Editor’s Note: Music journalist Geoffrey Himes penned this remarkable treatment of Roland White for our 13th issue. With Roland’s passing in 2022, we’ve decided to share it in its entirety. -JV
Roland White reached out to take the car keys from his brother Clarence, but the keys never landed.
Earlier that summer, in 1973, the White Brothers announced they were reuniting for a series of live shows. This was exciting news for string-band fans, for it meant that Clarence White was returning to the acoustic guitar after his sojourn in rock ‘n’ roll. Tony Rice was merely the most famous of those fans who believed Clarence had revolutionized bluegrass guitar. He had also revolutionized country-rock guitar, but these listeners were interested in the acoustic Clarence.
Clarence, who had just left the Byrds, was back with his mandolin-playing brother Roland, who had just spent four years with Lester Flatt & the Nashville Grass. From 1957 through 1967, the two brothers had co-led the Kentucky Colonels, the West Coast leaders of the newgrass movement, and, before that, they had joined bass-thumping brother Eric as the White Brothers, a teenage string band. Now they were the White Brothers once again.
On July 14, the three brothers had dinner at their mother’s house in Palmdale, California, and then visited a local club to sit in with Floyd “Gib” Guilbeau, Clarence’s ex-bandmate in Nashville West and a future member of the Flying Burrito Brothers. After the picking session, the musicians were packing their instruments in their cars and getting ready to leave.
“The last thing I remember,” Roland says, “he was handing me the car keys. I had my arm stretched out to take them and, the next thing I knew, I woke up face down on the sidewalk. Clarence was lying in the middle of the street, and I knew something was wrong.
“What had happened, I later learned, was a drunken driver had nicked Clarence’s bumper, hit him and knocked him into me. I went over the car and onto the sidewalk, but the lady’s car carried Clarence up the road about 20 feet.”
Clarence, only 29, died the next day. Eric, 32, watched the whole thing unfold in front of him. Roland, 35, lost not just his brother but also the most important musical partner of his life.
Nearly everyone in the California country-rock and bluegrass scenes showed up for the July 19 funeral at a Catholic Church in Palmdale. At the graveside, at the Jashua Memorial Park in Lancaster, the priest finished his homily, and an awkward silence fell over the cemetery. The quiet was broken finally by two drunken voices rising in an a cappella hymn: Farther along, we’ll know more about it; farther along, we’ll understand why.
The voices belonged to Gram Parsons and Bernie Leadon, who had sung the traditional hymn on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ second album, 1970’s Burrito Deluxe. Clarence had recorded the song with the Byrds as the title track of an album released the following year. Soon, everyone–Chris Hillman, Chris Ethridge, Roland White, Eric White and the others–was singing along, and then they moved into “Amazing Grace.”
Parsons was so distraught, according to his biographer Ben Fong-Torres, that he turned to his road manager, Phil Kaufman, and said, “Phil, if this happens to me, I don’t want them doing this to me. You can take me to the desert and burn me. I want to go out in a cloud of smoke.” Just two months later, Kaufman had a chance to fulfill that promise.
Clarence’s death was as devastating to the roots-music community as Parsons’ was. If Parsons, in his singing and songwriting, had demonstrated how country and rock could be combined, Clarence had done the same with his guitar picking. His single-note lines always sounded like a second vocal in a song; the fat tone on his Telecaster had both the slurring drawl of a hillbilly singer and the percussive punch of a rock ‘n’ roll snare drum. He could play Bakersfield country as well as Don Rich, Buck Owens’ chief Buckaroo; he could play rockabilly as well as his pal James Burton of Elvis Presley’s TCB Band; he could play bluegrass as well as his hero, Doc Watson.
He was the model for dozens of country-rock guitarists to come, from Albert Lee and Richard Bennett to Vince Gill and Buddy Miller. And he was just as much a hero in bluegrass circles. Acoustic guitarists such as Tony Rice and Norman Blake all pointed to Clarence as the trailblazer for lead guitar in a bluegrass-band format. In addition, Clarence, with his Nashville West bandmate Gene Parsons, invented the StringBender, which revolutionized country guitar almost as much as his playing did. The device bent a string a precise whole note upwards and allowed him to mimic a pedal-steel guitar in the middle of a conventional guitar solo.
Clarence played on every Byrds album from 1967 on, and he appeared on such landmark records as Jackson Browne, Arlo Guthrie’s Last of the Brooklyn Cowboys, the Everly Brothers’ Stories We Could Tell, Randy Newman’s 12 Songsand Linda Ronstadt’s Hand Sown Home Grown. In 1973, he was working on his first solo album and planning projects with the White Brothers and Muleskinner (the band he co-founded with Peter Rowan, David Grisman, Bill Keith and Richard Greene). But a drunk driver came out of nowhere and stopped all that in its tracks.
