Remembering Clarence White

“We played in places like the Ash Grove in Los Angeles, which Ed Pearl ran,” recalls Roland. He was the first one to bring Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs out West to play. Ed used us as a band at his place probably two or three times a year, playing Wednesday through Saturday with some other acts on the bill. It was very nice, a listening room, you could actually hear yourself play. You could see people watching you, though, and that made it very hard.”

An Excerpt from Bluegrass Guitar by Sid Griffin and Eric Thompson

Bluegrass Guitar will captivate flatpickers of all stylistic persuasions. Subtitled Know the Players, Play the Music, this 152-page, spiral-bound book and CD package contains photos, excellent flatpicking arrangements (written in notation and tab), and a detailed history of the genre. Especially cool are the stories about flat-top masters Doc Watson, Tony Rice, Bryan Sutton, and the late Clarence White. The following excerpts from Bluegrass Guitar chronicle White’s musical evolution by those who knew him best. Our excerpt begins with the words of mandolin virtuoso Roland White, who played with brother Clarence in the pioneering band, the Kentucky Colonels. —Andy Ellis

The Early Days

Chris Hillman remembers those days vividly as well. “I met Clarence when I was 16. We were the same age. When I first heard the Country Boys, I came up from San Diego with Kenny Wertz and we watched them play at the Ash Grove. It was Clarence, Roger Bush, Leroy Mack, Billy Ray Lathum, and Bobby Sloan on fiddle. Roland White was in the Army and he was stationed in Germany, so a fellow named Scott Hambley was sitting in on mandolin. He was a student at Berkeley. I met Clarence then, and we got to know each other quite well. I would come up to L.A. to see him in different incarnations, the next one being the Kentucky Colonels with Scotty Stoneman on fiddle, who was also a phenomenal musician.”

“Clarence’s acoustic guitar playing,” notes Hillman, “was learned from Joe Maphis and Doc Watson, and he got a lot of it probably from listening to Joseph Spence, the Bahamian guitarist who had this incredible sense of time. Listen to Clarence play, his timing was unbelievable, he would just barely make the downbeat of the next measure. The only guy who has carried that kind of style on is Tony Rice. There are a million great flatpickers out there right now, unbelievable players, but Tony still has that thing about Clarence, and Clarence taught Tony when he was just a little kid. The Rice brothers were living in California, and it was a very small bluegrass community then.”

“Clarence was just a really gifted player,” continues Hillman. “He existed on another plane as far as his playing went. Yeah, he could play fast, but it is the slow mid-tempo stuff he’d flatpick that was just unbelievable. Then Tony Rice picked up the ball from him. Clarence was in another dimension. Clarence took the bluegrass guitar, which was then basically a rhythm instrument, and put it into the lead soloing category. He was one of the main guys who did that.”

Hearing Doc Watson

“In the meantime,” remembers Roland with a sigh, “Doc Watson came to the Ash Grove. And when Clarence saw Doc Watson play using the capo like a banjo player would, in order to play lead in the C chord position, ‘Ah … I get it!’ This was another eye-opener for Clarence. Instead of playing in A and D, he just put a capo on his acoustic and played leads out of G and C. So this opened up a great big door for him, and he started doing more of the instrumental tunes like ‘Soldier’s Joy.’ His technique developed like anybody else’s would. After seeing Doc, his picking became an obsession, an everyday part of everyday life. To play music and practice every day. Whether we played gigs or not, he was always playing music.”

As things progressed at the Ash Grove, the owner Ed Pearl kept telling Clarence that he and his bandmates needed to make an album to get their name around. Pearl got producer Dick Bock interested, Bock having made a series of instrumental albums with people like Glen Campbell. In early 1964, Bock offered the Kentucky Colonels a deal for an instrumental album, even though he admitted string band music was going out of style under the weight of the Beatles. They recorded at Bock’s World Pacific Studios at 8713 West Third Street in Hollywood. That’s where Chris Hillman’s bluegrass band, the Hillmans, recorded in 1963, and Clarence’s future band the Byrds would rehearse in late 1964 before their success.

