NASHVILLE — Roland White, a mandolin player and vocalist who helped shape major developments in bluegrass and country-rock over a seven-decade career, died here Friday. He was 83 years old.
His death, in hospital after a recent heart attack, was confirmed by his wife, Diane Bouska.
Mr. White was admired for his rich tone and rhythmic imagination as a mandolinist, as well as for his warm, expressive voice, which was equally suited to the lead and harmonic parts of an arrangement. His openness to ideas and approaches outside the confines of traditional bluegrass was also one of the hallmarks of his music.
He first made his mark in the late 1950s with the Country Boys (later renamed the Kentucky Colonels), the West Coast bluegrass band that originally included his younger brothers Eric and Clarence on tenor banjo and on the guitar. Inspired by virtuoso flatpicker Doc Watson, Clarence reinvented the role of the guitar in bluegrass, transforming it from a strictly rhythmic vehicle into a more expansive instrument on which lead and rhythm could be played simultaneously.
“Appalachian Swing!”, the Kentucky Colonels’ 1964 all-instrumental album, was among the most influential bluegrass collections of the 1960s. In terms of repertoire and technique, the record—which, along with Roland and Clarence White, set featured Billy Ray Latham on banjo, Roger Bush on bass, Bobby Slone on fiddle and LeRoy Mack on dobro – was a touchstone for the musically adventurous bands of the 1970s and beyond whose music became known as name of “newgrass”.
The album’s reach extended to country-rock bands like the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield, who incorporated bluegrass instrumentation and sensibilities into their music. The album’s enduring relevance is also due in large part to Mr. White’s innovative work on the mandolin, as well as his leadership of the project.
“I don’t think it was my playing that was as influential as the fact that I was playing in style and putting things together for us to play and learn and be a band,” Mr White said in an interview in 2010. with the Mandolin Cafe website.
“I didn’t show anyone what to play on their instrument, and really no one else either,” he added. “Snippets of things may have been shown to us by someone here and there, but almost everything was by ear and by observing.”
Despite the group’s impact on West Coast folk and bluegrass, the Kentucky Colonels struggled to establish themselves commercially amidst the increasingly rocking West Coast music scene of the 1960s.
The group disbanded in 1966, with Mr. White moving to Nashville and, in 1967, becoming lead singer and guitarist for Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, with whom he made such recordings as “Sally Goodin” and “Walls of Time”. (His brother Clarence found work as a session musician and later joined the Byrds as lead guitarist.)
After about two years with Mr. Monroe, Mr. White took a job as a mandolin player with the Nashville Grass, the band of fellow bluegrass patriarch, Lester Flatt.
Mr. White remained with Mr. Flatt until 1973, when he and his brothers reunited to form the New Kentucky Colonels with banjo player and vocalist Herb Pedersen. The reunion ended tragically when Clarence White was killed by a drunk driver while loading equipment outside a club in Palmdale, California.
Roland Joseph LeBlanc was born on April 23, 1938 in Madawaska, Maine, the first of five children of Eric and Mildred Cyr LeBlanc. His father, a carpenter, played guitar, tenor banjo and harmonica; his mother was a housewife. Of French-Canadian descent – young Roland spoke French at home until he was in second grade – Mr White’s father stopped using the original surname in favor of its equivalent anglicized, White, sometime after Roland’s birth.
The family moved to Southern California in 1954, and the three brothers, with their sister Joanne occasionally joining them on bass, began playing country music at dances and other social functions. They moved to Burbank in 1957; soon after, the brothers won a talent contest sponsored by Pasadena radio station KXLA.
They also caught the eye of guitarist Joe Maphis, who helped them get bookings for “Town Hall Party” and other musical variety shows of the time.
Around this time a quintet, the band appeared on the sitcom “The Andy Griffith Show” shortly before Mr. White was drafted into the United States Army in 1961. They recorded their first album, “The New Sound of Bluegrass America” in 1962, at which time they changed their name to the Kentucky Colonels at the suggestion of guitarist Merle Travis. (Mr. White was still stationed in Germany at the time; his brother Eric had previously left the band to get married.)
After the death of his brother Clarence in 1973, Mr. White joined the Country Gazette, an omnivorous bluegrass musical group based in Los Angeles that also included Mr. Pedersen, violinist Byron Berline and banjoist Alan Munde. Mr. White toured and recorded with the group while releasing an acclaimed solo album, “I Wasn’t Born to Rock’n Roll”, in 1976.
He left the Country Gazette in 1987 to join the Nashville Bluegrass Band, with whom he recorded Grammy-winning albums in 1993 and 1995. In 2000, he formed the Roland White Band; the band’s debut album, “Jelly on My Tofu,” was nominated for a Grammy.
A prolific mandolin teacher, Mr. White published numerous books and instructional videos with Ms. Bouska, who, in addition to singing and playing guitar in the Roland White Band, was co-producer of their records.
Mr. White was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Fame in 2018. The Kentucky Colonels received the same honor a year later.
Besides Mrs. Bouska, he is survived by a daughter, Roline Hodge, and a son, Lawrence LeBlanc, both from a previous marriage; two grandchildren; a great-granddaughter; and a sister, Rose Marie Johnson.
As influential as the album “Appalachian Swing!” proved to have an equal impact on the West Coast folk scene of the 1960s, the club dates Mr. White and the Kentucky Colonels played at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles.
The Byrds were particularly impressed, adapting the bluegrass instrumentation and technique they gleaned from these shows – they even enlisted Clarence White to play guitar on seminal albums like “Younger Than Yesterday” (1967) and ” Sweetheart of the Rodeo” (1968).
“Playing at Ash Grove paved the way for us to play in front of a whole new audience – folk audiences we knew nothing about,” Mr. White said in an interview with The Bluegrass Situation website. “They dressed differently from the country-western audience (they were students, professors, beatniks, doctors and lawyers) and they paid close attention to the music.”