Clarence White - lead guitar, vocals; Roland White - mandolin, vocals; Eric White, Jr. - string bass, vocals; Dennis Morris - rhythm guitar, vocals; Bob Warford - five-string banjo, vocals
Hailing from Maine, and relocating to Burbank, California as children, the White Brothers were exposed to traditional fiddle and country music early on. The boys' father, Eric White, Sr., moved the family west to pursue a position with Lockheed Aircraft. During his off hours, he was a multi-instrumentalist, playing fiddle, guitar, banjo, and harmonica and he strongly encouraged his children's interest in music. Soon enough, the eldest brothers, Roland on mandolin and guitar and Eric, Jr. on string bass, with the occasional help of their sister Joann, began performing. The youngest, Clarence, joined in on guitar in 1954 at age 10. Going by the name Three Little Country Boys, the brothers won a country music talent show sponsored by KXLA in Pasadena. First prize was an opportunity to perform on a local television program, Country Barndance Jubilee. The boys' enthusiastic approach to bluegrass was so well received that they were invited for frequent return visits to the show, while playing barn dances on weekends. As teenagers in 1957, they became regulars on local radio and attracted the interest of country music star Joe Maphis. A talented guitarist based out of Los Angeles, Maphis arranged for the boys to perform on Town Hall Party, a higher profile television show, and again they were a hit. Maphis, who enjoyed diverse tastes in music, exposed Clarence to jazz guitarists Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian, both of whom would have a profound effect on the young guitar player. The following year, banjo player Billy Ray Latham joined the three bothers and the name was shortened to the Country Boys. By 1958, the folk music boom was taking hold, and like many bluegrass acts at the time, the Country Boys began frequenting coffeehouses and folk clubs, soon landing a week-long residency at the Ash Grove in Hollywood. Over the course of the next few years, the Country Boys would become truly adept musicians and in 1961 they landed several guest appearances on NBC's Andy Griffith Show, huge national exposure at the time. That same year Roland was drafted, an event that triggered personnel changes and the Country Boys evolved into the Kentucky Colonels.
Arguably the best urban bluegrass group of the era, the Kentucky Colonels recorded two albums,The New Sound Of Bluegrass America in 1962 and Appalachian Swing the following year, which featured the return of Roland from his 17-month stint in the Army. During the time Roland was away, Doc Watson made his West Coast debut at the Ash Grove, which had a profound effect on Clarence, listening intently in the audience. Already an accomplished guitarist himself, now Clarence began incorporating Watson's use of open strings and syncopation into his own rapidly developing flat-picking technique. More importantly, Clarence began thinking in terms of the guitar being a lead instrument. He spent most of his free time practicing and perfecting this new approach, and with Roland adapting his mandolin playing to Clarence's new style of flatpicking, the Kentucky Colonels were now attracting considerable attention.
While his brothers and band mates were primarily interested in bluegrass music, Clarence was more like a sponge. After studying the country picking styles of Doc Watson, Jimmy Bryant , Merl Travis, Chet Atkins, and Joe Maphis, he was now equally interested in jazz guitarists like Django Reinhart and Charlie Christian as well as rockers Chuck Berry and Duane Eddy. He also became friends with rockabilly guitarist, James Burton, who greatly impressed Clarence with his electric guitar technique and lucrative living as a session guitarist for hire. In 1965, Clarence purchased a 1954 Telecaster and with the encouragement of Burton, Eddy, and Bryant, began to modify his own technique for electric guitar. The Kentucky Colonels played a handful of acoustic/electric gigs, but Clarence was becoming increasingly interested in other forms of music and the group broke up in November of 1965.
