Roland White, a shaper of bluegrass and country-rock, dies at 83
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Roland White, a shaper of bluegrass and country-rock, dies at 83
A mandolin player and singer, he made his mark with the Country Boys (later renamed the Kentucky Colonels), and his influence extended into the rock of the ’60s.

by Bill Friskics-Warren

NASHVILLE, TENN.- Roland White, a mandolin player and singer who helped shape major developments in bluegrass and country-rock over a seven-decade career, died in Nashville on Friday. He was 83.

His death, in a hospital after a recent heart attack, was confirmed by his wife, Diane Bouska.

White was admired for his rich tone and rhythmic imagination as a mandolinist, as well as for his warm, expressive vocals, which were equally suited to the lead and harmony parts in an arrangement. His openness to ideas and approaches outside the bounds of traditional bluegrass was also among the hallmarks of his music.

He first made his mark in the late 1950s with the Country Boys (later renamed the Kentucky Colonels), the West Coast bluegrass band that originally included his younger brothers Eric and Clarence on tenor banjo and guitar. Inspired by virtuoso flatpicker Doc Watson, Clarence reimagined the role of the guitar in bluegrass, transforming it from a strictly rhythmic vehicle to a more expansive instrument on which lead and rhythm could be played simultaneously.

“Appalachian Swing!,” the Kentucky Colonels’ all-instrumental album from 1964, was among the most influential bluegrass collections of the 1960s. In terms of repertoire and technique, the record — which, along with Roland and Clarence White, featured Billy Ray Latham on banjo, Roger Bush on bass, Bobby Slone on fiddle and LeRoy Mack on dobro — was a touchstone for the musically adventurous bands of the 1970s and beyond whose music came to be known as “newgrass.”

The album’s reach extended to country-rock bands like the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield, who incorporated bluegrass instrumentation and sensibilities into their music. The album’s enduring relevance is also due in large part to Roland White’s innovative mandolin work, as well as to his leadership with the project.

“I don’t think it was my playing that had so much influence as just the fact that I was playing in the style and pulled things together for us to play, learn and be a band,” White said in a 2010 interview with the website Mandolin Cafe.

“I didn’t show anybody what to play on their instrument, and really nobody else did, either,” he added. “Bits of things might have been shown to us by someone here and there, but almost all of it was by ear and observing.”

Despite the band’s impact on West Coast folk and bluegrass, the Kentucky Colonels struggled to gain a foothold commercially amid the increasingly rock-dominated West Coast music scene of the 1960s.

The group disbanded in 1966, with White moving to Nashville and, in 1967, becoming the lead singer and guitarist for Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, with whom he made recordings like “Sally Goodin” and “Walls of Time.” (His brother Clarence found work as a studio musician and later joined the Byrds as lead guitarist.)

After about two years with Monroe, Roland White took a job as mandolinist with the Nashville Grass, the band of another bluegrass patriarch, Lester Flatt.

White remained with Flatt until 1973, when he and his brothers reunited to form the New Kentucky Colonels with banjo player and singer Herb Pedersen. The reunion ended tragically when Clarence White was killed by a drunken driver while loading equipment outside a club in Palmdale, California.

Roland Joseph LeBlanc was born April 23, 1938, in Madawaska, Maine, the first of five children of Eric and Mildred Cyr LeBlanc. His father, a carpenter, played guitar, tenor banjo and harmonica; his mother was a homemaker. Of French Canadian descent — young Roland spoke French at home until he was in the second grade — White’s father stopped using the original family name in favor of its anglicized equivalent, White, sometime after Roland White was born.

The family moved to Southern California in 1954, and the three brothers, with their sister Joanne occasionally joining them on bass, began playing country music at dances and other social functions. They moved to Burbank in 1957; shortly after that, the brothers won a talent contest sponsored by Pasadena radio station KXLA.

They also attracted the attention of guitarist Joe Maphis, who helped get them bookings on “Town Hall Party” and other musical variety shows of the day.

By this time a quintet, the group appeared on the sitcom “The Andy Griffith Show” shortly before Roland White was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1961. The band members recorded their first album, “The New Sound of Bluegrass America,” in 1962, at which point they changed their name to the Kentucky Colonels at the suggestion of guitarist Merle Travis. (White was still stationed in Germany at this point; his brother Eric had previously left the group to get married.)

After his brother Clarence’s death in 1973, Roland White joined the Country Gazette, a musically omnivorous Los Angeles-based bluegrass band that also included Pedersen, fiddler Byron Berline and banjoist Alan Munde. White toured and recorded with the group while also releasing an acclaimed solo album, “I Wasn’t Born to Rock’n Roll,” in 1976.

He left the Country Gazette in 1987 to join the Nashville Bluegrass Band, with whom he recorded Grammy-winning albums in 1993 and 1995. In 2000, he formed the Roland White Band. The group’s debut album, “Jelly on My Tofu,” was nominated for a Grammy.

A prolific mandolin teacher, White published numerous instructional books and videos with Bouska, who, in addition to singing and playing guitar in the Roland White Band, was a co-producer of its records.

White was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Hall of Fame in 2018. The Kentucky Colonels received the same honor a year later.

In addition to Bouska, he is survived by a daughter, Roline Hodge, and a son, Lawrence LeBlanc, both from a previous marriage; two grandchildren; a great-granddaughter; and a sister, Rose Marie Johnson.

As influential as the album “Appalachian Swing!” proved to be, of equal impact on the West Coast folk scene of the 1960s were the club dates that White and the Kentucky Colonels played at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles.

The Byrds were particularly impressed, adapting the bluegrass instrumentation and technique they gleaned from those shows — they even enlisted Clarence White to play guitar on landmark albums like “Younger Than Yesterday” (1967) and “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” (1968).

“Playing the Ash Grove opened the way for us to play to a totally new audience — a folk audience that we had known nothing about,” White said in an interview with the website The Bluegrass Situation. “They dressed differently from the country-western audience (they were college students, professors, beatniks, doctors and lawyers), and they paid close attention to the music.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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