Lester Flatt and the Nashville Grass, playing for Grandpa Jones. Roland White is on mandolin. Photo: Jim Silvers
Roland White carries on today, 36 years later, trying to extend the legacy of California’s foremost bluegrass family. Included in his more than 50 years as a professional are 10 years with the Kentucky Colonels, two with Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys, four with Lester Flatt & the Nashville Grass, 13 with the Country Gazette and 11 with the Nashville Bluegrass Band. He has led the Roland White Band since 2000. But everything he has done has been informed by the early give and take with his younger brother Clarence.
As a mandolinist, Roland plays like a vocalist sings. He emphasizes the melody and shapes the music with pauses, in much the same way that his brother played guitar. In contrast to the many bluegrass pickers who play blistering runs through the chord changes, Roland and Clarence White played the tunes. While everyone else was pouring out music in a run-on stream of consciousness, the White brothers played in sentences, punctuating the music with pauses.
“There’s a reason we played in sentences, like you say,” Roland acknowledges. “Clarence and I both learned music by playing old country songs with our father, and he always encouraged us to play the tune the way he sang it. A lot of bluegrass players hardly touch the melody; they have their licks instead. But when Bill Monroe sang a song, he played the melody, or something close to it, on the mandolin. It wasn’t ‘til I went to work with Bill that I realized what he was doing. ‘This guy plays like he sings,’ I said to myself.”
Roland’s slight stature, pointed salt-and-pepper beard, drooping eyelids and sober visage call to mind a Buddhist monk. As he sits in a Louisville restaurant overlooking the Ohio River, wearing khaki slacks, a tan windbreaker and silver-rimmed glasses, he recounts his long, convoluted career; a sly smile will periodically twist his mouth–suggesting a man who has seen too much of everything to be impressed by much of anything.
The Whites didn’t start out as bluegrassers, and they didn’t start out in California. Hell, they didn’t even start out as Whites. Roland Le Blanc was born in Madawaska, Maine, on April 23, 1938. The Le Blancs were a French-Canadian family, and they added a daughter, Joanne, in 1939 and two sons, Eric Jr. and Clarence, in 1941 and 1944. It wasn’t until 1947 that they anglicized their surname.
“Before we changed our names,” Roland recalls, “we hardly ever spoke English at home, only French. My dad loved to play French tunes when my uncles would come to visit, and now I realize they were very close to bluegrass, much like Irish and Scottish tunes. But more than anything, my dad loved to sit and sing, as my mother would say, ‘those sad, pitiful country songs.’ From the time I was 8, I would play with him, and it was always country songs, never bluegrass.”
Clarence started joining his brother and father on guitar when he was 5 and Roland was 11. Eric Sr. was a carpenter, an electrician and a pipe fitter, but there wasn’t much work in Maine. The family’s West Coast relatives, though, insisted that there were plenty of jobs out there, so in 1954, the Whites packed everything they could into their car and made the long drive from Waterville, Maine, to Burbank, California. A month after they arrived, Roland was introduced to the music that would change his life.
“My Uncle Armand asked me, ‘Have you ever heard of Bill Monroe?’” he remembers. “I said, ‘No,’ and my uncle said, ‘Well, he’s a mandolin player; he’s on the Grand Ole Opry and he’s fast.’ That’s all he said, but I was intrigued. I walked the six blocks down to a music store in Burbank and leafed through a big yellow catalog, the size of a phone book, perched on a music stand. I was looking for Bill Monroe 45s and I found one called ‘Pike County Breakdown.’
“‘What’s a breakdown?’ I asked the guy at the store. ‘It’s a fast instrumental,’ he said, and I told him, ‘That’s what I want.’ My dad bought us a 45 player, and a week later, the music-store guy handed me this 45. I was amazed that all that music could fit on this little disc. We listened to ‘Pike County Breakdown’ four times. I looked around the room, and everyone had their mouths hanging open. Finally, my mother said, ‘I’d like to hear that again.’”
Roland was so startled by the newness, the excitement of the record–the flip side had Monroe singing “Poison Love” with Jimmy Martin–that he resolved to devote himself to this new music some people were calling bluegrass. His three younger siblings were nearly as enthusiastic, and the four of them started performing country and bluegrass tunes as the White Family Band. When lead singer and bassist Joanne quit to get married in 1956, they became the White Brothers, then the Country Boys, with Roland singing lead and Eric playing bass. Banjoist Billy Ray Latham joined in 1958, dobroist Leroy McNees (aka Leroy Mack) joined in 1960, and Roger Bush replaced Eric White on bass in 1961.
