Kenny Baker was the son, grandson and great-grandson of old-time fiddlers. Baker's parents settled in the small hamlet of Burdine, Kentucky, deep in the coal mining country of Letcher County where Kenneth Clayton Baker, the seventh of ten children, was born June 26, 1926.
Around the age of seven Baker began to show an interest in the fiddle played by his father Thaddeus, much to his father's stern disapproval. As Baker stated in interviews down through the years, "Daddy wanted me to play guitar for him and I had been worn out hearing all the fiddling around home, so I naturally took up the guitar...and really, it's my first love...I'd rather play the guitar than fiddle...but after I cut my hand, why I had to lay the guitar down--it hurt my hand too much to try and note it..." As a formidable guitarist prior to that accident, Baker used an unusual four-finger style with open G tuning, a style that had been highly influenced by "a blind gentleman in Jenkins, Kentucky--he sold peanuts there in town--by the name of Ernest Johnson..." Johnson was an African-American musician well-known in the post-Depression Jenkins area and Kenny learned much from him.
During WWII he joined the United States Navy, fibbing about his age. He often spoke of how "we crossed the International Date Line on my 16th birthday and not a soul on that ship knew my age but me!" When a USO troupe came through, Baker was encouraged to sit in with them--prodded to do so by his shipmates who had heard him playing guitar. Kenny spent the next 18 months entertaining the troops with his lead guitar work, but during a stop in Okinawa he was pressed into service on the fiddle as they needed someone to play for a square dance. He said he knew two numbers, "Rubber Dolly" and "Ragtime Annie" and played them for hours. His desire to play fiddle was piqued and the rest is musical history.
After returning home to Jenkins from his time in the Navy, Kenny again worked the mines, married and raised a family while playing music on weekends and learning much from his friend and mentor, fiddler Marion Sumner who resided in nearby Hazard, Kentucky. Sumner was well-known to the popular music acts of the day and when he gave up his job as country artist Don Gibson's fiddler, he helped Baker to secure his position in Gibson's band in 1953. Kenny played fiddle and sang tenor with Gibson and it was during their shows, based out of WNOX in Knoxville, Tennessee, that Monroe first saw the fiddler he would come to call "the greatest fiddler in bluegrass music".
Baker became a Bluegrass Boy for the first time in 1957 and in December of that year he made his first recordings with Monroe's band. Kenny continued to record with Monroe during his subsequent stints as a Blue Grass Boy, stints that totaled nearly a quarter of a century, hundreds of live venues and 125 recordings. Kenneth Clayton Baker contributed greatly to the repertoire of bluegrass fiddle through those myriad recordings with Monroe as well as with the 92 numbers he penned during his lifetime. His finesse on the fiddle, incorporating his enviable long-bow style, resulted in the rich, full tones that became his signature throughout his lengthy career. He left Monroe's band in 1984 and in early 1985 formed a partnership with life-long friend Josh Graves that lasted until Graves' death in 2006.
Baker recorded a dozen full-length LPs for the County label beginning with his initial release in 1968, "High Country", a twin fiddle album with North Carolina fiddler Joe Greene and ending with a final solo fiddle LP in 1984, "Highlights". He also recorded two LPs each for Puritan and OMS, and one each for the Rounder, Ridge Runner and Amber labels in addition to myriad other recordings made with a variety of musicians who wanted the rich fiddle sounds for which he had become so well-known.
Baker's contributions to the art of bluegrass fiddle cannot be overstated as he was, after all, Monroe's longest-tenured Bluegrass Boy who had risen to prominence in the music world alongside The Boss Man, as Monroe was often called. That Monroe spoke proudly of how he had "saved" his Uncle Pen Vandiver's fiddle tunes for "just the right fiddler" certainly solidified Baker's place with Monroe's music and it is no secret the musical relationship with Kenny Baker was by far the deepest and most collaborative of any Monroe had during his own career.
Perhaps the best description of fiddler Kenny Baker was succinctly stated by former band-mate, musical historian and celebrated musician in his own right, Douglas B. Green, within the liner notes he wrote for what is arguably the best fiddle LP Baker ever recorded, "Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe", "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."
Kenny Baker ended his performing career in August 2008 and died from complications of a stroke July 8, 2011. At his death he had been the recipient of numerous awards for his prowess on the fiddle: in 1993 he was the recipient of The National Heritage Fellowship awarded by The National Endowment for the Arts; in 1999 he was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association's Hall of Honor; in 2000 he was inducted into the Bill Monroe Music Hall of Fame and in 2012 he was inducted into The National Fiddler Hall of Fame, to name but a few of the honors bestowed on this coal miner-turned-fiddler-extraordinaire. Baker expressed the depth of feeling for the musical genre known as bluegrass when he stated, "There's a lot of mechanical music being played today, but mind you, bluegrass is definitely not a mechanical music...it's strictly heartfelt...you have to love it to play it..." And love it he did.