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Bluegrass legend to play in Burbank

November 12, 2011|By Chris Morris

Mandolinist-guitarist-vocalist Roland White’s performance Tuesday night at Viva Cantina not only marks a homecoming for the onetime Burbank resident, but also a rare local opportunity to see a performer whose experience in traditional and progressive bluegrass music spans seven decades.

Born Roland LeBlanc to French-Canadian parents in Lewiston, Maine, White moved to Burbank with his family in 1954. He was inspired to take up the mandolin after hearing bluegrass originator Bill Monroe’s recording of “Pike County Breakdown.” By his teens he was picking in the Country Boys with his brothers, guitarist Clarence and bassist Eric.

The band found work on such then-popular local country TV shows as “Town Hall Party” and attracted attention at the prominent L.A. folk club the Ash Grove. By 1961 their profile was high enough to merit a guest shot accompanying Andy Griffith on his network TV show. (You can check out the young act on YouTube, backing Sheriff Andy Taylor on “Whoa Mule.”)

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Under the evocative but geographically inappropriate name the Kentucky Colonels, and minus Eric White, the group developed into one of the top bluegrass attractions on the West Coast. Their 1964 debut studio album, the instrumental collection “Appalachian Swing!,” was a dazzling showcase for Roland’s Monroe-inspired mandolin work and Clarence’s virtuosic flat-picking.

As the ‘60s progressed, times became leaner for straight-ahead bluegrass acts, and, after picking up electric instruments for diminishing commercial returns, the Kentucky Colonels disbanded. But the split afforded Roland White the opportunity to perform with a couple of bluegrass’ great originals. In 1967-68 he played guitar, his original instrument, as a member of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys; from 1969-73, he returned to mandolin with the Nashville Grass, a unit fronted by Lester Flatt, the guitarist in Monroe’s stellar late-‘40s edition of the Blue Grass Boys.

In 1973, Roland rejoined his brother Clarence, who had become the most prominent guitarist in country-rock via his dazzling electric work with the Byrds. However, the reunion was tragically short-lived: As the brothers loaded their gear outside a Palmdale club that July, they were struck by a drunk driver. Clarence was fatally injured.

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