It’s impossible to accurately tell the history of bluegrass music without including the contributions of Roland and Clarence White, their band the Kentucky Colonels, and the lasting impact made by Roland through his soft-spoken yet brilliant contributions to bands such as Country Gazette and the Nashville Bluegrass Band. Widely regarded as one of the most innovative and influential mandolinists of his day, Roland’s work as a soloist was sometimes overshadowed by the awesome talent of his younger brother, who not only virtually invented bluegrass lead guitar, but also went on to literally invent country-rock guitar and create a style that everyone from Marty Stuart to Brad Paisley to Vince Gill pays homage to today.
When Clarence was killed by a drunk driver in 1974, Roland soldiered on. Roland’s I Wasn’t Born To Rock And Roll LP remains a classic, and the live recordings he did with Clarence on their European tour stand out as some of the finest bluegrass ever recorded. A prolific teacher, his website includes master class lessons and books on his mandolin style and the best presentation of Clarence’s guitar technique ever written. He’s done so much, from playing guitar with Bill Monroe to appearing several times on the venerated Andy Griffith Show, that he could have rested on his many laurels years ago. Instead, he’s back in the studio, cranking out yet another classic bluegrass recording with his wife, Diane Bouska, and a host of talented Nashville cats.
Straight Ahead Bluegrass could easily win the IBMA award for most accurate album title, if such an award existed. Cracking into “Saro Jane,” the band is driven by Brian Christianson’s sterling fiddling and Roland’s plaintive lead vocals. A couple of tracks later, he piercingly kicks into “Pike County Breakdown” and shows he’s lost none of the power and authority his mandolin playing has always delivered. Crackerjack banjo player Richard Bailey rips into the melody, followed by another traditional fiddle break and a striking lead from Roland. Bouska kicks off Charlie Poole’s classic “If I Lose” with a punchy guitar intro, supported by Jon Weisberger’s foundation-setting bass playing. The band wails into the country weeper, “Cry, Cry Darlin’,” with a nice duet between Bouska and Roland, followed by a Monroe-esque mandolin where Roland gets to show the bluesy side of his playing. And Diane gets a chance to showcase her lead vocals on the classic “Blue Night.”
No Roland White CD would feel complete without a tribute to his halcyon days with the Colonels, and here Roland choose one of his brother’s favorite tunes, “Soldier’s Joy,” to showcase. Christianson adds just the right touch on fiddle, and Roland recreates the classic mandolin sounds many of us first heard on Appalachian Swing.
Roland White in 2015 remains a vital force in bluegrass, a living legend who refuses to dwell on past successes and constantly looks for new ways to express his unique range of talents. Straight Ahead Bluegrass stands out as a modern bluegrass statement from an artist who’s always been on the creative cusp of our music. He wasn’t born to rock-and-roll, but he’s definitely living the bluegrass life. (www.rolandwhite.com)DJM