Long Journey Home: The White Brothers and the Birth of Country Rock
The journey of Clarence White and his brothers offers a useful corrective for those inclined to consider bluegrass, if they consider it at all, as the province of rustics on an Appalachian porch, fiddling next to a jar of flammable liquid. Clarence and Roland White, singly and together, pulled the guitar forward in bluegrass ensemble playing, and hotwired the connections between fiddle tunes, bluegrass, western swing, folk, and country, setting the stage for a hardy hybrid: country-rock. They anchored a constellation of performers who expanded audiences from country radio shows and dance bars, to folk coffeehouses, recording studios, and then concert stages around the world. The White brothers’ story reveals the period from the late 1950s to mid-60s when country and bluegrass found its way to folk audiences craving authenticity, and from there to rock audiences in the form of the Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, the Grateful Dead, Gram Parsons, Gene Clark, Poco, Eagles and countless others. A new publication and newly restored recordings now offer the chance to appreciate how profoundly Clarence White influenced both bluegrass and rock guitar, and hear the first expressions of his immense talent and its later fruition. [Video and audio at Smoke.]
Bluegrass shares speed, volume, hard-driving rhythms and a decidedly dark view of humanity with rock music. And bluegrass, like the blues that ventured north to be electrified and urbanized into R&B and soul, is migrant’s music. From the 1930s Dust Bowl refugees to the postwar factory boom, California provided new soil for rural families looking for a new start — and they brought their music with them. The burnt-brown factory boomtowns in the valleys around 1950s Los Angeles drew one French-Canadian family, originally LeBlanc, from Down East Maine. The Whites settled in Burbank and soon found kindred musical spirits. Speaking from his home in Nashville, Roland White remembered that, “When we went to California, that’s the first time we had heard so much country music. On the radio and at the shows. We realized that no one was from California. They had come there to work. They were all from somewhere else.”
The Country Boys
Though barely big enough to hold the guitar in his lap, Clarence White asked big brother Roland to show him some chords. In a house vibrating to father Eric Sr.’s fiddle, guitar, banjo, and harmonica, it was an astonishingly short path (with brother Eric, Jr., on bass) from the living room to country dance halls, radio, and tv shows as The Country Boys. The youngsters — Roland was in mid-teens and Clarence was only 10 when they first appeared — played mostly traditional country tunes for the dancers and the variety shows — until their Uncle Armand introduced Bill Monroe to the family record player. The boys dug into Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, and Jimmy Martin. In The Essential Clarence White: Bluegrass Guitar Leads (available here), Roland identifies Earl Scruggs’s banjo playing, Josh Graves’s dobro and Jesse McReynolds’s mandolin as particular early influences on Clarence, as well as the varied styles of guitar players such as Don Reno, Joe Maphis, George Shuffler and, later, Doc Watson and Django Reinhardt. The spiral-bound volume with two discs, Roland’s tribute to his brother, presents the homemade tapes a self-assured 18-year-old Clarence made for his students to learn the bluegrass repertoire, just as he had learned from listening to those Monroe 45s. The package includes tab and musical notation for the songs on the disc, helpful instruction from Roland and his partner Diane Bouska, images, video, and a second disc of rhythm guitar tracks to help aspiring guitarists learn the solos Clarence laid down.
For non-players (and those guitarists who despair of ever emulating Clarence), the book also presents Roland’s first-person narrative of the brothers’ shared experience. First as The Country Boys, then as The Kentucky Colonels, the premier urban bluegrass group of the time, they played around California and then the world, often onstage with mentors such as Doc Watson and Bill Monroe. Though still quite young and raised far from the hills and hollers that were the bluegrass birthplace, Clarence’s playing drew immediate notice. Jerry Garcia, who followed the Colonels’s first East Coast tour, observed later that, “He brought a kind of swing – a rhythmic openness – to bluegrass, and a unique syncopation. His feel has been incorporated by a lot of other players, but nobody has ever quite gotten the open quality of his rhythm. In the bluegrass world, the instruments characteristically are on top of or slightly in front of the beat. Bluegrass is a kind of forward-leaning music. Clarence’s playing was way in the back of the beat, and so added an openness that was really breathtaking.”
