If bluegrass musicians were allowed to be knighted for brilliant service to their musical kingdom, then this outstanding player's name would certainly be Sir Clarence Tate, not Tater Tate. But while mere misters are turned into sirs with a slight whack of a royal sword upon their noggin, the defining moment for a little Tater was hearing the very first broadcast of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs on the Bristol station WCYB. The song was "Train 45," and it was actually the first time these legendary bluegrass pickers had teamed up. Tate recalled later that hearing the first notes on the fiddle sent cold chills up his spine. The broadcast might have also had some kind of effect on his mother, because he also recalled that she left their home shortly thereafter. Although it is uncertain that the broadcast, Tate picking up the fiddle, and the mother are related events, foes of bluegrass music can certainly indulge in wishful thinking if they want. It wasn't that Tate had never heard bluegrass, as he was already playing mandolin and guitar at this point. It was the sound of the fiddle and the way it was being played that made him switch to this instrument, although he kept his hand on his original instruments, added a few more as the years went on, and wound up being one of a select group of bluegrass pickers who, if they wanted to, could over-dub the sound of an entire band just by themselves. This turns out to be one of the few possible recording projects Tater Tate has not attempted...so far. He spent his journeyman years in bands such as those led by super-picker Jimmy Martin and Carl Story, whose touring Rambling Mountaineers were a launching point for many sidemen's bluegrass careers. But it was eventually a longstanding relationship with bluegrass master Bill Monroe that provides the meat in Tate's smorgasbord of bluegrass credits. Becoming one of Monroe's hottest fiddlers, which meant endless outings on "Orange Blossom Special" and long, long hours on the tour bus, Tate stayed on as a Monroe Bluegrass Boy for more consecutive years than any other sideman. In Monroe's later years, when fiddler Kenny Baker was in the band, Tate would rejoin as bassist. He was an accomplished player on both the electric and acoustic versions of the instrument, and shows up on recording sessions well outside the bluegrass field, such as on sisters Kate and Anna McGarrigle's Dancer With Bruised Knees album. Unlike many other multi-instrumentalists who dabble in bass, Tate actually seems to think like a bass player.
Playing as much as he did with Monroe hardly limited his ability to get involved in other projects. There is a long list of groups Tate has been involved in, including the Timberliners, his own Bluegrass Cut-Ups, and various groups under the leadership of players such as Billy Edwards, John Palmer, Herschel Sizemore, Jim Eanes, Cliff Waldron, Wesley Golding, Gene Burrows, Udell McPhee, Bobby Hicks, and Tom McKinney. He performed and recorded with childhood inspiration Lester Flatt & Nashville Grass, and was in fact the last fiddler ever employed by Flatt. Among tracks the two recorded together was the tune "Peacock Rag," which has come to be associated with Tate. His version of the tune was chosen for the compilation entitled Great American Fiddle Collection.
As a leader, Tate's recordings tend to stick to solid and unpretentious presentations of classic fiddle tunes, a fact made obvious by the titles of some of these recordings alone. He recorded 20 Favorites of USA and Canada for the Rural Rhythm label in the '60s. His All Time Fiddle Favorites has seen the light of release on several labels, among them Smiley and Rimrock. In collaboration with Shot Jackson, Tate recorded an album again given the straightforward and promising title of 20 Beautiful Waltzes. Working with Billy Edwards on a recording project, the two men were unable to come up with a title more scintillating than Fiddle and Banjo Tunes, released several times including a pressing on Grassound. Tate's recordings with Monroe include the fascinating Smithsonian/Folkways collection Off the Record, which presents many live recordings in which Tate can be heard in all-star Monroe lineups including banjo flailer Don Reno. The fine singer Mac Wiseman is present on some MCA Monroe sides on which Tate fiddles around. Tate performs regularly on the Grand Ole Opry and has also appeared on several television shows. He appeared to be keeping pretty busy in the new millennium as one of several historical bluegrass sideman on the Patty Loveless album Mountain Soul, a 2001 release which celebrated this country artist's deep love of traditional Appalachian music. No doubt heartened by the upswing of interest in this type of music and the slowly growing ranks of slick country performers who at one point wouldn't have been caught dead with a fiddle or banjo on-stage returning to their roots, Tate joined the all-star bluegrass band the Cumberland Highlanders in 2000. This group includes a total of four ex-Monroe Bluegrass Boys as well as a half-dozen other members, making it some kind of bluegrass mini-orchestra whose membership can claim nearly 300 years of collective service to the genre. Knights, all of them. Does Tate's star shine somewhat brighter than the rest? Evidence of this might be found in a John Hartford song from his bizarre Mark Twang album. In the song in question, the lyrics consist totally of the names of various bluegrass and old-time music heroes, with apologies to anyone left out. Tate is not only not left out, his is one who even makes it into the title of this opus: "Tater Tate and Allen Mundy." ~ Eugene Chadbourne