California wasn’t a hotbed of bluegrass in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, but it was a hotbed of television production, and the Country Boys, with their photogenic teenage faces and undeniable talent, were welcome guests on TV shows such as Ralph T. Hicks’ Country Barn Dance Jubilee and Town Hall Party, the latter hosted by Joe and Rose Lee Maphis. The Country Boys even twice portrayed Mayberry’s finest young pickers on The Andy Griffith Show. In addition, they became regulars at the West Coast’s premier folk club, the Ash Grove in Hollywood.
In 1962, the quartet changed its name to the Kentucky Colonels. “We couldn’t use the Country Boys anymore,” Roland explains, “because Jimmy Dickens’ band was called the Country Boys. None of us had anything to do with Kentucky, but that was where Bill Monroe was from, and that was good enough for us.”
The Kentucky Colonels’ first album, New Sounds of Bluegrass America, was released in 1962, but Roland wasn’t on it because he’d been drafted into the U.S. Army the previous fall and was in Germany when Clarence, Billy Ray, Roger and Leroy went into an L.A. studio. Roland’s mother mailed him a reel-to-reel tape of the session, along with a letter that reassured him that he was still the bandleader.
“When I heard the album,” Roland recalls, “there was this guitar player doing some really cool stuff. It took me a while to realize it was Clarence. Then I remembered how he’d practice melody runs at home but never use them onstage. Later, Clarence told me, ‘When I saw Doc Watson at the Ash Grove and how he did what he did, that’s all I needed to know.’ He played in the style of Doc, but it didn’t sound like Doc, because Clarence put so much of himself into his music. I hadn’t realized that the guitar could be a lead instrument in a bluegrass band until I heard that LP.”
Something miraculous had happened while Roland was in Europe: His kid brother had blossomed into one of the most innovative, gifted guitarists in bluegrass. With Roland’s mandolin leads missing in action, Clarence had decided to fill the empty space in the arrangements with guitar leads, even though there wasn’t much precedent. Doc Watson was playing lead guitar in a solo format, and Earl Scruggs would occasionally switch from banjo to guitar for a Flatt & Scruggs gospel number; Don Reno sometimes did the same in Reno & Smiley. But Clarence was really the first full-time lead guitarist in a bluegrass band.
And he was terrific. Too much emphasis is put on his speed and facility, for he wasn’t nearly as fast as some of his followers. Clarence established the guitar as a lead instrument not with quickness but with tone and phrasing. The notes came out full-bodied and warm, and were allowed to breathe. His flatpicking style alternated high and low notes, thus providing a top and bottom to his sound and avoiding the shrillness of guitarists who tarry too long among the higher frets.
Instead of playing an even series of eighth or 16th notes, Clarence had a distinctive style of syncopation that pushed and pulled at the phrasing. Nor did he pour out an unending stream of music; every four-bar passage had a definite beginning, middle and end. And he always played enough of the melody to keep it fresh in your mind even as he varied it.
“Fast had nothing to do with it,” Roland insists. “Fast doesn’t do much for me. Clarence had that singer’s approach to bluegrass like I did. He could do something beautiful with a melody line; he could wander off without going too far.”
Clarence’s groundbreaking sound was already obvious on the home tapes he’d made with rhythm guitarist Roger Bush in 1962. Those tapes were finally released by Sierra Records in 2001 as 33 Acoustic Guitar Instrumentals. But White’s innovations really caught the public’s imagination on the Kentucky Colonels’ milestone 1964 album, Appalachian Swing.
The title was as misleading as the group’s name, for this was an unmistakably West Coast style of bluegrass featuring an unprecedented brand of lead guitar. First released by World Pacific Records and now available from Rounder, the LP’s dozen instrumentals astonished bluegrass fans not only with their guitar solos but also with the unusual syncopation employed by the entire front line of Clarence, Roland and Billy Ray Latham.
Roland had been discharged from the army just in time to rejoin his old band at a bluegrass and folk-music festival on September 5, 1963, at the Ice House in Pasadena. On hand were the Kentucky Colonels (featuring 25-year-old Roland, 22-year-old Eric and 19-year-old Clarence); the Haphazards (featuring 12-year-old Tony Rice and 13-year-old Larry Rice); the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers (featuring 18-year-old Chris Hillman); the Pine Valley Boys (featuring 19-year-old Herb Pedersen); and the Mad Mountain Ramblers (featuring 19-year-old David Lindley).
