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.”)
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.
Later that year, a grieving Roland White accepted an invitation from former Kentucky Colonels bassist Roger Bush to join Country Gazette, a Nashville-based progressive outfit whose members included skilled pickers with credentials in traditional country, bluegrass and country-rock. Three years later, he recorded his debut solo album, the genre-hopping “I Wasn’t Born to Rock ‘n’ Roll” (reissued in 2010 by Tompkins Square Records).
After 14 years as guitarist and mandolinist for Country Gazette, White exited the band. In 1989 he joined the Nashville Bluegrass Band, a superlative, forward-looking act that also included fiddle wizard Stuart Duncan and vocalist Pat Enright, later heard on the Grammy-winning “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack album. The NBB collected seven Grammy nominations in their own right, and two wins for best bluegrass album, for “Waitin’ For the Hard Times to Go” (1993) and “Unleashed” (1995).
Since 2000, White has led his eponymous bluegrass band, which racked up a 2003 Grammy nomination for the album “Jelly On My Tofu.” Earlier this year, befitting the career of an artist who has consistently extended the expressive boundaries of his genre, the 73-year-old musician-educator was honored with a Distinguished Achievement Award from the International Bluegrass Music Assn.
CHRIS MORRIS is a contributor to Daily Variety and Weekly Variety. Formerly an editor at the Hollywood Reporter and Billboard, he was the longtime music critic for LA CityBeat and the Los Angeles Reader. He hosts the radio show “Watusi Rodeo” on Scion AV, and was a staff member at the legendary Indie 103.1.
Who: Roland White
When: 7 p.m., Tuesday. No cover.
Where: Viva Fresh, 900 W. Riverside Drive, Burbank
Info: Vivacantina.com and (818) 845-2425