“To have been a Renaissance Hillbilly in Hollywood in the 1960s would have been great for me. I could have hung out with Leo Fender, Buck Owens and Don Rich, Moon (Ralph Mooney), Merle (Haggard) and Roy Nichols. Gone to check out Wynn Stewart recording at Capitol or witnessed Johnny Cash, Joe Maphis, and Merle Travis terrorizing Tex Ritter. Cruised up Lankershim Boulevard to the Palomino with Nudie (Cohn) to catch James Burton burning it up with Ricky Nelson while anticipating the Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe, or Lester (Flatt) and Earl (Scruggs) bringing some bluegrass to the West. But there’s no doubt in my mind that when the sun went down, wherever Clarence White was playing, that’s where you would have found me.”
—Marty Stuart, from the Nashville West liner notes
When Clarence White rejoined The Byrds in the studio in late August 1967, he was reconnecting with a band on the verge of implosion. David Crosby’s overwrought, drug-fueled narcissism was destroying the band from within and would eventually result in his wholly appropriate firing. Michael Clarke‘s drumming was proving to be as inadequate as Crosby‘s social skills and he, too, was given the boot. Founding Byrd, Gene Clark, was also in and out of the band, depending upon mood, day, and whether planes were involved. In retrospect, I’m not sure if the restless experimentalism of Notorious Byrd Brothers was due more to artistic temperament than it was simply a naked reflection of the band’s bipolarity. Whatever the case, the album has not only stood the test of time, it could be their masterpiece. And perhaps it’s coincidence, but the song Clarence came in to play on, as much as any song on Notorious, laid out the transitory nature of the Byrds’ Nest in the summer of 1967.
A unique song in The Byrds’ canon, “Change Is Now” effectively bridges two eras of the band. Evident are the multi-part harmonies that had been a Byrds trademark from the beginning, as well as Roger McGuinn‘s distorted guitar leads first heard on “Eight Miles High.” Meanwhile, Clarence’s country picking clearly points to the group’s future. As it turns out, this engaging synthesis of what the band was and what the band would become is the only Byrds’ song to feature Crosby and White together.
Clarence White – Hong Kong Hillbilly (aka Nashville West)
Clarence White – Hong Kong Hillbilly (aka Nashville West)
You know you might be in 1967 when the producer — in this case, Gary S. Paxton — says to himself, “You know what this song needs? Sitar!” While the Nashville West recording predates this one, “Hong Kong Hillbilly” (“Nashville Far East?”) was the first formal recording of the song that would later be known as “Nashville West.” The sitar probably draws too much attention to itself, but in some bizarre way it works. Tuff & Stringy also includes Clarence’s sitar-and-mellotron-flavored (!) cover of Floyd Cramer‘s “Last Date,” recorded around the same time, if not at the same October 1967 session, as “Hong Kong Hillbilly.” I’d include it here, but hey, you need some incentive to support Alec Palao’s superior compilation skills, without whom these Chronicles would be vastly inferior.
Cut in late November 1967, this was one of the last tracks recorded for Notorious Byrd Brothers. Says David Fricke in the liner notes to the 1997 Notorious reissue: “(Gerry) Goffin and (Carole) King’s second contribution to the album saw them momentarily eclipse Bob Dylan as The Byrds’ favorite outside composers. As ever with The Byrds, musical juxtaposition works to spectacular effect, with Clarence White’s country-style guitar picking set against some riveting phasing. A year after its appearance here, the song would become inextricably linked with the movie Easy Rider, where it was used in one of the more memorable sequences to express the rider’s sense of liberation from straight society.”
Incidentally, I interviewed Jeff Tweedy around the time Wilco was making Being There and I asked him about the song, “Passenger Side.” If you check the liner notes to A.M., Brian Henneman from the Bottle Rockets is credited with playing “small stoned guitar.” I asked Jeff what that meant and he said it was specifically an homage to the phased guitar sound of The Byrds on “Wasn’t Born To Follow.” So, there you go. From The Byrds and Clarence White to Wilco and Jeff Tweedy in one easy step. Country-rock is dead! Long live alt.country!