They were all still obscure youngsters, but the future of West Coast bluegrass and country-rock was right there at this one little festival. The California string-band scene was still small enough that they crossed paths all the time. They gave each other encouragement that this Appalachian music wasn’t such a weird thing for a young Californian to be playing after all. They all learned from each other, but mostly everyone else learned from Clarence and Roland White.
“As much as I liked growing up in suburban Los Angeles,” Virginia native Tony Rice confesses, “I often felt out of place. One day, I got brave enough to bring my guitar to school, but when I played, all I got was a lot of ridicule. No one in a California elementary school even knew what bluegrass was. After that, I didn’t take my guitar to school or even discuss music with my friends. [When] I finally found some other kids who liked bluegrass, it was a great relief.”
“Clarence White was one of my heroes,” admits Hillman. “I met him when we were both 16. He was already playing this unbelievable flatpicking/fingerpicking guitar style that no one else was doing. His sense of timing was unusual, to say the least.”
“At the time,” Rice recalls, “lead guitar didn’t exist, for the most part, in the bluegrass done back east. There were rare exceptions, but it was never a featured instrument. The only person that anyone knew about was Doc Watson, but before I heard of Doc, I had met Clarence White.
“When Roland left that band to go into the army,” Rice adds, “Clarence experimented with the guitar to fill that void and became a soloist. And because I admired him so much, I imitated him. If I had stayed back east, I might have been locked into the typical bluegrass role, where I played rhythm and sang lead.”
Thanks to Mike Seeger, the Kentucky Colonels made their second East Coast tour in 1964 and even appeared at the Newport Folk Festival, where Clarence played a guitar workshop with Doc Watson. By 1965, however, the music winds were shifting, and the Kentucky Colonels became an amplified country band.
Clarence White bought a Telecaster.
With Roland on electric mandolin, Roger Bush on electric bass, Billy Ray Latham on electric rhythm guitar and Bart Haney added as a drummer, the Colonels played five nights a week at a country bar in Azusa, California, mixing in a 15-minute bluegrass set with covers of country hits. It’s there that James Burton–the legendary guitarist on records by Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson, Buck Owens and many more–heard Clarence and was so impressed that he started recommending the young picker for recording sessions that Burton couldn’t handle himself.
By the late ‘60s, Clarence’s fame had spread to the East Coast, where hot pickers such as David Bromberg were fascinated not only by Clarence’s fingering technique but also by his invention of the StringBender, which he’d started developing with Gene Parsons in 1965. That creation, Bromberg explains, works via a button connected to the guitar strap. When you pull down on the guitar neck, the tension on the strap pulls the button out and raises every note on the guitar a whole step. When you relax the tension on the strap, a spring pops the button–and the pitch of the strings–back to the original position. It was a way to bend strings with precision rather than approximation.
“I got to play with Clarence,” Bromberg adds, “and he was a hell of a flattop player. I met him at a party in New York thrown by Jim McGuire, the photographer, the same party where I met Mike Auldridge. Clarence did this version of crosspicking where he went down, down with the pick and up with the finger, in triplets like Jesse McReynolds on the mandolin. Clarence was just brilliant; Albert Lee was extremely influenced by him.”
With rhythm guitarist Gib Guilbeau, bassist Wayne Moore and drummer Gene Parsons, Clarence formed Nashville West, named after a nightclub in El Monte, California. They played country hits by Merle Haggard, Mel Tillis and Glen Campbell in an aggressive, cranked-up rock ‘n’ roll style. They never released an album at the time, but a tape from a 1967 El Monte show, released by Sierra Records in 1997 as Nashville West, revealed the country-rock guitar licks that would soon become famous with the Byrds.
Chris Hillman had grown up to become the Byrds’ bassist, and he invited Clarence to be the guest guitarist on two country songs (“Time Between” and “Girl with No Name”) that Hillman had written for the Byrds’ fourth album, 1967’s Younger Than Yesterday.
“To me, Clarence’s Telecaster solos on Younger Than Yesterday mark the true beginning of country-rock,” Hillman insists. “It was a different direction from the jingle-jangle, Dylanesque, 4/4 groove we’d been doing. Clarence took his acoustic style and applied it to the electric guitar. He was doing a lot of country sessions in Bakersfield and L.A. He was aware of the Byrds and the Beatles and all that but was totally into country.”