The Kentucky Colonels
When I asked Roland about Clarence’s rhythmic innovation, he replied, “I’ll tell you what turned him on to that. We were heavily into Earl Scruggs’s banjo playing. We listened to it constantly. I got a brand new Gibson banjo back in the ‘50s just to sit down with the Scruggs records and see what in the world he was doing. Clarence would get the banjo and try to figure it out, too. Not to be playing the banjo, because he could not play with fingerpicks. He just didn’t want to. He just did it with a flatpick and his middle finger for triplets and stuff.”
The brothers separated for a time as Roland hewed closer to bluegrass traditions, touring with Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt, and Clarence evolved his now-revered electric technique. Clarence’s prodigious talent and application of the crosspicking and string bending he learned from bluegrass and country elevated him as one of the most in-demand session players in L.A. In 1967, he used his new electric skills to expand his musical boundaries with what is arguably the first country-rock group, Nashville West. That group’s residency at the club of the same name drew such fellow travelers as Gram Parsons, Chris Hillman (who brought the other Byrds), and Sneaky Pete Kleinow, and the band presaged the emergence of The Flying Burrito Brothers. Gene Parsons, in an interview with Ben Fong-Torres, referred to sessions Clarence played with Gram Parsons, Gene Parsons, Chris Hillman, and Gib Guilbeau as a “prototype Burrito Brothers” (Gene Parsons and Clarence were reportedly asked to join the Burritos when Gram Parsons and Hillman left the Byrds).
“I met him when he’d been playing the electric guitar about a year, and I was amazed at what he could do,” Gene Parsons remembered (as quoted on ebni.com/byrds). “He’d just taken the capo off it and was starting to learn to play barre chords up and down the neck. Once he pulled the capo off he really got down to it. He was bending strings all over the place and trying to make it sound like a steel guitar.” Clarence himself maintained in an interview quoted in Frets magazine that, “It wasn’t so much that I was getting bored with acoustic bluegrass. I could feel so many new things in the air. I wanted to get in the stream of a new kind of music that combined what you could call a ‘folk integrity’ with electric rock.”
It didn’t take an enormous leap of imagination for the Byrds to pull Clarence into their exploration of country music, a musical turn that brought the country-rock sound conceived on stages of country dance halls and folk clubs like The Ash Grove to worldwide audiences. Clarence played on sessions for three Byrds records, including 1968’s country-rock landmark Sweetheart of the Rodeo, before becoming a full member with 1969’s Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde. He played on all Byrds records until 1971’s Farther Along, the longest-serving Byrd other than Roger McGuinn. A listen to (Untitled)’s live set demonstrates just how central Clarence was to the Byrds’s sound, with “Nashville West” a blistering homage to the band that was country-rock’s launching pad. “Black Mountain Rag,” which appears on the Essential Clarence White disc and was a staple of the Colonels, continued as a centerpiece of the Byrds’s acoustic breakdowns, as can be heard on a clip of “Black Mountain Rag” from the Byrds’s last show at the Fillmore East in 1971 on Wolfgang’s Vault.
Roland devotes special attention to The Ash Grove, referring to the brothers’ 1959 introduction to Ash Grove’s Ed Pearl as “a big break.” And it was the first place they really heard themselves play: “Ash Grove actually had two microphones and a monitor, and that was the first time we had ever heard ourselves come back through a monitor.” It was at Ash Grove that Clarence played his first guitar breaks, which Pearl recalled as being during “Wildwood Flower” and “Jimmy Brown the Newsboy.” The Ash Grove stage was their classroom, where they learned, taught younger players, and watched masters like The Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, and New Lost City Ramblers. More importantly, Ash Grove exposed the Whites to a folk audience that came to listen rather than dance, and to the folk festival and college circuit that propelled their early career. Roland remembers that Ash Grove was a gathering place. “[Ash Grove] was always open in the afternoon. Sometimes the local players would come by and pick, or somebody would be giving lessons. I’ll tell you how Clarence taught. He would just play for them and they would ask him questions. None of us knew any music theory or why we did certain things. We just played, and we’d been playing since we were little. It started very early on.” Though he didn’t teach at Ash Grove, Roland has been a teacher and mentor to many since, including Marty Stuart. He remains active with his own band.
