By Damian Fanelli
Clarence White was a genuine double threat. His brilliant, Doc Watson-inspired acoustic flatpicking, which incorporated lightning-fast fiddle lines played on an ancient Martin D-28, helped the bluegrass world recognize the guitar as a lead instrument. Several masters of the genre, including Tony Rice and Norman Blake, name him as a key influence.
As an electric guitarist, White literally built the bridge between country and rock in the late ’60s. His work with the Parsons/White StringBender – an ingenious B-string-pulling device invented and installed in White’s 1954 Fender Telecaster by multi-instrumentalist Gene Parsons – is simply mind blowing. Whether employing a crisp, bell-like tone (The Byrds’ “Tulsa County”) or a touch of fuzz (The Flying Burrito Brothers’ “The Train Song”), White inserted his dancing, whimsical runs into songs with confidence, knowing that a little can often go a long way.
White, a member of The Byrds, Nashville West, Muleskinner and The Kentucky Colonels, also was an in-demand session player who recorded with Arlo Guthrie, Wynn Stewart, Joe Cocker and Jackson Browne, to name just a few. He was killed by a drunk driver in 1973, never getting to fully grasp the influence he’d have on bluegrass, country and rock.
“Lover of the Bayou”
(The Byrds, Untitled, 1970)
Despite being down to one original member (Roger McGuinn), the late-period Byrds remained a steady concert draw, largely because word had spread about White’s playing. This song — with its manic, fuzz-infused B-bender solo – was recorded live at Queens College in New York in February 1970.
“You Ain’t Going Nowhere”
(The Byrds, Live in Holland 1971, 1971)
Because the better-known Sweetheart of the Rodeo version of this Bob Dylan tune highlights pedal steel guitar, we suggest you check out a live rendition instead – like this one, recently released by Sundazed Music and available on iTunes. It’s a shame the version from the live 1968 TV show appearance below isn’t available on record; enjoy it – you’ll notice White is a rare sight on YouTube.
“Country Boy Rock & Roll”
(Clarence White, 33 Acoustic Guitar Instrumentals, 2000)
There are 32 other songs from this collection of brief, simple home recordings from 1962 that could’ve been chosen for this playlist; this one just happens to have a playlist-appropriate, crossover-artist title — and some incredible flatpicking by White.
“Coming Into Los Angeles”
(Arlo Guthrie, Running Down the Road, 1969)
Besides his pre-band-membership session work with The Byrds, this is probably White’s best-known recording as a session player. One thing was certain in 1969: If you wanted “the Clarence White sound,” you had to go to the source, which Arlo Guthrie — and many other artists — happily did.
(Nashville West, Nashville West, 1976)
No Clarence White playlist would be complete without this, his signature song. Although White recorded the official studio version with The Byrds, check out this stripped-down 1968 El Monte, California, club-date version by another of White’s bands, Nashville West, which featured fellow Byrd Gene Parsons on drums. Consider it the perfect product demo for the Parsons/White StringBender.