When Gram Parsons briefly joined the Byrds in 1968, the group committed more fully to the country-rock concept with the album Sweetheart of the Rodeo. “We were making our first jabs at country-rock before we ever met Gram,” notes Hillman, “but when Gram came into the group, I had an ally, someone who had grown up with country music and understood it.
“Country music is simple from a technical standpoint, but you have to have a certain feel to play it right, and you can only get that feel if you’ve grown up with it. I’ve seen so many rock musicians try to play country, and they’d always screw it up. Gram didn’t, because he understood the music.”
Once again, Clarence was brought in as a guest guitarist. When Hillman, Gram Parsons and drummer Kevin Kelley all quit the Byrds in the wake of the album’s commercial disappointment, Roger McGuinn was the only Byrd remaining. Hillman and Parsons invited Clarence to join their new band, the Flying Burrito Brothers, but the guitarist instead chose to accept McGuinn’s offer to join the Byrds, a band with a proven track record. Gene Parsons, Clarence’s ex-bandmate in Nashville West (but no relation to Gram), was hired as the drummer, and bassist John York completed the new Byrds lineup.
Clarence stayed with the Byrds until the group finally split up at the beginning of 1973, and his distinctive guitar fills and solos were often the best things about the Byrds albums of the post-Sweetheart era. Clarence lit up such McGuinn compositions as “Child of the Universe,” “The Ballad of Easy Rider” and “Lover of the Bayou” and lent a hillbilly authenticity to the Byrds’ versions of “Old Blue” and “Jesus Is Just Alright.”
While Clarence was off consorting with rock royalty, Roland seized an opportunity to play with his original musical hero. “I’d met Bill [Monroe] in 1958, and he’d been to the house to eat my mom’s cooking. But when he came out to California in 1967, Lamar Grier–David’s dad–told me that Ranger Doug Green was leaving the band to go back to the University of Michigan. Lamar said, ‘You could do the acoustic-guitar part, but you’ve got to ask him for the job.’
“So one night when I was subbing for Doug, I told Bill that I was interested in a fulltime job. He said, ‘I’m not looking for a hotshot guitar picker; I’m looking for a man who will learn my music.’ I said, ‘That’s exactly what I want.’ I had just turned 29 and I got on the bus three days later. It was both intimidating and exciting; I had to pinch myself to believe that I was really playing with my hero.”
Roland worked with Monroe from May, 1967, until February, 1969, with James Monroe on bass, Grier (then Vic Jordan) on banjo and Byron Berline (then Kenny Baker) on fiddle. There was a reason for the band’s constant turnover; for the entire year of 1968, Roland made $2,800. It wasn’t enough.
“At the end of 1968,” Roland says, “I met Lester Flatt at WSM-TV in Nashville and I told him I had given Bill my notice. ‘Have you ever thought of using a mandolin player?’ I asked him. ‘Keep it under your hat,’ he told me, ‘but there’ll be some big changes after the first of the year.’”
The biggest change, of course, was the traumatic split of the Flatt & Scruggs partnership on January 1, 1969. The Foggy Mountain Boys–dobroist Josh Graves, fiddler Paul Warren and bassist Jake Tullock–all stayed with Flatt, while Scruggs formed a new group with his sons. Roland was the sole newcomer in a group that had been touring and recording together for 14 years.
“Stepping into that band was like stepping out of a ‘49 Ford and into a ‘69 Cadillac,” Roland claims. “There was so much drive. Not that it was fast, but they’d kick off a song, and it’d just go. I told Lester, ‘I don’t feel like I’m always part of the band; it’s more like I’m playing along.’
“He said, ‘I know for a fact that it takes a year to fit in with a group like ours. You need to pay attention to the pickup notes; they set the time. Watch my hands; when my thumb goes down, that’s the first beat. In a few months, you won’t have to think about it.’ And he was right. You have to listen–that’s what Clarence did so well. A lot of musicians don’t take time to listen; they just jump right in. I know, because I was guilty of not listening when I was young.
“Lester was having a hard time,” Roland adds. “He felt really let down by Earl. I wasn’t only Lester’s mandolin player but also his fishing buddy. He’d talk about the split with tears in his eyes. He’d have to stop himself.”
At the beginning of 1973, Clarence called up his older brother and said he’d left the Byrds. He was working on an album for Warner Bros. that would feature both acoustic and electric guitar, and he wanted Roland to be part of it.
“I quit Lester’s band to do that,” Roland reveals. “That’s how important it was to me. We re-formed the White Brothers with Eric and used Herb Pedersen, then Alan Munde on banjo. We went to Europe, and the Stockholm date was recorded. That live album, The White Brothers, is my favorite example of Clarence’s guitar playing.” (Rounder released the LP in 1977, subtitled The New Kentucky Colonels Live in Sweden, 1973.)
