“HOLY MACKEREL! CAN THIS GUY PLAY GUITAR?!?!”
As noted last time, Clarence White spent most of 1966 busy with session work and pickup gigs. Sometime in the late summer or fall of that year he worked a session at Ion Records in Hollywood. I would’ve included this track in my previous post as it fit that timeline, but given the principals involved, I figured the story made more sense here because joining CW in the studio were four musicians who a year earlier had been playing together as The Castaways, and three of them would go on to have a lasting relationship with the young guitarist.
When The Castaways imploded in the summer of 1965, Cotton opened Ion. Meanwhile, Guilbeau, Parsons, and Moore reformed as, alternately, The Fabulous Reasons and The Reasons. On this fateful day in late ’66, it was basically a Castaways reunion, as Guilbeau, Moore, and Parsons were on hand to back Cotton on a pair of Gib songs. However, it was Darrell’s idea to invite 22-year-old Clarence White to the session that proved to be the stroke of genius.
“(Darrell) said, ‘You gotta meet this guitar player, he’s phenomenal, used to play with the Kentucky Colonels.’ My ears perked up. Clarence White? But it didn’t make sense to me until we did a session together, and I thought, ‘Holy mackerel! Can this guy play guitar!'” He’d flatpick mostly, but he’d also flatpick with a finger or two, and do little rolls with a finger. He would leave spaces and use push notes to come back in; the spaces were almost as important. He’d just stand there and look like he wasn’t doing anything, but it was all coming through.”
–Gene Parsons to Alec Palao in the Tuff & Stringy: Clarence White Sessions 1966-68 liner notes
In a Frets Magazine interview (pictured above), Gene added about this first meeting, “He was starting to learn to play barre chords up and down the neck. Once he pulled the capo off he really got down to it. He was bending strings all over the place and trying to make it sound like a steel guitar.”
Darrell Cotton – Don’t Pity Me
Cotton’s vocals fall somewhere between Van Morrison of Them and Eric Burdon of The Animals, but the syncopation between the acoustic guitar and the rest of the band, especially Clarence’s electric, reminds me of The Kinks’ “Dedicated Follower Of Fashion”. This may not be coincidence, as “Dedicated Follower” was released in the U.S. in April 1966, within a few months (or weeks) of this recording. The heavy distortion of White’s guitar anticipates some of his work with The Byrds — think “This Wheel’s On Fire” — and you can tell that he’s really getting a feel for playing lead in a rock band. Dig the nut pulls at 1:17, 1:25, and on the outro.
Darrell Cotton – If We Could Read [Backing Track]
Like “Don’t Pity Me,” “If We Could Read” was written by Gib Guilbeau, and both songs betray the Dylan influence that was practically a requirement in 1966. Then again, if you were learning to write country and rock songs in the mid-’60s, why wouldn’t you wanna be influenced by Dylan? Nevertheless, for this song I’ve only included the musical backing track because that’s why we’re all here. It’s a poor man’s Blonde On Blonde, which would make sense as that album was released in May ’66. But, I think you can hear the influence of another recording released that month, The Beatles’ “Rain”.
What’s clear on “If We Could Read” is Clarence’s growing Telemastery that would fully flower on “Tell Me.” Electric guitar mastery was imminent, the only thing missing was a regular gig to hone his chops on a consistent basis. Enter The Reasons and an unconventional producer willing to experiment with genre.
As 1966 turned into ’67, Clarence began playing gigs with The Reasons whenever his schedule allowed. The band held a lengthy residency at the Jack Of Diamonds in Palmdale and according to Gene, “We played seven nights a week there and a double shift on Sunday. We played from noon until six, we took a couple hours off, came back and played nine ’til two. Seven days a week we drove back and forth to Palmdale, which was about 80 miles, so we were quite busy boys.”
Just as importantly, Clarence also began accompanying Gib and Gene (and occasionally Wayne) to sessions at Gary S. Paxton’s makeshift Hollywood studio. Paxton was a maverick figure in the L.A. recording scene, famously singing on “Alley Oop” and producing Bobby “Boris” Pickett‘s Halloween mainstay, “Monster Mash”. Novelty songs aside, Paxton was an ambitious and open-minded producer, innovative engineer, and had a keen ear for talent. It didn’t take him long to lock down Gib & Gene as the first act on his new label, Bakersfield International, and as you might expect, Clarence got as much work as he could handle. However, before B.I. went into full operation mode, Paxton cut a few singles for Capitol Records, using his studio and available session hands to back him up.
