Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The Late Great Clarence White

I was lucky enough to see the late Clarence White play twice, both times with The Byrds and within a few days of each other at a couple small college auditoriums circa 1971-72. I went with a guitar player friend of mine, a guy who owned an early 1950s Fender Esquire that the previous owner had covered in faux-fur; I get a little sad just thinking about it even today.

Clarence and Byrds-drummer, Gene Parsons, had invented the Parsons-White B-Bender, a device that could be installed on a Fender Telecaster guitar by routing out a significant amount of wood in the back and placing a pulley system connected to the B-string and the strap button. By pulling down on the strap when you played you could raise the B-string a whole step and, used properly, it allowed a guitarist to play licks that are only possible on a pedal steel guitar. During Clarence’s solo in “Lover of the Bayou” I remember by friend turning to me with an amazed look, saying “You can’t DO that!”

Clarence invented lead bluegrass guitar playing. In 2003 Sierra Records issued the CD 33 Acoustic Guitar Instrumentals which collects solo acoustic flatpicking home recordings Clarence made in 1962, two years before the Kentucky Colonels released their Appalachian Swing album.

Jerry Garcia said of Clarence, “He brought a kind of swing – a rhythmic openness – to bluegrass, and a unique syncopation. His feel has been incorporated by a lot of other players, but nobody has ever quite gotten the open quality of his rhythm. In the bluegrass world; the instruments characteristically are on top of or slightly in front of the beat. Bluegrass is a kind of forward-leaning music. Clarence’s playing was way in the back of the beat, and so added an openness that was really breathtaking.”

His work with The Kentucky Colonels lasted until 1968 when he joined Nashville West (which also featured Gib Guilbeau, Wayne Moore and Gene Parsons) whose album, The Legendary Nashville West Album, finally saw the light of day in 2003. Clarence’s Telecaster is all over that record and any fan of country rock guitar playing who hasn’t worn out a copy is missing a huge piece of the larger musical puzzle. Clarence does an instrumental version of Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billy Joe” which, after playing the record the other day, is my current “best thing I ever heard.”

Clarence joined the reformed Byrds in 1968 playing with them until 1973 around which time he joined up with Peter Rowan (guitar and vocals), Bill Keith (banjo), Richard Green (fiddle), David Grisman (mandolin), and John Kahn (bass), to form the band Muleskinner.

What’s interesting to me is the flow of musicians from traditional bluegrass (both Rowan and Green had been in Bill Monroe’s group and it doesn’t get more traditional than that) into experimental rock (Seatrain, Earth Opera, The Byrds) back into the, albeit slightly progressive, bluegrass of Muleskinner.

Muleskinner was released in 1974 on Warner Brothers and sold poorly and was deleted pretty quickly. In the 80s the album was reissued on LP in another sleeve on a small bluegrass label, Ridgerunner. In 1994 Gene Parsons’ Sierra label issued it on CD. The song “Runways of the Moon” may be the single finest example of the meeting of Grateful Dead-inspired psychedelia and authentic Americana music ever.

Clarence died in 1973 in Palmdale, California; loading equipment into a truck after a gig, he was killed by a drunk who lost control of her car in the alley behind the club.

Anyway… I was taken by surprise by how great these three records are and thought I’d mention them in case anyone is looking for something new to explore. Seriously, you can't go wrong.


Anonymous said...

Clarence was great. His work with the Byrds was underappreciated; his solo work is almost unknown to the wider public. Thanks for giving Clarence White the attention he deserves.
Rex Chickeneater, Armenia

Stan Denski said...

Clarence was "da bomb" as the kids today no longer say. Chicken or Fish, thanks for the comment.

Steve O said...

Nice overview of a truly great, underappreciated player. He is only underappreciated by the general public; musicians know who the hell he is.

Stan Denski said...

Musicians yes; but drummers?

Anonymous said...

Hi Stan

Just found your piece on Clarence. I'm sure you've looked at all of the CW video stuff on YouTube.

I'm from Indpls, and saw Clarence, Gene, Skip and Roger at Butler Fieldhouse during that 71-72 time frame that you mentioned.

Every time I hear Clarence play, I just think back to when music made me feel great to be human. He was a remarkable and ever so humble and gracious human being. Thanks for your article.

T. Moody

John said...

A great page.
I too had the same experience seeing Clarence White perform.
It was 197071, and the Byrds were playing at Seton Hall University in my home town of South Orange NJ.
Clarence walked on stage in a brilliant white suit, white cape with blue interior. The audience went wild with applause because he was the only one on stage that was not in jeans.
He looked sharp.
His playing on Eight Miles High was absolutely brilliant, and beautiful.
I never forgot that night, and I just found out now through a search about his tragic death.
We lost a truly great artist so many years ago.
Thank you for the tribute page