixed being extraordinary with being humble, and that is rare.”

Joe Wilson