Issued on World Pacific Records, the LP Appalachian Swing! is now recognized as a bluegrass classic. (Currently the property of EMI, it has recently been reissued for the fourth time.) It gave the band the shot in the arm they needed, and they soon found themselves at the Newport Folk Festival, at Gerde’s in New York City, and The Fog Horn in Baltimore, with gigs also in Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Detroit (co-billed with Doc Watson), and more. (Roland White is periodically sent tapes of Kentucky Colonels’ performances by strangers; he says Rounder Records will issue some of these recordings after digitally cleaning up the tapes.)

However, for all their aesthetic success as bluegrass players, the Kentucky Colonels were finding the pressure to plug in with electric instruments more and more pronounced. By late 1966, they were mutating into the White Brothers & the Kentucky Colonels with brothers Roland, Eric, and Clarence joined by Dennis Morris on rhythm guitar, and Bob Warford, Clarence’s first real guitar protégé, on banjo.

A Real Student

Warford remembers those days like it was last month. “Clarence was a real student. He had a whole tape where he had sat with Doc Watson and watched Watson play someplace in the early 1960s. Clarence would listen to that reel-to-reel and learn note-for-note all the stuff Doc was doing. The other thing was a tape of about 18 guitar solos by Django Reinhardt someone in San Francisco had taken off of old 78s.

“I know by the time the Colonels had Scotty Stoneman playing with them in 1965 that Clarence was already using Django licks off of that tape. Because some of the stuff he did in ‘Julius Finkbine’s Rag’ was directly off this tape of Reinhardt’s stuff. Also some of what Clarence played on ‘Alabama Jubilee’ was straight from the Django Reinhardt tape. Whereas most of what Clarence was doing on the Appalachian Swing! LP was largely flatpicking, and his crosspicking was true crosspicking, it was a Jesse McReynolds’ style kind of thing. By the time I had gotten to play with him he had converted all this to flatpicking and two fingers. So the technique shifted abruptly at some point, and I think a lot of it was when he was picking up some of the Reinhardt things. He started using more picking with the fingers as well as the flatpick, whereas before he’d been a Doc Watson-styled picker who could do some McReynolds’ style crosspicking. I’m convinced that change happened around 1964, and certainly by 1967 he was doing a huge amount of stuff with flatpick and two fingers. Using the flatpick and the middle finger and the ring finger.

“In two ways his right hand was very fluid,” maintains Warford. “Number one, he tended to work around the time of the song a lot, he’d be behind the beat, rush into it, then back off again. His timing was really good. He was not a metronome, where things, no matter how accomplished, begin to sound a bit similar after a while. A lot of the flatpickers then were playing absolutely on the beat and it made them sound a bit light. Or they’d be playing a bit ahead of the beat and that would really make them sound light. Clarence would get behind it and work into it again and back off of it again so there more fluidity to what he was doing.

“He also used to hold the acoustic guitar so close into the microphone that multiple times into the solo he might have string sound on the microphone,” remembers Warford. “Yeah, a buzz. He was really just burying the microphone into the strings and into the soundhole. Although he played reasonably hard, he didn’t play extremely hard, where again a lot of those guys back then played unbelievably hard, and that also makes it hard to get good control over your playing. If you are playing that hard, it is difficult to get enough tension on the strings using fingerpicks or your fingernails. Those strings won’t be worked as hard as the ones getting punched by the flatpick, so you saw and heard Clarence, over time, getting lighter with the flatpick, so it was a balance between the flatpick and fingerpicking in terms of volume.

“Acoustic guitarists usually put medium-gauge bronze on their flat-tops, but Clarence was getting into playing very, very lightly, on light-gauge strings. With strings that light, if you go using any significant pressure against the string you’re only going to bounce it off part of the guitar itself or perhaps break it. So you play extremely lightly and don’t attack the guitar in any sense. This was going on by the time I was playing with him, and he had already been doing some recording where this was his technique.”