I keep trying, and mostly failing, to keep my mind in the present while listening to A Tribute to the Kentucky Colonels, a new release from Roland White and Friends.
Before I lapse into personal reminiscence, I should mention right off that I really like this CD, which is replete with good tunes, fine singing and excellent picking. I think you’ll enjoy listening to it, even if you know nothing about The Kentucky Colonels.
When Lynn Lipton asked whether I’d be interested in reviewing this CD, my immediate response was “Of course!” The music of Roland and Clarence White, Billy Ray Latham, Bobby Slone, Leroy Mack and Roger Bush, original members of The Kentucky Colonels, had a substantial influence on my playing when I was an aspiring musician and singer in my early twenties. Of particular importance was their LP Appalachian Swing, which was originally released by World Pacific Records in 1964 and was re-issued by United Artists as Kentucky Colonels Featuring Roland and Clarence White, about a year after Clarence White’s death in 1973.
In the sixties and early seventies, a lot guitarists, awed by Clarence White’s flatpicking solos, spent hours hunched over their stereos, repeatedly lifting and lowering the tonearms over particular cuts while trying to figure out just what Clarence’s fingers were up to. Back then, I picked some guitar now and then, but I mostly played mandolin. When I first listened to Roland White’s mandolin style, I really liked it. But I can’t say I was awed by it, and I didn’t study his playing all that closely. Nevertheless, I did hear his breaks over and over again because I had The Kentucky Colonels’ music on my turntable so often. Their songs and tunes were a constant presence in the soundtrack of my day-to-day life in the mid-70s, and over time I found that Roland’s mandolin playing was having an influence on my own. Even now, forty-four years after I first heard the Kentucky Colonels’ instrumental recording of “Nine Pound Hammer,” it’s Roland’s version of that song that I have in mind every time I play it.
For a long time I have appreciated Roland White’s mandolin playing in the same way that I have a fondness for the recordings of Red Rector. Neither was a great innovator. Their styles aren’t quite the same, but they share some very important qualities: thoughtful approach, solid technique, and basic good taste. Their versions of traditional fiddle tunes and their breaks on Bluegrass standards are always appropriate to the task at hand—accessible, listenable, downright pleasant, and just occasionally flashy.
This tribute CD includes updated versions of twelve songs and tunes that were recorded or performed by the Kentucky Colonels in the 1960s and 1970s. As one would expect, Roland’s mandolin playing and singing are solid and entertaining throughout. He is ably supported by a host of other players and singers; they are almost too numerous to mention, but here goes:
The daunting task of paying homage to Clarence White’s groundbreaking instrumental style falls to a number of accomplished guitarists: David Grier, Molly Tuttle, John Stickley, Billy Strings, Josh Haddix and Drew Matulich. All of them succeed remarkably well, honoring Clarence’s picking by playing solid solos that build upon his inventive guitar style without necessarily imitating it. My favorites are “Nine Pound Hammer,” with Billy Strings; “I Am a Pilgrim” and the medley of “Soldier’s Joy” and “Ragtime Annie,” with Molly Tuttle; and “Clinch Mountain Backstep” with David Grier.
Grier, in particular, belongs on this CD, and not just because he’s the only guitarist here who was around to pick up licks in person from Clarence. Everything he plays here is truly good. Anyone studying Clarence’s style should pay just as much attention to David Grier’s picking, on this CD and everywhere else.
[A side note: If you haven’t already seen it, look online for the great photograph of Clarence White and David Grier (at age 12) walking together at the 1972 Bluegrass Unlimited festival in Indian Springs, Maryland. You can find it at Grier’s website. It was taken by Carl Fleischhauer, and it is just one of his many great photos in the book Bluegrass Odyssey (University of Illinois Press, 2001).]
Of course, The Kentucky Colonels weren’t just a backup group showcasing the White brothers’ great instrumental abilities. It was always a solid bluegrass band that included excellent banjo players—first Billy Ray Latham and later Alan Mundy—and fiddlers—Bobby Slone and Scotty Stoneman among them. Their contributions are ably represented on this CD by banjo pickers Gina Furtado, Russ Carson, Justin Hiltner, Kristin Scott Benson and Aaron Bibelhauser, and by fiddlers Brittany Haas, Jeremy Garrett, Patrick McAvinue, Kimber Ludiker and Lindsay Pruett.
I have always liked Roland White’s voice, and it is as clear and strong at age 80 as it was in his early recordings and as it remained in his work over the past five decades with Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Country Gazette, The Nashville Bluegrass Band and his own band.
“Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms”
The best song on the CD is “Why You Been Gone So Long,” which has probably been recorded by more country artists than “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” has by Bluegrass bands. Written by Mickey Newbury and originally recorded in 1969 by Johnny Darrell, it is a broken-heart song Clarence recorded just a few weeks before his death, with Ry Cooder on slide guitar and Clarence on his B-Bender electric guitar. The Kentucky Colonels’ version, with Clarence singing lead, can be heard on live recordings made in Sweden and Holland in the spring of 1973. The new version, with Roland now on lead and with harmony singing from Nick Dauphinais and Jon Weisberger, is every bit as good as the older performances.
“Little White Washed Chimney”
Another good performance comes on Bill Clifton’s “Little White Washed Chimney,” with harmony from Darren Nicholson; it’s the song I usually can’t get out of my head after I’ve been listening to this album. To my surprise, I have also enjoyed hearing Roland and Billy Strings sing the somewhat over-played festival standard “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms.” Turns out it’s still a pretty good song at about one-half the usual speed. (For the full-speed, breakneck version, I recommend that you look on YouTube for Roland performing it with Lester Flatt.)
To sum up, here’s my recommendation: If you’re an aspiring musician, find a lot of Kentucky Colonels’ recordings and listen to them closely. Then get this CD and carefully study the breaks you want to learn on your own instrument; these performances are that good. But also keep it playing in the background when you are sweeping the floor, washing the dishes, working in the shop or doing something really important like changing your strings. Just as the Appalachian Swing LP was for my generation, this CD could be a really good influence on your playing and singing.
[A second side note: At first I wondered idly whether it was somehow a bit inappropriate for Roland White, as member of the original Kentucky Colonels, to be doing a tribute to his own band—isn’t that sort of like honoring yourself, maybe part-way, at least? Is that like a conflict of interest? I got past this notion when I recalled that one of my all-time favorite Gospel records is Grandpa Jones Remembers the Browns Ferry Four, a wonderful tribute album honoring the quartet Grandpa had performed in with the Delmore Brothers and Merle Travis. The answer, I discovered, was “Of course it’s okay. It can even be a really good idea.”]