As they matured from the Country Boys to the Kentucky Colonels, the brothers continued to play The Ash Grove — and Ed Pearl recorded them. Those recordings are now restored and remastered, and Wolfgang’s Vault has posted a set from April 1967, one of several Whites performances in its Ash Grove collection.
The show captures the White Brothers at a crucial juncture. The Colonels had disbanded in mid-1966, Clarence had recently done his first sessions with the Byrds, and Roland was a month from joining Bill Monroe. Roland describes the five-piece that appeared that night (the three Whites plus Dennis Morris on rhythm and Bob Warford on banjo) as a “part-time” band but they pull together a set of Kentucky Colonels favorites. Their take on the fiddle tune “Sally Goodin” illustrates Clarence’s signature crosspicking, their melodic invention, and the intuitive rhythmic interplay with Roland’s equally propulsive mandolin. After Roland kicks it off in high spirits, they send the fiddle chestnut into a completely different orbit (it’s also on the Essential Clarence White disc).
When Roland returned from the Army in 1963, he discovered his brother had taken their music to a higher plane. Because Roland’s mandolin, the traditional lead bluegrass instrument, was missing, Clarence filled the gap. When asked if Clarence’s guitar virtuosity pushed his own playing, Roland replies, “Oh, gosh yes. When I got out of the Army those guys were on fire. He had to take my place and take the breaks. He was playing the breaks to banjo tunes, slow tunes, whatever they were playing. He had this beautiful right-hand technique.” The Ash Grove set finds the brothers back together, Clarence taking a break from his electric guitar to revel in his Martin and the bluegrass standards they used as a springboard for invention.
The Kentucky Colonels
Roland also described a less well-known steppingstone to the country-rock cradle at Nashville West: a plugged-in version of the Kentucky Colonels that held court at a bowling-alley lounge. “The last year we were together, the coffeehouse scene dried up,” he recalled. “In 1966, we got a job in this bowling alley, this lounge in a bowling alley in Azusa, California. The guy said, ‘It’s yours, but you gotta play something they can dance to.’ We got a drummer, Bart Haney. Clarence bought a Telecaster. I had an electric mandolin my dad made, and mostly played acoustic through my vocal mic. [Longtime Country Boys and Colonels member] Billy Ray Latham had an electric guitar that he played rhythm on, and Roger Bush got an electric bass. We mostly played the popular country songs of the day, Buck Owens and the like. Merle Haggard songs. If you played a song that was popular, they’d all get on the dance floor. We’d throw in about a 15-minute set of bluegrass. People were hurting themselves! They were jumping around and laying on the floor, whooping and hollering. The bartender said, ‘Someone’s gonna get hurt in here.’ Clarence got to playing more electric guitar. The first thing I remember him playing on electric was ‘Buckaroo.’ We did all kinds of things, ‘Never On Sunday.’ I used to play it on the mandolin, just fooling around. ‘Caravan.’ Next thing you know the drummer’s out in the audience playing on the tables and chairs. It was a lot of fun. Word got around there was a pretty good little country band in Azusa, the Kentucky Colonels. People mostly came to see Clarence. He was really wailing, really soulful guitar breaks.”
We’ve heard from the producers at Wolfgang’s Vault that the Ash Grove collection includes Kentucky Colonels shows and even some early Country Boys performances. In addition to the Byrds performances already in the Concert Vault, the collection fills in a more complete picture of the bluegrass influence on country rock — and the continuing influence of two of its most important godfathers.