In February, Clarence was invited to join an all-star lineup–David Grisman, Peter Rowan, Richard Greene, Bill Keith and Stuart Schulman–to back up Bill Monroe before a live studio audience at KCET-TV in Hollywood. Monroe’s bus broke down, so the backing band played the show by themselves (a performance now available from Sierra Records as both a CD and video). The results were so impressive–Clarence more than held his own with the jazzy solos of Grisman and Greene–that the group made a studio album for Warner Bros. that spring. John Kahn replaced Schulman on bass, John Guerin was added on drums, and the septet called itself Muleskinner, after Monroe’s signature tune, “Muleskinner Blues.”
Clarence played both acoustic and electric guitar on Muleskinner–A Potpourri of Bluegrass Jam, which featured four numbers from Monroe, originals by Grisman and Rowan and a handful of ancient string-band tunes; he also helped Grisman sing the harmonies behind Rowan’s lead vocals. It was one of the earliest bluegrass-rock fusions, and it remains one of the best. Clarence’s stinging Telecaster arpeggios spurred Greene’s fiddle and Grisman’s mandolin to head-spinning leads, before Clarence broke loose for his own solos.
(In the liner notes for the 2003 reissue on DBK Works, Rowan wrote, “We all loved Clarence and his subtle reinvention of the bluegrass guitar beyond basic rhythm and into hair-raising leads that promised a new Django in our midst, in the wilds of west coast America.”)
In April, Clarence was backed by Roland, Byron Berline and Alan Munde on the Guitar Workshop TV show (now available as the video Together Again for the Last Time). In June, working with former Byrds producer Jim Dickson, Clarence finished six songs for his debut album. The four tracks that later surfaced on the country-rock anthology Silver Meteor included Mickey Newbury’s “Why You Been Gone So Long,” Delaney Bramlett’s “Never Ending Love,” Tom Paxton’s “The Last Thing on My Mind” and the traditional country-rag number “Alabama Jubilee.”
Backed by Roland on mandolin, Berline on fiddle, slide guitarist Ry Cooder, guitarist Herb Pedersen, electric bassist Lee Sklar, acoustic bassist Roger Bush and drummer Ed Green, Clarence not only handled all the guitar leads but also the lead vocals. His singing had improved since his infrequent vocal showcases with the Byrds, and his bluegrass-rock blend took the Muleskinner sound one step further. Then, on July 14, just as his career was really taking off, Clarence White had his fatal encounter with a drunk driver.
At Clarence’s funeral, former Kentucky Colonel Roger Bush asked Roland what he was going to do. Would he be going back to Lester Flatt? “No,” Roland replied, “that would be stepping back in time.” Bush said that his current band, Country Gazette, was looking for a guitarist, because Kenny Wertz was leaving. “Fine,” the grieving Roland said, “I’ve got to have something to do.”
That spur-of-the-moment decision led to a 13-year tenure with the Country Gazette. Roland played guitar and sang lead in a band that included bassist Bush, fiddler Berline and banjoist/leader Munde. Roland and Munde remained the unchanging core of Country Gazette from 1973 through 1986, a time when they emerged as one of the top newgrass groups anywhere (see sidebar).
By the mid-’80s, however, Country Gazette wasn’t working as much, and Roland was going through a difficult divorce. He wanted to spend more time with his teenage son, so he finally left Country Gazette in 1986 and took a day job selling fresh-ground coffee in Nashville. But Roland was already in the habit of slipping down to the Station Inn. He knew the owners, Bob and Bertie Smith, and they told him they needed musicians to keep the doors open.
“So I’d call everyone I knew in town,” Roland remembers, “and I’d say, ‘C’mon down and play.’ We’d play for whatever came in the door, and that’s how the club survived. Nashville would not be the same today if the Station Inn hadn’t been around.”
Roland was always putting unlikely groups together for the Station Inn, but one of the best was an impromptu sextet called the Dreadful Snakes, with Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Blaine Sprouse, Pat Enright and Mark Hembree. Douglas was so excited by a tape of one of their shows that he sent it off to Rounder Records. Rounder was so impressed that they put the sextet in the studio and released the results as Snakes Alive in 1983.
A few years later, the newly single Roland met a woman who worked the door at the Station Inn and sometimes jumped up onstage to sing and pick. Her name was Diane Bouska, and she had grown up outside Kansas City as a jazz and bluegrass fan. With a degree in archaeology and a banjo in her case, she was looking for a place to scratch both her itches. When Andrew Jackson’s home, the Hermitage, just outside of Nashville, advertised for an archaeologist, Bouska found the perfect solution.
