Legendary Bluegrass Mandolin Player Roland White Has Died

There are not many sectors of bluegrass music that weren’t at one point or another touched by the work of mandolin player Roland White. The brother of fellow bluegrass legend and later country rocker Clarence White, an original member of The Kentucky Colonels, an acolyte of Bill Monroe in his Bluegrass Boys, a founding member of Lester Flatt’s Nashville Grass, not to mention his later years in The Country Gazette and the famed Nashville Bluegrass Band, Roland White’s mandolin appeared all across the bluegrass catalog.

Roland White was born April 23rd, 1938 in Madawaska, Maine at the very tip top of the state to a musical family of French Canadian stock. They moved to Burbank, California in 1955, and a couple of years later the three brothers of Roland, Eric, and Clarence were performing together regularly under the name The Country Boys. Though they began mostly as a folk-oriented string band, it was Roland getting his hands on the recordings of Bill Monroe that had the trio juicing up their rhythm, and veering into bluegrass.

Being based in the Los Angeles made The Country Boys unique, influential, and ultimately, foundational to the emergence of bluegrass on the West Coast. They appeared in movies, performed on The Andy Griffith Show, and by 1963 were going under the name of The Kentucky Colonels, setting the folk scene in California on fire, spirited forward by Roland’s mandolin, and Clarence’s flatpicking.

During the height of The Kentucky Colonels, Roland took two years away to serve in the US Army, and actually missed appearing on the band’s first album. Nonetheless, numerous live recordings later in their career had bluegrass fans and fellow pickers admiring Roland White’s mandolin style heavily influenced by Bill Monroe.

As it turns out, when The Kentucky Colonels disbanded around 1967, Roland White would go on to work for Monroe after the Father of Bluegrass was booked at a week-long residency in L.A. and his band was stuck back in Texas with a broke down bus. Looking for bluegrass pickers in the area, Roland stepped up. Obviously, Monroe could play the mandolin just fine, so Roland played guitar, and won a spot in the Bluegrass Boys where he remained for three years. The job also facilitated Roland White’s move from California to Nashville.

In 1969 when the Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs breakup sent reverberations throughout the bluegrass world, Roland White saw the opportunity to jump back on the mandolin, playing for Lester Flatt’s The Nashville Grass. The time in Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys had served White well, perfecting his mandolin skills after sharing the stage with Monroe on so many nights.

Now both Roland White and his younger brother Clarence had forged legendary names all their own—Clarence from being a member of The Byrds, and helping to develop the B-Bender guitar that was able to mimic the sounds of a steel guitar from a shoulder-slung instrument. (Note: Marty Stuart still owns and plays Clarence’s legendary B-Bender guitar). But Clarence was ready to get back to his roots, so he formed a band with Roland called The White Brothers.

The White Brothers could have been one of the most legendary pairings in country music history. But unfortunately, the project was cut short when Clarence White was killed by a drunk driver in an auto accident in July of 1973. The live recordings of the brother duo show just how much both players had evolved and mastered their instruments since their time together in the Kentucky Colonels. The death of Gram Parsons two months later put another dagger in the heart of the California country scene, but also helped influence the formation of another legendary bluegrass outfit, The Country Gazette.

Born out of the ashes of The Flying Burrito Brothers by fiddler Byron Berline and bassist/guitarist Roger Bush (Roland taught Bush how to play bass), The Country Gazette would become a staple of bluegrass music for some 20 years. Roland White quit The Country Gazette in 1989 to join the generically-titled, but terribly important Nashville Bluegrass Band, which saw some of the greatest pickers in Music City flow through its ranks like Stuart Duncan. The group also received numerous Grammy nominations over the years.

Roland White saw bluegrass develop on both sides of the American continent. He watched it go from an offshoot of folk and old-time to its own full-blown genre. Roland witnessed bluegrass influence popular folk rock music, country, and country rock. And Roland White heavily influenced the popularization of the bluegrass medium himself on both the East and West Coast, and all points in between.

Roland White died on Friday, April 1st. He was 83 years old.

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