Gary Paxton – Mother-In-Law
Recorded in early 1967, “Mother-In-Law” is an appealing country version of Ernie K. Doe‘s R&B smash from ’61. Paxton sings lead, Gib & Gene provide backup vocals, Carl Walden, a fantastic multi-instrumentalist, is on pedal steel, and Clarence is on acoustic guitar. CW adds fills and passing chords throughout the song, mostly playing behind and around the beat. Rhythmically subtle, but very effective. Gotta love the Paxton call-out (“All right, Clarence!”), as well as the flurry of notes at 1:06, followed by Paxton chuckling out loud (“Yeah, yeah”).
“Mother-In-Law” didn’t make much of a dent on the charts, but it illustrated Paxton’s maverick vision, which included wedding country music with rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, folk music, and playing to the strengths of whoever was in the studio. In the liner notes to Bakersfield Rebels (again by Alec Palao), singer and former cohort in shenanigans, Buddy Mize, said of Paxton, “(Gary) was as adept at country as he was at anything else. But, he was on the edge of the new sounds and explored them all, to find if there was another lucrative avenue other than just country music. We were all enthused with the union of (rock and country), and I just thought it was a natural thing. It was so smooth there wasn’t even a notable segue.”Clearly, by 1967 that union of rock and country was in full swing. What’s remarkable is the mind-boggling talent Paxton had at his disposal, including some by now familiar names. Says Gary, “I had a rock ‘n’ roll band and I had a country band, including Glen D. Hardin and James Burton, though I couldn’t get them very often because they were working a whole bunch. So I phased in Gib and Clarence and Gene and Wayne, though Glen D. would still play piano. And Ben Benay would maybe play rhythm with the country band, or Clarence might play with Mike Deasy, it kinda went back and forth.”
Paxton doesn’t mention that one of his on-call bassists was Jerry Scheff, like Burton and Hardin, an eventual member of Elvis Presley’s famous TCB Band. He also fails to mention the immensely gifted Walden, who added pedal steel, guitar, dobro, keyboard, and harmonica to numerous sessions, including “Mother-In-Law.” With Paxton’s progressive vision of country music and a studio Dream Team readily available, how could he NOT help midwife the birth of country-rock? If anything, Paxton’s impact on the creation of country-rock in southern California has been diminished, overlooked, and/or forgotten in favor of a sexier — and far more profitable — Gram Parsons-based narrative.
Sometime in mid-1967, Clarence signed a solo deal with Bakersfield International, effectively making him, Guilbeau, Moore, and Parsons the core of the B.I. session crew. It was right around this time that the Gosdin Brothers, Vern and Rex, arrived at Paxton’s studio to cut a couple tracks.
Gosdin Brothers – Hangin’ On
The song that put Bakersfield International on the map, peaking on the country charts at #37. It features gorgeous harmonies from Vern and Rex and those strings you think you hear? That would be mellotron, undoubtedly the first country semi-hit on which the mellotron played a leading role. But, the star of this particular show was obviously Mr. White and his fancypants dobro picking. While classical sounding, the flamenco-style leads might also be influenced by the Mexican music he no doubt heard simply from living in southern California. Whatever the case, his playing is absolutely astonishing. Vern agrees, saying in the Sounds Of Goodbye liner notes, “Clarence is playing a dobro and I never heard anybody that was any good but him. That style was what he got out of (his influences): classical guitar and James Burton.”
Gosdin Brothers – Multiple Heartaches
Classic Bakersfield twang, “Multiple Heartaches” was the flipside to “Hangin’ On” and features a pair of Clarence Whites. In the right channel he’s again picking dobro, though this time in a more traditional country fashion, while centered in the mix on Tele he’s doing his best Don Rich impression.
At this point, I think Paxton’s production style deserves a shout-out.
