By Bruce Sylvester
Has the reissue of bluegrass mandolinist/guitarist Roland White’s “I Wasn’t Born To Rock ‘N Roll” (Ridge Runner, 1976; Tompkins Square, 2010) led anyone to ask, “Where is he now?” Well, he is right where he has been for decades: in Nashville. He is still teaching as well as leading The Roland White Band, whose “Jelly On My Tofu” (Copper Creek, 2003), won him another Grammy nomination.
Over the decades, he’s performed in The Kentucky Colonels (with younger siblings Eric and Clarence – yes, future Byrds guitarist Clarence White), Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, Lester Flatt’s Nashville Grass, the “newgrass” group Country Gazette (1976-89) and the short-lived Dreadful Snakes. During his 1987–2000 stint in Nashville Bluegrass Band, he shared Grammies for their “Unleashed” and “Waitin’ For The Hard Times To Go.”
Backed by his Country Gazette cohorts, “I Wasn’t Born To Rock ‘N Roll” is basically a salute to songs from bluegrass’s first generation: Monroe’s “Can’t You Hear Me Calling” plus (from Flatt & Scruggs’ repertoire) Flatt’s “Head Over Heels In Love With You” and Jimmie Skinner’s “Doin’ My Time.”
Roland White’s origins were hardly in Nashville or bluegrass. He was born Roland le Blanc on April 23, 1938, in Madawaska, Maine, on the Canadian border. Among his French Canadian father’s 14 siblings who survived early childhood, a number were interested in music.
In 1954 White’s parents moved their brood to Burbank, Calif. “One of my uncles who’d been there awhile had never heard us play. He said, ‘That’s good, boys. Have you ever heard of Bill Monroe? He’s a mandolin player, on the Grand Ole Opry and he’s fast.’ After school, I’d sack groceries in a local market and then walk home past a music store. The owner showed me a record catalog with Monroe records like “Pike County Breakdown.” I asked what a breakdown was. He said, ‘It’s a fast instrumental.’ So I ordered that one, and we got it about a week later. I still have it.
“My dad bought a little Magnavox table record player. No radio. Just a player for 45s, 78s and albums. We sat around it, listening to ‘Pike County Breakdown’ three or four times. Then my mother wanted to hear the other side. The singing wasn’t like the country artists we’d heard. My mother liked it. I didn’t know what to think of it at first but after we played it a few times I thought, ‘Yeah, OK.’ Then I ordered more records, and that’s how we got into bluegrass.”
The White kids were soon winning talent contests and performing on radio. Their local TV stations broadcast now-legendary musical variety shows such as “Town Hall Party” and Cliffie Stone’s “Hometown Jamboree.” (Merle Travis, Wanda Jackson and Johnny Cash are among the acts on Bear Family Record’s wonderful “Town Hall Party” DVD series.) “The ‘Town Hall Party’ videos bring tears to my eyes ‘cause we used to watch it every Saturday night unless we had a little gig,” White said.
The young Whites’ picking even attracted Monroe’s attention. “He’d been to my parents’ house. My mother was a great cook so she’d cook for him. He liked my dad. One time in the early 60s he saw us in his audience and said, ‘We’ve got these White boys here. Let’s get that little guitar player to come up and sing a song with me.’ Clarence looked at me and said, ‘You do it. I’m not going up there.’ He was too bashful. So I went up there, and his guitarist, Jack Cooke, handed me a guitar. Bill said, ‘What do you want to sing?’ I said, ‘Your new song, “Sitting Alone In The Moonlight.”’ It was the first song I ever sang with him before being part of his band from 1967 to 1969.
“When I moved to Nashville in 67 to join him, Clarence wasn’t yet in The Byrds. He was simply doing session work after we’d disbanded Kentucky Colonels. He’d just gotten an electric guitar. James Burton told him, ‘I can’t handle all the calls I get to do sessions. I’d like you to do some and then you’ll get to know some record producers. You’ll probably get all the work you’ll ever need.’ And that was happening within a year.” Following session work on various Byrds LPs, Clarence joined them in 1968.
When Roger McGuinn disbanded The Byrds, the Whites reunited as The New Kentucky Colonels. On July 15, 1973, while packing their gear after a Los Angeles performance, a drunk driver in a parking lot hit them. Roland suffered a dislocated shoulder. Clarence was killed.
After subsequent years with Country Gazette and Nashville Bluegrass Band, teaching takes up some of Roland’s time. His basic advice: “You have to know how to hold the instrument and the pick. And you must understand and be able to pick the barebones melody.” He recently spent a month as the featured artist on www.mandolincafe.com. His own web site, www.rolandwhite.com, provides videos and/or tablature for a few songs and markets instructional book/CD packages such as Roland White’s Approach To Bluegrass Mandolin.
At 72, he has no plans for retirement. “What would I do? I have to play music,” he said.