STREETS OF BAKERSFIELD
In late 1967, Paxton relocated his Bakersfield International label to its namesake town. As he explains in the Bakersfield Rebels liner notes, “There was just too much pandemonium in Hollywood, the crime and drugs were getting so bad. So, I went up (to Bakersfield) and looked at this old bank building on the corner of Chester and El Tejon, which had been empty since 1939. I would say, from the day I drove out of Hollywood and backed that bus into the bank up there, within 72 hours I was recording. I wasn’t down more than three days.”
Clarence and the The Reasons remained Paxton’s house band after the move, often driving several hours to and from the B.I. studio. Says Paxton, “They’d commute over the mountain. Sometimes they’d come and stay a couple days (since) they had friends there. Or, they would work a gig Thursday, Friday, Saturday night and then record all day. So, they had two reasons to be there.”
In early 1968, Paxton got the band a six-nights-a-week residency at a local steakhouse called Greg’s Hi-Life, which unfortunately, didn’t quite go as planned. Says Gene, “We had everyone come out to hear this fantastic guitar player — Merle Haggard, Bonnie Owens, etc. But it was a dinner house and Greg was a pompous old boy from the old school. ‘You gotta play quieter. Can you just play with brushes?’ I said, ‘Sure,’ but then he asked, ‘Do you have to use brushes? Can’t you just play with your hands?’ That sent Clarence and Gib over the edge. On a break, Clarence walked out the back, climbed up on the back of Greg’s El Dorado, and peed all over his car. Pretty soon we were all up there peeing. That was the end of that, we were out of there! It had been killing us anyway, the 220-mile round trip from Palmdale to Bakersfield every night … and the recording over there, too. At one point, Clarence got tired of driving and he and Wayne moved to Bakersfield for a little while.”
Paxton didn’t make the move to Bakersfield just to escape Hollywood’s seedy underbelly. He had legit business connections in B-Town and the success of “Hangin’ On” seemed to portend big things. So, in late 1967, Paxton brought the Gosdins to his new studio to record an album’s worth of songs, while putting the finishing touches on their follow-up single, “She Still Wishes I Were You” b/w “There Must Be A Someone (I Can Turn To),” released in January 1968.
Gosdin Brothers – There Must Be A Someone (I Can Turn To)
Gosdin Brothers – There Must Be A Someone (I Can Turn To)
I’ve focused more on Clarence’s electric guitar innovations, but the Gosdin sessions are a good example of how he continued to embrace and refine his acoustic playing. His command of the acoustic guitar was a known commodity, of course, and his Telecaster work quickly became extraordinary. But his dobro playing — picked up while working sessions with James Burton — is an underappreciated facet of his musical vocabulary. While his playing on “Hangin’ On” is astonishing in its flamenco-osity, his playing on “Someone” is impressive in its restraint. Vern Gosdin‘s tune is a simple country-blues and White never overplays his hand, offering understated, yet tasteful fills throughout. About 18 months later, The Byrds (with Clarence and Gene) would record this tune for their Ballad Of Easy Rider LP (covered in Clarence White: Easy Ridin’ in ’69).
“Bowling Green” was a hit for the Everly Brothers in the summer of 1967, so in one sense it was a natural pick for the Gosdins. However, where the Phil and Don version is busy and Brian Wilson-ized, Paxton reduced the song to its country essence, backing Vern and Rex with a basic rhythm section and 3-4 acoustic guitars. Clarence sounds like he’s double-tracked, firing off acoustic leads in each speaker, his lightning-fast picking in the right channel particularly noteworthy. Also worth mentioning are Rex’s fantastic high harmonies, where he beautifully taps into his inner Phil Everly.
The title track to the Gosdins album again stacks multiple guitars on top of each other, and unless my ears are openly deceiving me, the sitar makes its triumphant re-appearance. Clarence probably plays the sitar, but more importantly, he picks another firestorm in the left channel, on what sounds like acoustic guitar and dobro. Gene Parsons‘ drumming, in tandem with the fast picking, pushes this song forward with a spirited near-recklessness.
These last two tracks appeared on the Gosdins album, Sounds Of Goodbye, a record that’s often cited as one of the first country-rock albums. While I would agree that the Gosdins themselves (pictured right) were at the forefront of the SoCal country-rock movement, and SOG synthesizes country, folk, and pop, it really isn’t much of a rock album. If anything, I’d say SOG is similar to Gene Clark With The Gosdin Brothers, or sizable chunks of The Byrds’ catalog to that point, in that it’s really folk-pop, with some country and rock mixed in.