By this point, the White brothers had become well-known, widely respected musicians, and following James Burton's example, Clarence began accepting numerous invitations for session work, despite his inability to read music. He quickly established a reputation in Los Angeles studio circles, performing on sessions for Ricky Nelson, Randy Newman, the Monkees, and even Pat Boone. Along with friends and fellow session musicians Gib Guilbeau, Gene Parsons, and Wayne Moore, Clarence formed what many consider to be the first country-rock group, Nashville West in 1966. Although enjoying the groundbreaking music he was creating with Nashville West, Clarence was making a far better living as a studio musician. That year (1966), Clarence's legendary association with the Byrds began. While recording and briefly touring with former Byrd Gene Clark and the Gosdin Brothers, Clarence became friends with Chris Hillman, who invited him to contribute his distinctive guitar to two songs on the Byrds' Younger Than Yesterday album sessions. Both of the songs, "Time Between" and "The Girl With No Name" were stylistic departures for the Byrds, featuring a distinct country flavoring that was greatly enhanced by Clarence. He would be invited back for sessions on the next two Byrds albums as well before joining full time, rejuvenating the group as a live performing band in the process.
This live recording of the White Brothers is particularly interesting as it occurred during this pivotal time in Clarence's life, following his first sessions with the Byrds, but prior to being invited back for The Notorious Byrd Brothers sessions in November of 1967. Here, one is treated to Clarence playing his acoustic D-28 and enjoying his bluegrass roots. The White Brothers primarily perform choice favorites from their Kentucky Colonels repertoire, plus a few Bill Monroe numbers for good measure. With Clarence on lead guitar, Roland on mandolin, Eric, Jr. on string bass and augmented by Dennis Morris on rhythm guitar and Bob Warford picking 5-string banjo, the sophisticated interplay of these musicians is well beyond extraordinary. Fans of the Kentucky Colonels and bluegrass music in general, will be familiar with most of these songs and will be delighted at the exuberance of these performances. On a bill that also featured a young Taj Mahal fronting the Outlaw Blues Band, the intimate Ash Grove audience was certainly in for a treat on this night.
The White Brothers open up this second set of the evening with the old folk song that was transformed into a bluegrass classic by Flatt & Scruggs, "Salty Dog Blues." Bob Warford immediately kicks it into high gear with his hot 5-string banjo picking and between each verse both Clarence and Roland take impressive solos. The first of three songs in this set lifted from Bill Monroe follows, with a delightful take on "Blue Moon Of Kentucky," featuring round robin style solo breaks from Bob, Roland, and Clarence in succession. On these first two numbers, Roland handles lead vocals, but next has Dennis Morris vocally front the group on "Ain't Nobody Gonna Miss Me When I'm Gone," a song the Colonels had recorded several years prior. Here Clarence begins fully hitting his stride and his clean precision combines with blazing speed.
Bob Warford next leads the way into "Dear Old Dixie," a smoking hot banjo instrumental that serves as the perfect vehicle for more superb interplay. Warford takes the first solo, followed by an impressive flight from Roland on mandolin. Clarence follows Roland with an exciting flight of his own, featuring breathtaking flat-picking and delightfully unexpected shifts and turns, before Warford and Roland each take flight again. Vernon Dalhart's "Prisoner's Song" follows, another number learned from Bill Monroe. This sad and more introspective song features lovely flat-picking from Clarence throughout, interspersed with tight focused solos from both Roland and Clarence between each verse.
The two unequalled highlights of the set follow, first with an astounding performance by Clarence on Jimmy Bryant's "Jimmy's Barnyard Shuffle." This is a tour-de-force featuring country-western style picking of the highest caliber. With its tricky phrasing, mind warping speed, and unexpected split-second pauses, Clarence remains playful, yet technically astounding, throughout. However, the standout performance of this set is an extended take on the famous fiddle tune, "Sally Goodin." Although devoid of fiddle, these musicians take the opportunity to stretch out here, with an incredibly clean, fluid, and highly emotive performance. The interplay is phenomenal and Clarence is simply out of this world right off the bat, leading the way for the first minute or so, before Roland takes a highly rhythmic mandolin solo, ramping up the propulsion that Clarence developed. Essentially a standard square dancing song, the cascades of notes and uniquely exotic phrasings from Clarence and Roland and the high spirited accompaniment of the other three musicians, turn this party tune into a bluegrass breakdown of the highest order, providing listeners with an unforgettable performance. An upbeat reading of Bill Monroe's classic "Footprints In The Snow," featuring outstanding solos from both Clarence and Roland, closes out this exuberant performance.
Written by Alan Bershaw