“We wrote charts out. Clarence and Gib would always play rhythm first and then Clarence would go back and put lead on. Wayne also played rhythm, and Vern, too. I would use like eight rhythm guitars. One would be a Gibson, one would be a Martin, etc., and I’d set all four of them facing each other and put the mics on them, then we’d record, and we’d stack them. I would have the guys switch guitars, so you would have a different player and a different feel on the Martin and the Gibson. But then, Clarence liked to flatpick that bubbly stuff on the dobro, and we’d either do that first and overdub the electric, or we’d do the electric first and then fill the holes in with the dobro. Clarence loved to play that thing!”
–Gary S. Paxton to Alec Palao in the Tuff & Stringy: Clarence White Sessions 1966-68 liner notes
Clarence White – Tuff & Stringy
In July, Clarence signed the aforementioned solo deal with Bakersfield International, and the first release issued in his name was the song that also serves as the title of the great Tuff & Stringy compilation. A laid back guitar pickin’ session, CW sounds like he might be octuple-tracked. No doubt at least one of the acoustic guitars is him, if not all, but he’s also double-tracked on dobro, and it sounds like he might also be double-tracked on Telecaster (and panned slightly to the left).
Jan Paxton & Clarence White – Nature’s Child
This one is a Clarence and Jan Paxton (wife of Gary) co-write. Hippie-dippie lyrics aside, this tune demonstrates two things: 1) Jan Paxton’s voice was sexy as hell, and 2) Clarence could provide less-is-more musicality whenever needed. I’ve been focusing on his phenomenal guitar solos because, for the most part, that’s how he earned his rep and chicks dig the long ball. But, make no mistake, producers and musicians loved working with him because in addition to the jaw-dropping leads, he was first and foremost a sympathetic role player. It’s hard to imagine CW being underrated at anything, but I think he was an underrated melodist. “Nature’s Child” proves that Clarence had a way with deceptively simple, almost-Tin Pan Alley melodies. Please note that he doesn’t take a single solo, yet his musical fingerprints are all over the song. A long-lost gem in the White catalog.
THE HAMMOND LESLIE PHASE
Wayne Moore – Rocks In My Head
Gib & Gene – Workin’ On A Tugboat
One of the unusual studio gimmicks Paxton employed at this time was to run Clarence’s guitar through a Hammond organ’s Leslie unit. I talked about this effect a few months ago, during my Doug Sahm post, and what it does is give the guitar a swirling, underwater-type sound. (Check out Playing Guitar Through A Leslie Speaker Cabinet). What makes the effect unusual relative to Clarence’s recording career, is that it’s use was pretty much isolated to brief periods in 1966-67.
These two tracks were cut in probably cut in early ’67 and feature all four Reasons in various capacities. “Rocks In My Head” features sludgy guitar work from Clarence, including bizarre sounding nut pulls at :48 and on the outro. Honestly, I’m not sure the Leslie effect works all that well here, as it sounds like he’s trying to communicate with whales. The effect is more subdued on “Tugboat,” which taps into Guilbeau’s Louisiana background. Gib & Gene’s first release with B.I., “Sweet Suzannah,” was loosely based on the cajun traditional, “Big Mamou,” and that single — recorded without Clarence — earned the duo some regional airplay. Emboldened by the success, and with Guilbeau naturally gifted at blending bayou patois into his songs, “Tugboat” was one of several Gib & Gene songs from this era paying homage to GG’s ethnic heritage.
In the summer of 1967, Clarence joined The Reasons full-time, giving him a nightly forum to experiment on guitar in front of paying audiences. In addition to their residency at the Jack Of Diamonds in Palmdale, The Reasons played the entire southern California honky-tonk circuit, including The Palomino and Checkers Club in North Hollywood and The Aces Club and Nashville West in El Monte, then a rural enclave about 15 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.
[On a side note, I originally published this post on August 15, 2008, when I was living in Austin, Texas. Fast forward 4 years and change and where was I living, but El Monte, California, with my then-girlfriend and now-wife. I’ve lived here ever since. While I was obviously a huge Clarence White fan in ’08 — hence the series of blogs begun that year — I feel a weird sense of destiny ending up in his veritable backyard. I literally live down the street from where Nashville West stood and where Clarence White reimagined how one can play the electric guitar. It’s a minor intellectual contrivance in the grand scope of the universe, but I feel a sense of pride and kinship being in this physical space.]
