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Clarence White: Tuff & Stringy/Sessions 1966-68, CD (£11.50)
Thirty years ago last month, on 13 February, 1973, the band later known as Muleskinner taped a live, in-studio concert for Public Broadcasting channel KCET in Hollywood. Clarence White, in the last year of his short life, had come full circle: from the folk clubs and honky tonks, to stardom with the forbiddingly cool Byrds, back to the bluegrass roots that spawned his career. A video of this performance shows him standing stage left, hugging his Roy Noble custom flattop under the bright kleig lights, driving the band with whistlestop right-hand rhythm. When he takes a break, the cameraman zooms in on his hands caressing the fretboard and strings with quiet authority and an elegantly fluid economy of motion that makes it look...almost...easy.
A quick session with your acoustic will convince you otherwise.
Clarence White had colossal influence on both acoustic and electric guitar playing - a singular feat for a guitarist. While drawing from a wide variety of sources (Doc Watson, Wes Montgomery, James Burton, Django Reinhardt, Joe Maphis, Don Rich, and others), Clarence's style was utterly unique. Whether on acoustic or electric, he had a fascinating way of defining a chord by playing an open bass string, often imitating a common banjo lick by sliding a lower note up to match the open string note. While that was ringing, he'd play a syncopated or contrapuntal lick in the higher registers. When the chord changed, he'd define it by playing another bass note.
I hope you listen to this CD with headphones so you can properly hear Clarence flatpick a duet with himself on the traditional Beaumont Rag (here titled Grandma Funderbunk's Music Box), or hear the burbling sitar in the left hand channel of Hong Kong Hillbilly (aka Nashville West - hell, it kicks the Dr Byrds" version's ass), or hear when Gary Paxton yells "YEEAH!" during Clarence's solo on Mother-In-Law. No, forget the solos-.-we already know they're mind boggling. You need to listen to his astonishing back-up work...it's almost better than the solos!
It's hard to overstate Clarence White's importance to non-musicians. As with any widely influential artist, a slew of myths and stories exist - some real, some embroidered like a Nathan Turk suit: that Bob Dylan slept on his couch (true)-.-that he played with a quarter or a heavy metal pick (false)-.-that he bitch-slapped Gram Parsons for getting out of line (true)-.-that he smoked a lot of Viceroys (true)-.-that he stubbed them out on the edge of the soundhole of his legendary pre-war D-28 (false!)-.-that he had bad luck with cars (breaking down repeatedly and even backing over his beloved Martin D-18 in a station wagon)-.-that he was a quiet, shy gentleman of few words, yet a practical joker of the first order (very true). He was a man who wanted pop stardom, but once he got it, went out of his way to hide his face behind his hair (well, judge for yourself).
Much more could be said about this man who himself said very little. However, as space is limited, I must point out how blessed we are to have good folks like Alec Palao and Ace Records, who on Tuff & Stringy have unearthed and released buried treasure from Clarence's so-called 'lost' period, between the Kentucky Colonels and the Byrds, 1966-68. I am incredibly honoured to have been involved in this project, even in a small way, and I promise you that it was a labour of love and genuine respect on everyone's behalf. Riff Raff, featuring the Clarence White Guitorchestra (acoustic, flatpicked resonator guitar, Tele rear toggle, Tele middle middle toggle, Tele through rotating Leslie speaker...there might be even more) is worth the price of admission alone.
I can also tell you in closing that in musical circles this man has attained rare 'first name only' status. One need only say, "check this out - it's Clarence", and most pickers' ears will perk up. Recently at a gig of mine, No Depression/Mojo writer Barry Mazor handed me a homemade compilation of Wynn Stewart sessions that White played on in 1968.
"Check it out - it's Clarence!"
It was all he had to say, you know?
(Buddy Woodward is an exceedingly hip geetar slinger and former leader of 90s alt.country pioneers the Ghost Rockets. His current band is the damn fine Nitro Express)"