Mandolin Man: The Bluegrass Life of Roland White

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2/24/22 Mississippi Chris Sharp
Book Review

Book: Mandolin Man: The Bluegrass Life of Roland White
Author: Bob Black
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication Date: June 7, 2022

The University of Illinois Press and their Music in American Life series are on a roll for Bluegrass fans in 2022. We’re only two months into the new year, and so far, I have read and reviewed two books about Bluegrass music. The first was Mark Hembree’s On the Bus with Bill Monroe, and now, former Bluegrass Boy banjoist Bob Black’s Mandolin Man: The Bluegrass Life of Roland White.

Bob Black has spared no effort in interviews, discography, anecdotes, photos, the history of Roland White’s tenure in many bands, and a glossary of Bluegrass icons and venues mentioned in the book. Any student of Bluegrass music, particularly those new to the music they would make their own, will benefit from studying this book. It is a lesson in the glory of perseverance and persistence, both White’s as an artist and Black’s as an author.

Like many other converts to Bluegrass, at first, I found the hard, raw edge of Bill Monroe a bit shrill, which says nothing about Bill Monroe and a lot about tastes. Ripe olives, oysters on the half-shell, lutefisk (that half-rotten fermented fish that Norwegians love), and haggis (that Scottish dish the FDA says can’t even be imported into the USA) are not typically items placed on a toddler’s menu. One has to grow into those more mature flavors. That may not be the case for everyone, but it is for many of us.

Unlike the mature flavor that is Bill Monroe, the Kentucky Colonels and The New Kentucky Colonels, featuring Roland and Clarence White, were palatable to me right off the bat: my first Bluegrass love, as it were. On a two-week honeymoon in January 0f 1980, that became less and less about a new marriage and more and more about being broke and hanging out in Nashville among many Bluegrass pals. My new bride, Debbie, and I, too broke for hotels by then, spent the last couple of nights at the shared house of my friend and former Bluegrass Boy Bob Fowler and one of my first Bluegrass idols Roland White. Though I daresay it was not so for my new bride, it was a high point for me. Still, she was a good sport about it. She is still a good sport after forty-two years of marriage. It was my first time being face-to-face with one of my earliest Bluegrass heroes and influences. I was smitten. Roland was gracious, which could serve as a good second subtitle for this book.

Roland White’s contributions to Bluegrass music cannot be overstated. To try and list them here would be to pay short shrift to what Black has so superbly done in his book. In the reading, it became apparent that nothing short of a book-length project could do justice to Roland White. Bob Black has given us that justice. He has done so admirably.

The book is very readable. Sometimes it seems a bit redundant, but it is more a matter of format than anything else. Sometimes things need to be said more than once. Listen closely to The Kentucky Colonels, Country Gazette, The Nashville Bluegrass Band, and The Roland White Band. Then listen again. Repeat. Read the book’s glossary. Repeat. Read White’s discography. Repeat. Watch old Andy Griffith shows that feature The Country Boys. Repeat. Repeat. Read the book. Repeat. Redundancy has its place place [grin]. In fact, a lot of what we like about music is its stellar moments interspersing its redundancy.

Black makes a great, successful effort to point out Roland White’s sincerity in encouraging new players, helping them find their voice in a musical style many see as limiting. It’s a debate that rages in the bluegrass world. The only limits are those placed there by others or those we place for ourselves as we come face to face with our musical limitations. Aside from having pleased our ears with his music for so many years, White’s greatest legacy may be to have watered and nurtured tender shoots in an often thorny and rocky ground.

Black rightfully points out White’s unceasing interest in the sound of the music and what he can contribute to that sound. The result is often a synergy and cohesiveness seldom found on a recording of hotshots in a hot band. Something anchors the music while still allowing for experimentation within its structure. Something grounds it to the earth. That something was frequently Roland White.

The body of work Roland White has blessed us with is immense. It was my first study, and it’s still studied. Black gives things we no doubt would have missed along the way, which is true for the veteran and far more for the novice.

Bob Black is a top-shelf banjoist himself, having worked on some of my favorite recordings, particularly those he did with the great fiddler, Kenny Baker. Black has another book out, Come Hither to Go Yonder: Playing Bluegrass with Bill Monroe, also available from The University of Illinois Press. I haven’t read it yet, but I think it’ll be next on my list.

Having seen more than one pre-release book, I find that they typically contain boilerplate language warning reviewers of the dangers of using quotes from the pre-release in their hands. Well, I found a quote I have to use here, ignoring the publisher’s warning about changes in final editions. Black graced us with a great Bill Monroe quote that is not likely to change. This Monroeism came from a story White told Black about a left-over lunch found in a paper sack aboard Monroe’s bus, aka The Bluegrass Breakdown. When questioned about the unrefrigerated old food found in a greasy paper sack, Monroe replied, “You can’t hurt ham.”

I laughed out loud.

Thank you, Bob Black, for your contributions to Bluegrass music and the gift of knowledge in this book. Hard work pays dividends to more than just the one doing all the work. All I had to do was read the book to tap into that big dividend. It was so enjoyable, and it was not work at all.

I think I’ll spin up The New Kentucky Colonels Live in Sweden and cut me off a big slice of country ham.

It can’t hurt.

Mississippi Chris Sharp

2/24/22

 

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