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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
Yet after four decades as a sought-after sideman, White has only
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
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
"My dad played for fun," White explains from his home in
where he has lived since he was hired by bluegrass legend Bill Monroe
"My dad worked at these electric power plants and that’s why we
lived in several different towns around Maine. He was a great
and could build a house from the ground up."
"When the work dried up in Maine we moved to California. In
my mother took a job as well to support our music habits," he
"Every Friday in Maine, my mother would come home with a new
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
of the early and mid-1960s opened up a lot of doors for old,
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
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,
On My Tofu," earned him a Best Bluegrass Grammy nomination earlier
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
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
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
traditions. Rain or shine. Free. Saturday, April 26, 10 a.m. to
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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