Sadly, the Gosdins never really broke through, partly because Capitol didn’t know what to do with them — they were too hip and folky for country radio and too country for most rock radio — and partly because whatever momentum they gained with “Hangin’ On” was long gone by the time they re-entered the studio with Paxton, let alone by the time Capitol released their album in October ’68. As Gene perceptively notes, “The reason that they weren’t able to capitalize on ‘Hangin’ On’ was that there was no structure, no support behind them. Instead, there was Gary with all his problems and not much of any budget. I think he had one guy going around half-heartedly servicing the stations and whatnot, but that was it.” More on Gary’s problems later.
Despite his heavy schedule with The Reasons and Bakersfield International, Clarence continued to take on outside session work. In early January 1968, he entered the studio with Wynn Stewart (pictured left), one of the architects of the Bakersfield sound. Ironically, at this point in his career, Stewart was drifting over to country-pop, but he spent the previous 15 years as a stone-cold, honky-tonk country singer. His influence on Buck Owens and Merle Haggard is incalculable, especially on Hag’s early singing style, which was an uncanny blend of both Stewart and Lefty Frizzell.
A fairly straightforward country song that would appear on Stewart’s Something Pretty LP (1968), Clarence takes it to the next level. His solo from :51 to 1:05 is up there with “Tell Me” for sheer audacity (go to the bottom of this page to hear “Tell Me”) and his chicken-pickin’ hiccups on the outro clearly betray his debt to James Burton. FYI, the album from which this track is culled is long out-of-print, so I’m linking to the Bear Family box set for those of you interested in tackling the Wynn Stewart discography in one fell swoop.
Paxton released Clarence’s second single in March 1968, though I suspect the tracks, a pair of instrumentals, were recorded as early as the previous summer. This was the B-side to “Riff Raff” and if you’ve been following the CW Chronicles from the beginning, you heard this tune when he was playing it with Doc Watson at Newport. However, it was listed then under its traditional title, “Beaumont Rag.” As with “Hong Kong Hillbilly,” Paxton’s unconventional production aesthetic was in evidence, his use of celeste giving the track its distinctive tick-tock chime sound.
Recorded around this time — but inexplicably gathering dust in the Paxton archives — was the Buck Owens song upon which “Nashville West” was clearly based, and according to brother Roland, “The first tune Clarence ever played on electric guitar.” Gene adds, “Clarence was a big fan of Don Rich and Don was a big fan of Clarence. Later, Don came to some sessions when we were in The Byrds and he was a really nice guy. Great guitar player and singer.” Of particular note here is the double-tracked lead where White is essentially harmonizing with himself.
STRINGBENDERS AND SWEETHEARTS
While Clarence’s picking is typically first-rate, especially the staccato intro, this April session is famous for another reason entirely. It was during the recording of this song that the idea of the StringBender (or B-Bender) was born. In the video below, Gene Parsons explains in wonderful detail the origin of the guitar. Two things: Gene remembers the session as being the Gosdin Brothers, but according to Alec Palao’s Tuff & Stringy liner notes, it was the Sanlands. In terms of likely chronology, I think the Sanlands makes more sense. Also, the chime he refers to at the beginning of the video is the oft-mentioned nut pull, which occurs at 1:09 of “Vaccination.” FYI, the first 2:37 is Gene describing the process by which the Stringbender came into being, while the remaining 3:58 is his demonstration of the StringBender’s mechanics. Great stuff.
Invention of the StringBender (B-Bender) guitar
For more information on the StringBender guitar, including custom installations, tutorials, and a discography, please visit Gene Parsons’ StringBender website. It’s good for what ails ya.
While Gene was bringing the frankenguitar to life, Clarence was making history in his own right as part of the session crew for Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, an album widely lauded as one of the seminal recordings of country-rock.” Seminal? Definitely. Country-rock? Not so fast, my friend. By my reckoning, there’s one, maybe two songs that can qualify as rock on this album, and I discuss them below. Most of the tracks are pretty much straight-up traditional country, like this one:
I like Gram Parsons‘ vocal on this Louvin Brothers gospel number more than I do McGuinn’s, but I think the band, including Clarence, is a little tighter on the officially released version. It features deft interplay between the steel in the right channel (Lloyd Green or Jay Dee Maness) and Clarence’s Telecaster in the left. Especially noteworthy is the middle eighth, where White again nut pulls to glorious effect.
