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
A quick session with your acoustic will convince you otherwise.
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!
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
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)