Fiddler and bassist Clarence "Tater" Tate towers among the premier sideman in bluegrass history, supporting a who's who of roots music icons including Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, and Jimmy Martin. Born in Gate City, VA, on February 4, 1931, Tate was one of nine children, all of but two of whom later pursued careers as performers. At age four, he began playing guitar and a year later made his local radio debut. Citing Art Wooten's potent contributions to Flatt & Scruggs' classic "Train 45" as his seminal influence, Tate adopted the fiddle as a teen and by 1950 he was a sought-after sideman, best known for his appearances on Knoxville's radio hit "Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round" (sponsor Cas Walker bestowed the "Tater" nickname). After making his recorded debut with the Sauceman Brothers, he signed on with the Bailey Brothers, remaining with the group until military duty intervened in 1954. After two years with the U.S. Marine Corps, Tate returned to civilian life by joining Monroe's Blue Grass Boys, replacing fiddler Bobby Hicks (whose own draft notice just arrived). Tate's first stint with Monroe ended just seven months later, and in the decade to follow he collaborated with Jimmy Martin, Hylo Brown, Carl Story, and Jim Eanes in addition to cutting a series of solo releases for the Rural Rhythm label. In 1965 Tate joined Red Smiley's Bluegrass Cutups. When Smiley retired four years later, the group forged on as the Shenandoah Cutups, and Tate remained in the lineup until 1977, when he replaced Paul Warren in Lester Flatt's Nashville Grass. Following Flatt's May 1979 death, Tate rejoined Monroe, this time playing bass. When bowman Kenny Baker broke ranks in late 1984, he returned to the fiddle, alternating between instruments as needed. In the wake of Monroe's 1996 death, Tate played with the Cumberland Highlanders. He also taught bluegrass at East Tennessee State University, and in 2001 won wide acclaim for his contributions to Patty Loveless' Mountain Soul. After battling lung cancer, Tate died in Jonesborough, TN, on October 17, 2007.
by Jason Ankeny