My favorite magazine showed up in the mail earlier this week, and I was delighted to see a cover story on flatpicking pioneer – and former Byrd – Clarence White.
The Fretboard Journal is coffee table quality but with writers who have musical smarts. The Spring 2009 cover article on Clarence White and his mandolin-playing brother Roland is a terrific example. There are great pictures of White’s Telecaster and superb writing about the unique syncopation that Clarence employed. (You can hear it in the video below.) White was one of the most influential guitarists of all time (#41 on the Rolling Stone list of 100 Greatest Guitarists) and The Fretboard Journal connects all the dots of his impact.
Clarence White is that unique musician who had influence in multiple musical genres. As a teenager he introduced the guitar as a lead instrument in bluegrass. Then he moved to the Byrds where he played a key role in defining the sound of country-rock. And much too soon – at age 29 – he was hit by a drunk driver while loading equipment after a White Brothers reunion gig and died the next day. I’ll let writer Geoffrey Himes, who produces great musical reviews for the Washington Post and who wrote this cover story, take it from here:
Nearly everyone in the California country-rock and bluegrass scene showed up for the July 19 funeral at a Catholic Church in Palmdale. At the graveside, at the Joshua Memorial Park in Lancaster, the priest finished his homily, and an awkward silence fell over the cemetery. The quiet was broken by two drunken voices rising in an a cappella hymn: “Farther along, we’ll know more about it; farther along, we’ll understand why.”
The voices belonged to Gram Parsons and Bernie Leadon, who had sung the traditional hymn on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ second album, 1970’s Burrito Deluxe. Clarence had recorded the song with the Byrds as the title track of an album released the following year. Soon, everyone – Chris Hillman, Chris Ethridge, Roland White, Eric White and the others – was singing along, and then they moved into “Amazing Grace.”
Parsons was so distraught…that he turned to his road manager, Phil Kaufman, and said, “Phil, if this happens to me, I don’t want them doing this to me. You can take me to the desert and burn me. I want to go out in a cloud of smoke.” Just two months later, Kaufman had a chance to fulfill that promise.
Clarence’s death was as devastating to the roots-music community as Parsons’ was. If Parsons, in his singing and songwriting, had demonstrated how country and rock could be combined, Clarence had done the same thing with his guitar picking.
If you don’t know Gram Parsons, listen to Emmylou Harris sing Boulder to Birmingham – a song she wrote in memory of Parsons – to get a sense of his impact on great country singers. And nobody but Clarence White could have Albert Lee, Vince Gill, Tony Rice, Norman Blake, and countless other guitar stars cite him as an influence.
The video below is from Clarence’s return to bluegrass picking just before his death. Roland’s playing on mandolin. On I Am A Pilgrim, watch how he mixes his flatpicking with his fingerpicking and check out the syncopation. Then he launches into some straight-ahead flatpicking on Soldier’s Joy that sounds as fresh as the day he played it.
More to come…