“I connected with Roland,” she explains, “because we shared the same taste in jazz and bluegrass. You can hear from his playing that he studied Monroe, but there’s something else in there, too. I liked playing with him because of his restraint; he didn’t play those endless 16th notes. He has more taste than that.
“His personality comes through in his music; it’s like he’s dancing when he’s playing. He has a swing that reminds me of the Kansas City jazz pianists I grew up with; they swing hard, but it never seems like they’re working that hard. It was the same way with Flatt & Scruggs–their swing was light but quick. It’s all about being in the right place at the right time, and Roland’s always in the pocket. I like to get in there with him if I can.”
When Roland and Diane were married in May of 1988, the legendary K.C. jazz pianist Jay McShann played at their wedding. A year later, the newlyweds organized the New Kentucky Colonels, featuring guitarist/banjoist Richard Bailey and assorted guests.
Roland’s favorite group at the Station Inn, though, was the Nashville Bluegrass Band, an outfit that could play the old stuff fast and clean, and could transform honky-tonk and singer-songwriter numbers into convincing bluegrass. When a bad bus accident caused mandolinist Mike Compton and bassist Mark Hembree to leave the band in 1988, they were replaced by Roland and Gene Libbea.
“When I first saw the group,” Roland admits, “I never imagined I’d be in the band, because they already had such a great mandolin player. But when Mike left, I called [guitarist] Pat [Enright] and [banjoist] Alan [O’Bryant] up, and they hired me as a full partner, not as a sideman.”
Roland and fiddler Stuart Duncan led the way on the instrumental tunes, playing with the well-shaped tunefulness that once marked Roland’s collaborations with Clarence. And, despite the terrific voices of Enright and O’Bryant, Roland always got at least one lead vocal per album and per set. He made the most of his chances, pulling in the listener with understated charm. And when the quintet tackled the blues and black-gospel numbers that distinguished it, Roland sang the harmonies as if he’d grown up in an AME church.
It was such a great band, in fact, that Roland kept putting off his planned departure. He finally gave notice in October of 2000 and played his last gig on November 4. “It was hard to leave,” he says, “but I had some things that weren’t going to happen in the Nashville Bluegrass Band. I was writing more material than they could use, and I wanted to do something other than hardcore, down-to-earth bluegrass.”
The Roland White Band was launched that fall with Roland, Diane, Richard Bailey and bassist Todd Cook. The quartet released its debut album, Jelly on My Tofu (Copper Creek Records), in 2002 and was rewarded with a Grammy nomination. In addition to the originals that Roland had been saving up for his new group, the CD featured mainstream country songs associated with Brenda Lee and the Louvin Brothers, as well as R&B songs associated with Little Esther and Bobby Hebb. And Bailey contributed an original composition, as well as some of the most memorable breaks.
“Richard doesn’t play like everyone else,” Diane asserts. “He’s always going out on a limb. He gets so far out there that you’re not sure if he’ll be able to get back. So when he does, it makes you laugh.”
When the Roland White Band performed at the 2003 IBMA Fan Fest, they began with three of the best songs from their album: Roland’s jazzy instrumental title cut; the Louvins-style duet by Roland and Diane on “Hoping That You’re Hoping”; and the snappy 12-bar blues of Leiber and Stoller’s “Flesh, Blood & Bone,” which boasted Diane’s sassy vocal and Roland’s piano-like mandolin solo. With her short, sandy hair, prominent cheekbones and horn-rimmed glasses, Diane is a tad taller than her husband but just as thin.
“It’s the Roland White Band,” she concedes, “but I’m his foil. He’s gentle, kind and sweet–and I’m not. He’s the perfect straight man, and sometimes I can’t resist sticking the knife in. And I love singing those country duets with him.”
By the end of the set, however, Clarence’s ghost visited the stage. The old country standard “Alabama Jubilee” and Tom Paxton’s “The Last Thing on My Mind” had both been slated for Clarence’s unfinished debut album, and the Roland White Band performed them with the syncopated, tuneful shapeliness that was Clarence’s trademark. Roland pointed out that Clarence only appeared at one major bluegrass festival, the 1973 event at Indian Springs, Maryland, where he first introduced the Paxton song with the White Brothers.
Perhaps it was just the listener’s imagination, but Roland seemed to sing Paxton’s chorus with an extra dollop of emotion: Are you going away with no word of farewell? It was as if he were still reaching for those car keys that he never quite grasped. It was as if he were still reaching for that elusive blend of country, bluegrass and pop that the White Brothers might have realized in the ‘70s, if not for a drunken driver.
