For most bluegrass enthusiasts, Roland White is considered a living legend and a virtuoso on the mandolin. His work with the Kentucky Colonels, featuring his brothers Clarence and Eric Jr., brought bluegrass to the forefront of the American folk revival of the 1960s. If you’re a novice and newcomer to bluegrass like me, Roland White and Friends’ A Tribute to the Kentucky Colonels (Mountain Home) is a perfect introduction to the genre. It combines White and twelve classic Colonels songs with some prominent bluegrass artists, such as Gina Furtado (IBMA Nominee for Banjo Player of the Year), Jeremy Garrett (of the acclaimed Infamous Stringdusters), and Molly Tuttle (Americana Awards Instrumentalist of the Year).
The album begins with the first single, “If You’re Ever Gonna Love Me,” which was originally recorded in 1963. The original features barbershop-esque harmonies and is anchored by Clarence White’s guitar and a rousing fiddle solo by Gordon Terry. While this version still contains Roland’s trademark tenor vocal, it’s a bit more delicate than its raw counterpart, mostly due to some tender vocal harmonies by Darin and Brook Aldridge and some tasteful fiddle and banjo lines, courtesy of Garrett and Furtado.
One of the main components of bluegrass—much like jazz—is that one instrument takes its turn playing the main melody and improvising around it, while the others accompany it. You can think of each song as a conversation, with each instrument taking its turn at the proverbial mic stand. There’s quite a few gems in this collection that follow this structure (7 of the 12 songs are instrumentals), with personal favorites being “I Am a Pilgrim” and “Clinch Mountain Backstep.” “Pilgrim” begins with White stating the main melody on the mandolin. It’s followed by variations of the melody on guitar and fiddle, but it’s toward the middle of the song where White and Tuttle truly flex their muscles on the mandolin and guitar, with longer solos that take chances and give their own spin on the main melody. The standout track, however, is “Clinch Mountain Backstep.” Unlike most other songs in this collection, “Backstep” lives within a minor key tonality; that distinction, combined with the up tempo, rollicking nature of the song immediately drew me to it. If you were to compare it to a more contemporary Americana/country/rock song, it may be the murder ballad or ‘get the hell out of dodge’ track that you’d hear on a Cash or Springsteen album (sans vocals, obviously).
With so many renowned and up and coming country and bluegrass musicians joining White on this release, these songs are given new life, even some ~50+ years after they were originally recorded. It’s also a great way for a latecomer to simultaneously get introduced to bluegrass greats, both new and old, as I’ll most likely find myself going through some of the guest artists’ catalogues and the original recordings of the Kentucky Colonels. If you’re also new to bluegrass, I’d recommend going to your local record shop or giving this YouTube link of Kentucky Colonels originals a listen. While you’re at it, order A Tribute to the Kentucky Colonels here.