Bluegrass fiddler Kenny Baker was born on June 26, 1926, in Burdine, Kentucky. Both his father and grandfather were fiddlers, and by eight years old, Kenny himself had picked up the instrument. After a stint in the Navy, Baker returned to Kentucky, where he worked in the coal mines and played fiddle and some guitar at local dances. In 1953, country vocalist Don Gibson hired Baker for his band at WNOX in Knoxville, Tennessee. During his tenure with Gibson, Baker expanded his stylistic range, incorporating the smoother jazz violin style of Stéphane Grappelli. He also began to develop his "long-bow" style of playing, which blended and elongated notes much more than the traditional chop of bluegrass fiddle. Of his style, Baker would later comment "bluegrass is nothing but a hillbilly version of jazz."
In 1955, he released Baker's Dozen, a no-frills bluegrass picking album that featured a young Sam Bush. By 1957, Baker was playing bluegrass full-time as a member of Bill Monroe's band, the Bluegrass Boys. It proved to be a lasting partnership -- he became the longest running Bluegrass Boy. He worked with Monroe off and on over the next 30 years, leaving during the lean times to focus on his farm or for work in the mines. But it was as a Bluegrass Boy that Baker influenced countless latter-day fiddle players with his easy, traditional style.
Baker issued another solo album, Portrait of a Bluegrass Fiddler, in 1969, capitalizing on the popular resurgence of the genre on the heels of the late-'60s folk movement. He also rejoined Monroe's group for good, playing with the Bluegrass Boys through the 1980s. In 1989, he teamed with Dobro king Josh Graves in a bluegrass supergroup called the Masters. Also featuring banjoist Eddie Adcock and mandolin virtuoso Jesse McReynolds, the Masters released two albums, including a Grammy-nominated self-titled 1989 debut. Baker continued to perform throughout the 1990s, lodging a series of tours backed by the National Council on Traditional Arts. After an almost ten-year recording hiatus, Baker returned to wax in 2000 with Cotton Baggin'. The album included contributions from old friends Graves, McReynolds, and Blaine Sprouse. He returned in 2002 with the acclaimed Spider Bit the Baby! Kenny Baker died on July 8, 2011 in Gallatin, Tennessee due to complications from a stroke; he was 85 years old. ~ Johnny Loftus