The name Clarence White is uttered in reverent tones in the bluegrass world, and deservedly so. The young guitarist was in the midst of redefining the role of the acoustic guitar in bluegrass, and the electric in the burgeoning field of country rock, when he was cut down by a drunk driver at the age of 29.
This was in July 1973, shortly after White had returned to the US after touring with his brothers Roland and Eric as The New Kentucky Colonels, an updating of the name they had used when performing together as youngsters in California. Clarence had also recently been playing guitar with The Byrds, who were shaking up the pop music world with their acoustic sound and close harmony singing.
In May of ’73, while touring overseas, The New Kentucky Colonels recorded two nights of music in Stockholm. Fourteen of those tracks were released in 1976 as The New Kentucky Colonels Live In Sweden 1973 by The White Brothers on Rounder Records. And now Roland White has compiled the best versions of all 26 songs recorded at the Mosebacke club on May 28 and 29 on CD as Live In Sweden 1973 by The New Kentucky Colonels.
Roland is on mandolin, Clarence on guitar, and Eric on bass with Alan Munde on banjo. Their playing is crisp and precise and the duet harmony between Roland and Clarence is superb.
The track list includes many of the songs that Clarence White fans savor, like Soldiers Joy, Alabama Jubilee, John Henry, and I Am A Pilgrim plus some rip roarin’ banjo from Munde on Banjo Boy Chimes, Shenadoah Breakdown, and Blackberry Blossom. Other Colonels favorites can also be found, including New River Train, The Prisoner’s Song, Why You Been Gone So Long, and I Know What It Means To Be Lonesome.
Several of the top bluegrass hits are also on the CD, like a fun version of Mocking Banjo, plus Old Joe Clark, Salty Dog Blues, Rawhide, Fire On The Mountain, and Rolling In My Sweet Baby’s Arms. There is also an extended solo version of Sally Goodin, the way Munde was doing it at this time with Byron Berline in Country Gazette.
As often happens with live recordings, the audio mix for the room doesn’t always compare favorably to the way an engineer might mix for a studio session. Here, the banjo is often a bit weak even on the solos, though the tones are pleasant for all the instruments. But the banjo players’ loss is the flatpickers’ gain, as Clarence’s guitar is way forward in the mix throughout. Students of his playing will be able to pick apart what he does taking his leads and providing rhythm.
Witnessing pickers like this live is always a treat, to realize that they can really do it on stage, and to hear the excitement that only happens in the moment. For younger fan who missed this music back in the ’70s, or who are just now discovering what Clarence did at the time, this record will be an eye-opening experience. Those who had the earlier partial release will certainly savor having all the songs in one package, along with liner notes from Peter Cooper and comments from Roland White and Alan Munde.