The Kentucky Colonels were the best young bluegrass band in America (or the world, for that matter) in 1965-66. Unfortunately, most of America (or the world) didn’t give a lick about bluegrass in 1965-66. Between Bob Dylan’s electrification of folk music and the British Invasion, the only bluegrass bands who were still noticed were the big names, and even they were getting ignored. So, despite having the best bluegrass guitar player and the best bluegrass fiddler who ever lived, they just couldn’t survive as a band, and broke up shortly thereafter.
Clarence White was a legendary and enormously influential guitarist. In his teens, he started flatpicking fiddle tunes, in a style similar to but independent of Doc Watson (Clarence had not heard Doc until after his own style had developed). Then, some time around 1964, Clarence heard Django Reinhardt. Upon finding out that Django’s left hand was burned and deformed in a fire, clarence taped his first two fingers together, so that he could learn to play with just the others, as Django did. Clarence absorbed Django’s sense of timing, syncopation, and phrasing and incorporated it into his own hard-driving bluegrass style. He also pioneered a hybrid picking approach where he would flatpick bass strings and use his middle and ring fingers to pluck treble strings (as you’ll hear on New Soldiers Joy). He could play bedazzlingly fast or enticingly slow; no matter what he played, however different it might be from what everyone else was playing, it always sounded right. Pretty soon I’ll post a number of Clarence White/Kentucky Colonels/White Brothers bootlegs, and have more info on Clarence.
Scotty Stoneman was another matter altogether, though not entirely dissimilar from Clarence. He must have played fiddle constantly; he was one with his instrument. When he was a kid he’d get up in the middle of the night and take his fiddle out to the chicken coop and start playing until all the chickens were awake. By the time he was playing with the Kentucky Colonels he was a 5-time National Fiddle Champion, and a total alcoholic wreck. Nevertheless, he managed to set audiences on fire with his incredibly inventive, dextrous fiddling. He “has been called the Jimi Hendrix of the violin by Peter Rowan, and the “bluegrass Charlie Parker” by no less a figure than Jerry Garcia. Yet he’s an elusive, mysterious figure — in some ways even more so than Parker or Hendrix ever were — with a career that was mostly spent working in tandem with other musicians, but without the kind of unified body of recordings left behind by, say, Hugh Farr of the Sons of the Pioneers (who was, himself, once compared to Fritz Kreisler by Leopold Stokowski).” -AMG
Probably due to his alcoholism, he only sometimes performed with the Kentucky Colonels, and this album has just a couple tracks to demonstrate his masterful and mesmerising touch. Before long he would be too much of a wreck to do much of anything, and was succeeded by Richard Greene (who cited Scotty as his sole inspiration on the fiddle) in the echelon of ‘best American fiddler’.
So that leaves the other members of the band. Roland White was the lead singer, mandolin player, and band leader, and Clarence’s older brother. Billy Ray Lathum, the banjo player, was the only member who was actually from the south (Cave City, Arkansas). Roger Bush or Eric White (also brother) played bass, and sometimes Bob Warford played banjo instead of Billy Ray. Needless to say, they were all fine players and singers in the classic bluegrass tradition as established by Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs. They sang close duets in the manner of the Stanley or Louvin Brothers (though not as haunting). And their instrumental chops were good enough to keep up with Clarence and Scotty most of the time, even if their musical ideas were not as stunning. More than not, the Kentucky Colonels were a traditional bluegrass band with some progressive leanings. These ideas would eventually come to fuition in the early ’70s with projects like Muleskinner and Norman Blake/Tut Taylor/Vassar Clements/et. all., and blossom even more with the David Grisman Quintet and the ‘newgrass’ movement after that.
Bluegrass music, with all it’s tightly-wound twang, can be an acquired taste. The high nasal singing and strained harmonies can be especially hard to get into. But this is some of the very best, from an instrumental standpoint, and you ought to give it a try. And especially if you play guitar or fiddle, prepare to be astounded.
This album is out of print vinyl, but you can get Livin in the Past, which has recordings from the same era of the Kentucky Colonels, and is quite good. That album and several other newly unearthed Clarence White recordings are available from Sierra Records.
see also the post on Muleskinner, for Clarence’s post-Colonels bluegrass excursions.
if you like Bluegrass or are interested in hearing more, you can get a lot of the classic stuff at Country and Bluegrass Remembered.
and if you’d like some more live Clarence White/Kentucky Colonels, you can get some at Broke Down Engine and Uncle Gil’s Rockin’ Archives. Also look for Clarence’s tasty studio work with the Godsin & Everly Brothers, & his electric guitar playing with the Byrds.
and check out this incredibly detailed Clarence White discography.