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Remembering Roland White, The Accessible Bluegrass Legend

Mickey Dobo

When he was inducted into the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame in 2017, Roland White’s plaque proclaimed him “a true mandolin stylist and a kind and generous mentor.” Those sentiments and more rang around Nashville over the weekend after news broke that White had died at Vanderbilt Medical Center on Friday at age 83, following a heart attack days before.

White, a mandolinist and singer who played for years with a number of influential and historic bands, from the Kentucky Colonels to Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys to the Nashville Bluegrass Band, was no mere sideman. He brought a warm, kindly voice and a personal style to traditional bluegrass, and he left a significant legacy as an educator, passing wisdom of the old school along to new generations. One music publication marked his passing with words like “cherished” and “beloved,” which aren’t universal values among bluegrass stars minted in the 1960s.

‘He was so generous and open-minded,” said Jon Weisberger, a bluegrass songwriter and record executive who played bass in the Roland White Band for 15 years. “He wanted to hear what people had to offer. He was so encouraging to younger musicians. Every show we played at the Station Inn, the question was always ‘what young person is he going to get up to play with us?’” And Weisberger called White “one of the biggest jam hounds” in town. “He was always ready to pick with people. So he was like a talent scout in a way.”

Americana star Jim Lauderdale found out the easy way about Roland White’s beneficence back in 1979 when he came to Nashville for the first time as an aspiring bluegrass singer and songwriter. “The Kentucky Colonels, the band he was in with his brother Clarence, really blew me away,” Lauderdale told me in a 2018 interview. He came to Music City from North Carolina with the goal of meeting and hanging out with his two top heroes - Opry legend George Jones and Roland White. “I was listening to a lot of bluegrass,” Lauderdale said. “I loved Roland’s mandolin playing and his singing and I was really wild on the idea of singing with him.”

Unlike George Jones, White proved accessible and “very gracious,” Lauderdale said. And after several music-making visits, White suggested they record together. They made a full album with crack Nashville sidemen in the home studio of Earl Scruggs, and while it couldn’t find a label for release back then, it was discovered and put out on New West Records four years ago as Jim Lauderdale & Roland White, marking a new debut album in Lauderdale’s career - all because a 40-something White took time he didn’t have to take with a kid he didn’t need to know.

White grew up in a musical family in far northern Maine. Brother Eric Jr. played banjo, Clarence the guitar, Roland the mandolin, along with his sister, Joanne on bass. In 1954, when Roland was about 14, they all moved to Burbank, CA. Before long they were performing as The Country Boys and playing a bluegrass repertoire, inspired by Bill Monroe. A TV cameraman heard them and handed them a break by connecting them to the Andy Griffith Show, where they appeared in performance in 1961.

Roland White on mandolin playing with Lester Flatt and the Nashville Grass
Roland White on mandolin playing with Lester Flatt and the Nashville Grass

After some personnel changes and a new name - the Kentucky Colonels - Roland and Clarence became big players in the mid 60s west coast scene. Their instrumental album Appalachian Swing! of 1964 became a classic that propelled Clarence to the forefront of acoustic guitar. But the band broke up under market pressure, sending Clarence toward a spell as a hot electric guitarist playing sessions, various groups and ultimately The Byrds. Roland bided his time playing bass in bar bands but landed a job playing guitar and singing lead with Bill Monroe for about two years, according to his Bluegrass Hall of Fame biography.

From Monroe, White went to work with another founding father of bluegrass, Lester Flatt, pursuing a traditional sound after Flatt had broken up with his iconic partner Earl Scruggs. That let Roland return to the mandolin, and from there he’d never look back. Sadly, a resurrection of the Kentucky Colonels in 1974 was abruptly ended when Clarence White was killed by a drunk driver. Roland then worked with the Country Gazette, a stalwart California bluegrass and borderline country rock band featuring fiddler Byron Berline, and he made his first solo album, I Wasn’t Born To Rock ‘n’ Roll as if to assert that as open-minded as he was, he would always be a bluegrass boy at heart.

That was more than clear during his important and impressive eleven-year run with the Nashville Bluegrass Band, where he shared in two Best Bluegrass Album Grammy Awards. He also played countless sessions with iconic musicians and participated in the historic sessions that led to the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. He steered his own band with his wife Diane Bouska on guitar from 2000 on.

In 2019, the Kentucky Colonels were themselves inducted into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame, meaning Roland is the rarest of things - a double inductee. If they had a hall of fame for musical mensches, he’d be in there too. As Weisberger told me this weekend, “Roland always met people where they were and encouraged them to bring more of themselves to what they did.”

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org