Nashville West actually became their second home as they also began playing residences there. Says Gene, “These residencies would often be longer than six weeks. We would go and play, and then we’d come back and play again. The Nashville West was my favorite, because we were there the longest, and we just left everything set up. It was a pretty lively scene. There were a lot of clubs in town, like The Aces Club, which was after hours. They had a house band and musicians from the whole area would come, everyone would sit in, and afterwards we’d have breakfast. It was a real good time, a camaraderie. A lot of this was straight country, but we were mixing in a lot more rock ‘n’ roll at that point.”
Gene’s comment about The Aces Club, especially the last sentence, is revealing. For years now, the discussion of who invented country-rock has been valuable, but flawed in one key respect — it’s placed far too much emphasis on recorded output. To some degree this is understandable, as singles and albums are recorded “proof,” so if you take them chronologically there should be consensus. But this isn’t the case for country-rock.
Fact is, southern California was Ground Zero for the country-rock movement, not because records were influential, but because that was where a coterie of open-minded country musicians and sympathetic rock musicians were meeting at clubs and exchanging ideas. Country-rock would soon become identified with Sweetheart Of The Rodeo (rel. July 1968) and The Gilded Palace Of Sin (rel. February 1969), but in 1966-67, the music was developing organically on stage. It’s no accident that some of the first recorded examples of country-rock were from The Byrds and Gene Clark — not to mention Paxton’s various productions — because the music that was turning into country-rock was happening all around them. Of course, at the center of both worlds, and the man who more than any other took the tradition of country music and by the sheer force of his genius welded it to a boundless vision of mid-’60s rock, was Clarence White.
In 1967, Gene Parsons recorded one of The Reasons’ gigs at Nashville West, inadvertently documenting a touchstone moment in southern California country-rock. As he recalled in a Ken Claybaugh interview from 1986, “I had a Sony two-track, and I hooked it up, partly to the sound system and partly to the microphones, and recorded the whole night.” Eleven years later, Nashville West would be released by Sierra/Briar Records, solidifying Clarence’s reputation as a guitar virtuoso.
For the record, none of the surviving Reasons remembers billing themselves as Nashville West. I could see how fans might refer to them as “the Nashville West band,” more than anything as a reference to their residency at the club. However, because the liner notes held no mention of “The Reasons,” Fabulous or otherwise, “Nashville West” stuck. Gib admits, though, that even The Reasons wasn’t their official handle, “We didn’t really have any name. When we played in Bakersfield we were (The Happening) Gary Paxton Band, so people would call me Gary all the time, or ask ‘Where’s Gary?’ We were called Cajun Gib & Gene on some occasions. Otherwise, we were usually The Reasons.”
As much as I enjoy it, I think Nashville West needs to be seen, less as an album, than as an artifact from a musical culture in transition, and a stand-in for the band’s existence as a working unit. After all, as much as I love Clarence, his guitar is too high in the mix and the rhythm section, Wayne and Gene, are virtually inaudible. By bootleg standards it sounds just fine, but to overreact to the fidelity is to miss the point. In fact, The Reasons’ historical importance derives, not from a one-off scratch recording, but from their hundreds of performances with Clarence between 1966-68. It was during this 18-24 month period that the band was an on-stage laboratory, drawing almost equally upon honky-tonk country, early rock ‘n’ roll, top 40, cajun, gospel, blues, and most pertinent to today’s discussion, visionary rock guitar. And if you think they weren’t influential, think again.
From Byrdwatcher, a now-defunct Byrds fan site: “Friends would sit in with the group, including Glen D. Hardin on keyboards and steel guitarists Sneaky Pete Kleinow and Lloyd Green. Gram Parsons also sat in with the group occasionally.”
From the Louisiana Rain (Guilbeau & Parsons) liner notes: “Legend has it that word spread so quickly about this hot band with the amazing guitar player that several members of L.A.’s fledgling country-rock fraternity, including nascent Burrito Brothers like Gram Parsons and Sneaky Pete Kleinow, made the pilgrimage to Palmdale (home of Jack Of Diamonds).”
Gene Parsons, from that same Claybaugh interview: “When we were working at the Nashville West, The Byrds would come and sit in with us because they were studying country music and we were one of the hottest country rock bands in Southern California at that time, and they came to study us.”