Sidebar: Farther Along
Since his brother’s death, Roland White has helped guide a pair of top-flight bluegrass ensembles
Trying to keep busy in the wake of his brother’s death, Roland White accepted an invitation from former Kentucky Colonel Roger Bush to join him in the Country Gazette with fiddler Byron Berline and banjoist/leader Alan Munde. Though White’s decision to join was somewhat spontaneous, the association would last for 13 years.
For White, after six years with Monroe and Flatt, the Country Gazette was an opportunity to stretch his own playing, as well as the boundaries of string-band music–much as he had hoped to do with the reunited White Brothers. Along with the expected numbers by Monroe, the Stanley Brothers and Don Reno, Country Gazette tackled songs by Gram Parsons, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, the Beatles and a very young Kevin Welch.
“I grew up in Burbank, not Appalachia,” White points out, “so these songs related to my experience. I wanted to experiment on my instrument, and Country Gazette gave me the chance to learn minor chords and diminished chords. It was refreshing because I was learning something, and if I’m not learning something, I’m not inspired.
“Alan would always bring me cassettes of jazz albums by Django Reinhardt, Herb Ellis and Charlie Christian. Whenever I visited his house in Oklahoma, I’d record his jazz albums. I was really floored by Thelonious Monk. I don’t play many jazz tunes in public, but listening to them influences how I play bluegrass. The little fills I play may seem simpler than some bluegrass fills, but they’re trickier harmonically.”
In 1974, the lineup of White, Bush, Berline and Munde released a live album recorded at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica. When Berline left early in 1975, and his successor, Dave Ferguson, left at the end of that year, White convinced Munde to fill the fiddle spot with a guitarist so that White could move back to mandolin, his favorite instrument. Kenny Wertz, whom White had originally replaced, came back to play guitar, and this lineup released the 1976 album Out to Lunch.
Wertz and Bush soon departed, and Country Gazette was down to White, Munde and assorted guests for the 1977 album What a Way to Make a Living. In early 1978, guitarist Joe Carr and bassist Mike Anderson joined the band, and this quartet recorded three albums together. Bill Smith was the bassist for 1982’s America’s Bluegrass Band, and dobroist Gene Wooten and bassist Billy Joe Foster joined White and Munde for 1986’s Bluegrass Tonight.
Facing a trying divorce and wanting to spend more time with his son, White left Country Gazette in 1986. He kept his chops fresh by organizing jam sessions at the Station Inn, a custom he’d developed even before he left the Country Gazette. It was at the Station Inn that he first honed his relationship with the Nashville Bluegrass Band, his next long-term project.
The quartet of guitarist Pat Enright, banjoist Alan O’Bryant, bassist Mark Hembree and mandolinist Mike Compton first assembled in 1984 as the band for a tour of country veterans Vernon Oxford and Minnie Pearl. Their first two albums, 1985’s My Native Home and 1986’s Idletime, appeared on Rounder.
But it was the third album, 1987’s To Be His Child, that set the Nashville Bluegrass Band on its distinctive path. It was a gospel album, but hardly a conventional one. In addition to the expected hymns from Monroe and the Stanleys, there were numbers from such African-American gospel groups as the Dixie Hummingbirds and the Gospel Writers. This put the blues back into bluegrass, giving the group’s four-part harmonies a dark, minor-seventh feel. In addition, the superb session fiddler Stuart Duncan was added as an official fifth member.
“Their singing has always been based on Southern black singing,” White says admiringly. “They loved the blues, which I also loved. They reminded me how much blues had been in Monroe’s playing and how that influence had gotten lost in bluegrass.”
The original quartet collaborated with Peter Rowan for their Sugar Hill debut, 1988’s New Moon Rising, before Compton and Hembree left following a severe bus accident in western Virginia. After White and bassist Gene Libbea were added as replacements, the reconstituted quintet launched the second phase of its career with 1990’s pointedly titled The Boys Are Back in Town and followed that with five more albums for the label. Two of those, 1993’s Waitin’ for the Hard Times to Go and 1995’s Unleashed, won Grammy Awards for Best Bluegrass Recording. Throughout the decade, the Nashville Bluegrass Band took home multiple IBMA Awards as well, twice being named Entertainer of the Year.
“When I joined the Nashville Bluegrass Band in 1989,” White says, “I told [my wife] Diane that I’d be ready to do my own band in five or six years, but it went on for 11 years.”