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This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the April 23, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Folk Festival Marathon

Roland White will turn 65 just two days before the

New Jersey Folk Festival takes place, Saturday, April 26, in New

Brunswick.

Yet after four decades as a sought-after sideman, White has only

recently

begun fronting his own group.

The mandolin and guitar player has played back up to everybody and

his brother in the bluegrass world. Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, the

Kentucky Colonels, Country Gazette, and the Nashville Bluegrass Band

are all groups he has been part of. He concedes as the oldest of three

brothers, he was the de-facto "bandleader" of the Kentucky

Colonels, with brothers Eric and Clarence, But then he adds, "when

your brothers are in the group with you, you don’t make all the

decisions."

White was born in Maine and began playing mandolin at eight, inspired

by his father and uncle. He added guitar at nine and went back and

forth between both instruments before his family moved to Southern

California.

"My dad played for fun," White explains from his home in

Nashville,

where he has lived since he was hired by bluegrass legend Bill Monroe

in 1967.

"My dad worked at these electric power plants and that’s why we

lived in several different towns around Maine. He was a great

carpenter

and could build a house from the ground up."

"When the work dried up in Maine we moved to California. In

Burbank,

my mother took a job as well to support our music habits," he

says.

"Every Friday in Maine, my mother would come home with a new

78-r.p.m.

record, so we had lots of 78s around the house. At that time, we knew

nothing about bluegrass music. We listened mostly to big bands and

county music, anything from Gene Autry to the Delmore Brothers to

Roy Acuff, a lot of the cowboy songs that were popular on the Grand

Ol’ Opry in the 1940s and ’50s."

White and his brothers continued their music studies

through high school. Their first big break came when an aunt told

their dad to take them to a talent show broadcast on KXLA, Pasadena,

a country music station. "It was really big, they had a talent

show broadcast every Sunday afternoon. We won the talent show that

week and that got us on a country music TV show, and we appeared on

that for several months."

"The first time we played for any real pay was in 1961 when we

did an `Andy Griffith Show’ episode, and then the folk music boom

came along and that introduced us to a whole new audience," he

says. White’s band with his brothers, the Kentucky Colonels, began

making regular forays up and down the East Coast, aided by people

like Tracey Schwarz from the New Lost City Ramblers, who lived on

a farm in Freehold, and Mike Seeger and his first wife Marge, who

lived in Hightstown.

"I remember we were at Tracey’s house the day that Kennedy got

shot," he says. Mike Seeger and his wife were responsible for

getting the Kentucky Colonels booked up and down the East Coast in

all the coffee houses and festivals, along with the late folk music

historian Ralph Rinzler.

White agrees with the notion that, just as the "folk music

renaissance"

of the early and mid-1960s opened up a lot of doors for old,

heretofore

obscure blues men like Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt, it also

opened up new avenues for bluegrass musicians like Bill Monroe and

White’s own Kentucky Colonels.

After being asked to join Bill Monroe’s group in 1967, White relocated

to Nashville. Several years later when Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs

broke up, he joined Flatt’s band. After 1973, he says, he didn’t want

to go back to California; he was far more comfortable with the scene

in Nashville.

Apparently, all the time he spent being a sideman to legends like

Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, and as part of the Nashville Bluegrass

Band served him well, since White’s debut album as a bandleader,

"Jelly

On My Tofu," earned him a Best Bluegrass Grammy nomination earlier

this year.

At the New Jersey Folk Festival on Saturday, White will be accompanied

by five-string banjo master Richard Bailey, his wife Diane Bouska

on vocals and guitar, Todd Cook on bass and Bill Hicks, a local fiddle

player.

When White left the Nashville Bluegrass Band in 2000, he decided to

form his own group.

"I just really wanted to do this before I get too old," he

says, humbly, "I’m going to be 65 this month and it’s only my

second year on my own. There are a lot of great musicians here in

Nashville, and my wife is my partner in the band, she plays guitar

and sings, so I’m really more in charge here, but a truly democratic

thing is very hard to do."

The audience at Woodlawn on Saturday can expect a mix of bluegrass,

blues, old-timey traditional, Western swing and his own compositions,

White says. "It’s a lot of fun this way. I’ve written a lot of

instrumental material that I would never get to do otherwise."

— Richard J. Skelly

Roland White Band, New Jersey Folk Festival,

Eagleton

Institute Grounds, Rutgers’ Douglass Campus, George Street & Ryders

Lane, New Brunswick, 732-932-5775. The annual all-day folk music and

culture festival on four stages. Heritage spotlight is on

Mexican-American

traditions. Rain or shine. Free. Saturday, April 26, 10 a.m. to

6 p.m.

On the Skylands Stage:

10:15 a.m. Ballet Folklorico de Princeton. 11 a.m., David Jones.

11:40 a.m. Ralph Litwin & Al Podber: The Furry Harmonica Brothers.

12:35 p.m. Casa Mexico Folk Dancers & Mariachi Oro de Mexico.

1:25 p.m. Roland White Band with guest fiddler Bill Hicks. 2:20 p.m.

Julie Pasqual. 2:50 p.m. James Reams & the Barnstormers. 3:40 p.m.

Paprikash with Bill Selden. 4:30 p.m. Ballet Folklorico. 5:20 p.m.

Roland White Band.


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