What was it that brought these musicians, the men who would go on to become the collective face of country-rock, to see The Reasons, particularly Clarence White?
“CLARENCE PLAYED A LITTLE LOUD!”
The Reasons – Ode To Billie Joe
A hit that year for Bobbie Gentry, The Reasons presented this as an instrumental showcase for Clarence’s pulverizing guitar technique. Wielding nut pulls and hammer-ons like body blows, CW toys with the beat, subtly changing dynamics with tone, volume, and flatpicking. I can only imagine what it was like to see him on a regular basis. Surely more than one guitarist left a Reasons gig and sold his guitar the next day.
The Reasons – Nashville West [Reprise]
A set-closing reprise of the band’s theme song, it’s pretty clearly an homage to Buck & Don’s own theme, “Buckaroo”. The tune actually predates their Nashville West residencies and was probably untitled when this show was recorded. Of course, when Gene and Clarence recorded it with The Byrds for Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde, they titled it in homage to their beloved El Monte nightspot.
The Reasons – Mental Revenge
This Mel Tillis number was a minor hit in 1967 for Waylon Jennings and I’m guessing his version was the template for this cover. This song is also as good as any to come back to the country-rock discussion. As is evident throughout Nashville West, what separates Clarence’s electric guitar playing in this period from his fellow country-rock pioneers — James Burton, Don Rich, Joe Maphis, and Jimmy Bryant, to name four — is that only he “rocked” according to the terms of 1967. Because of his panoramic imagination, he was somehow able to reconcile the twangy innovations of chicken pickers like Burton and Rich, with the effects-heavy sonic assault of Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck, including their appreciation for ample doses of high volume. It is this heavy rock element that often gets overlooked in discussions of both Clarence White and country-rock, but his former bandmates clearly remembered.
In the Tuff & Stringy liner notes, Wayne Moore says laughing, “Yeah, it seemed like Clarence played a little loud! He liked to do country and rock ‘n’ roll equally.” Gene notes that in terms of equipment, “Clarence used a Fender Vibrolux with an auxiliary speaker, which was an Altec Voice of the Theater — a monster. It was as loud as you could get with 30 watts.”
The best quote, though, comes from Gib, who concurs on CW’s loudness, but also brings us full circle by putting The Reasons in their historical context, both from a fan’s perspective and from the perspective from like-minded musicians:
“Live, Clarence just cranked the amp all the way up to 10. We were all always loud, loud for a country band. We had people comment that we played country like a rock ‘n’ roll band, a little bit rough around the edges. The older audience didn’t care for us too much. Our audiences were always a lot younger, 20s, early 30s, which was strange. We had a following. When we played the Jack Of Diamonds on weekends, 50% of our crowd was from L.A., folks that would drive up. Eddie Dean, Tex Williams, Glen Campbell and some of the Nashville guys, like Little Jimmy Dickens, they all sat in. Waylon Jennings played there, though that wasn’t a regular thing. (We had a guest) maybe once every couple of months.”
–Gib Guilbeau to Alec Palao in the Louisiana Rain (Guilbeau & Parsons) liner notes
I think it’s fair to assume that an older audience probably didn’t appreciate the band’s liberal volume policy. But other factors may have been at play, as well. Remember, this was the mid-1960s. Today’s culture wars are rooted in the battles of this period and Los Angeles was certainly no exception (see Sunset Strip curfew riots). So, when Gil takes the mic at the end of “Green, Green Grass Of Home,” he’s all but meta-announcing that a new generation has come to country music, with their fancy new ideas of leisure.
The Reasons – Green, Green Grass Of Home [Excerpt]
NEXT TIME: FROM BAKERSFIELD TO BYRDLAND
I think it’s best that we stop here, in part because my head is about to explode, and in part because the year from August 1967 to August 1968 is chock full o’ CW goodness. He continued to gig with The Reasons, continued to work at Bakersfield International, and he and Gene Parsons cooked up a backroom invention that would revolutionize Clarence’s playing, in so doing expand the possibilities of the electric guitar. Oh, and he joined The Byrds. Yep, just another ho-hum year in the Clarence White Chronicles.