I was originally gonna include “Blue Canadian Rockies,” which has some great guitar work, but this obscure instrumental outtake won me over. Granted, the title is grammatically-challenged and the track has warmup written all over it, but Clarence’s playing is almost casually spectacular. I think with a few more takes this would have been a nice addition to Sweetheart, in place of, say, “Pretty Boy Floyd.” Instrumentals were something of a Byrds tradition, dating back to Fifth Dimension‘s, “Captain Soul,” but especially later, when they were some of the highlights of the Clarence-era Byrds albums, beginning with Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde and “Nashville West.”
ONE HUNDRED YEARS FROM NOW … AGAIN
Before I get to the country-rock vs. country discussion, let me quickly praise White’s Telemastery. Throughout “One Hundred,” he effortlessly plays around the beat and melody, jumping out of the left channel between :48-1:05 and 1:20-1:53 with brilliantly angular picking.
Now, aside from the chorus and outro of “Nothing Was Delivered,” I think this is the only song on Sweetheart that can truly be considered country-rock. In both cases, the country arrangement is propelled by heavy rock drumming. Elsewhere on the album, the drumming unobtrusively shuffles and waltzes, but doesn’t rock. Since drums are one of the main differences between rock and not rock, and Sweetheart‘s drums are decidedly not rock, Sweetheart can’t really be a country rock album. This video frames the discussion with an appropriate sense of musical history. Is it country-rock? Is it country? What say you?
Sweetheart Of The Rodeo: Country-Rock or Country?
As spring turned into summer, Clarence was still playing regularly with The Reasons and session work in L.A. was there for the taking. However, the one element of his career that had been humming along for most of 1967-68 had changed for the worse. Says Gene, “Sometimes at Gary’s there would be nothing going on and you’d be sitting around all day. And there were no other sessions in town but Gary’s. That lasted about three months, and then Gary started having some major problems with his wife and drink, and things were falling apart fast.”
Thus it was, in July 1968, that Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn formally asked Clarence to join The Byrds. From their perspective, the recruitment of White made perfect sense. Gram Parsons had just quit/been fired from the band, so they needed someone who could legitimately play the country songs now in their catalog. However, McGuinn wanted to move away from country — or, at least being overtly country — so they needed someone who could legitimately play the rock songs that were, and would soon be, in their catalog. In Clarence White, The Byrds had a guitarist who could play country as good or better than any other country guitarist and a rock guitarist who was as uniquely gifted and visionary as any other rock guitarist.
For White, the decision was probably more emotionally difficult than it was professional. Not only did he have to quit The Reasons, he also had to ask Paxton for a release from his Bakersfield International contract. Fortunately, all parties concerned saw the move as a completely logical step up. The Byrds were an established unit, Clarence would be making guaranteed money, and he was being brought in to do what he was basically already doing with The Reasons. Only now, he’d be doing it in concert halls and auditoriums instead of dive bars.
Several weeks of rehearsals and a few gigs later, White convinced Hillman and McGuinn to have Gene Parsons replace Kevin Kelley on drums. Let’s be honest, if you’re gonna ask Clarence White to join your band, you better have a drummer that can keep up. So, by the late summer/early fall of 1968, half of The Byrds were former Reasons.
Clarence White Joins The Byrds
Gene Parsons Joins The Byrds
NEXT TIME: DRUG STORE TRUCK DRIVIN’ MEN
When I pick up the Clarence White Chronicles in 1968-69, we’ll have Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde in full-on technicolor, some honky tonkin’ live recordings, and a few session highlights. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I was discussing Clarence with John Delgatto a few days ago. If you don’t know who John is, he’s the owner and operator of Sierra Records and the man most responsible for keeping the Clarence White flame alive for lo these many years. Now, this may seem easy in the era of the blogospheres, but John was doing this when the CW Fan Club kept in touch with handwritten letters, collector’s magazines, and old-school mail order. Pens and stamps, baby!