By Peter Vankevich
When Ocracoke Alive announced in the spring that Roland White and Friends would be part of the annual Ocrafolk Festival, the buzz was audible.
That’s because Roland is considered to be a bluegrass mandolin master.
His long career includes his own bands, The Country Boys, The Kentucky Colonels, and The Nashville Bluegrass Band, and he has played with bluegrass legends Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and a host of other famous performers, including Andy Griffith.
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On his visit to the island in June, he recounted some of his early years of his long, illustrious career.
Born in 1938 with the last name of LeBlanc (which is White in French) in the French-speaking northern Maine town of Madawaska, his home life was bathed in music.
His father, Eric, who played fiddle, banjo, guitar and harmonica, encouraged him and siblings, Clarence, Eric and Joanne, to join in.
One day when he was seven, he came home and saw his father playing a small instrument he had never seen.
“What is that,” he asked his father.
“It’s called a mandolin.”
“How did you learn to play it so quickly?”
“It’s tuned just like a fiddle with frets and you use a pick instead of a bow.”
Roland took to the instrument immediately.
As his father changed jobs, the family lived in several towns in Maine and New Hampshire, and the talented young children would play in the local Grange halls on Saturday nights.
The family moved to California in 1954 partly because of his father’s search for work and also because he wanted his children to get into the music business
Their first break was getting invited to play in a Sunday afternoon talent show on KXLA in Pasadena hosted by “Squeakin’ Deacon” Carl Moore.
Before going on the show, Moore told them they needed a band name and suggested “Three Little Country Boys.” They won the contest and started playing with that name.
Next, they were invited to play on a new television show called The Foreman Phillips “County Barn Dance Jubilee” and would appear with another group, called Three Little Country Girls. They were a big hit and started getting requests to perform. They also performed on another popular country music show called Town Hall Party
Another highlight of his early career was playing on two episodes of the Andy Griffith Show in 1964. Their performance of the song, “Whoa Mule,” can be seen on YouTube.
“Desilu Productions called around saying they were looking for a string band and got to our agent,” Roland said. They were told to head to the studio and wait in the green room.
“Andy showed up with a guitar and said ‘Okay, boys. Let’s do a song.”’ They played “Whoa Mule” once with him.
“We got it, boys,” Griffith said, and that was it for the rehearsal.
“After we did the show we got lots of calls, especially from Maine saying, ‘We saw you on the Andy Griffith Show,'” Roland said. “I didn’t know the show was so popular because we usually played the night it was on television.”
The Three Little County Boys became The Country Boys, adding banjoist Billy Ray Latham and Dobro player LeRoy Mack.
After a two-year in the U.S. Army, Roland rejoined the group renamed The Kentucky Colonels. The latter was more of a marketing ploy, suggested by Merle Travis, who produced their first major recording, to get recognition in the surging bluegrass market. “In spite of the name, we had yet to visit Kentucky,” he said.
What was not a marketing ploy was their talent.
They toured the country during the folk music revival of the early 1960s, performing in coffeehouses, festivals, including the 1963 Monterey Folk Festival, and on college campuses.
Their “Appalachian Swing!” album (1964, World Pacific) remains one of the most important bluegrass albums of that era.
As the folk boom waned in 1966, the band split up. Brother Clarence went on to join the folk/rock group The Byrds. Roland joined Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys and then Lester Flatt and the Nashville Grass.
He played for many years with the Country Gazette and later he joined the Nashville Bluegrass Band, staying with that group until 2000 when he formed the Roland White Band.
His “friends” for the Ocrafolk Festival were his wife and Roland White band co-founder Diane Bouska on guitar, upright bass-player Julie Brown, her husband Stan Brown on banjo and Fiddlin’ Al McCanless on violin.
While on Ocracoke, the band was a guest on the WOVV show What’s Happening on Ocracoke.
For more information on Roland White, go to http://www.rolandwhite.com/
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