CD Review - Appalachian Swing!
By Glenn Weiser
Metroland, April 7, 2005

The Kentucky Colonels
Appalachian Swing (EMI)

The Kentucky Colonels’ 1964 all-instrumental album Appalachian Swing was a milestone in bluegrass history. It was on this record, now remastered and reissued with three bonus tracks for its 40th anniversary, that 19-year-old Clarence White of later Byrds fame freed the guitar from its role within the genre as a backup instrument and established it as a full-fledged lead voice.

White, who counted Jerry Garcia and Tony Rice among his fans, derived his style from the flashy, syncopated playing of North Carolina singer and flatpicker Doc Watson and adapted it to the ensemble needs of bluegrass. His fleet-fingered soloing, along with the talents of his older brother Roland on mandolin and other bandmates Billy Ray Lathum on banjo, Roger Bush on banjo and double bass, and Bobby Slone on fiddle and double bass, made Appalachian Swing a classic, and this a welcome re-release.

Shortly after World Pacific issued the original 12-track, 27-minute LP, the label used members of the California-based band including the White brothers to back dobroist Tut Taylor on the LP Dobro Country. Many bluegrass fans consider these sessions an extension of Appalachian Swing, so the CD has been fleshed out with three of Taylor’s recently rediscovered tracks.

The Colonels didn’t stick to the usual bluegrass repertoire in their choice of material here—they also dish up fiddle tunes, Southern nostalgia songs, Western swing numbers, folk songs and early country classics. As pickers, Clarence White’s bandmates might not have broken new ground the way he did, but they played just as well. This is clear from the start, where Billy Ray Lathum tears up the Scruggs-style banjo warhorse “Clinch Mountain Backstep.” On the next cut, “Nine Pound Hammer,” White’s picking is supple and articulate, and remains so when he trades choruses with Roland on “Billy in the Lowground,” “John Henry” and “Listen to the Mockingbird.” The ill-starred guitarist (he was killed in 1971 by a drunk driver in a hit-and-run accident) also shines on “I Am a Pilgrim” when he takes advantage of the relaxed tempo to throw in dazzling blues polyrhythms on his famously dulcet-toned 1935 Martin D-28. Guest dobroist Leroy Mack NcNees twangs away on the outlaw ballad “Wild Bill Jones,” and Slone, usually the bassist, mimicks the sounds of a car chase with his fiddle, police sirens and all, on “Lee Highway Blues.”

Appalachian Swing is not without a few sour notes. On some of the tracks, the pitch of the closing chord drifts, leaving you wishing someone had been more careful (whether the error occurred during the original analog recording or the digital remastering is not clear). No biggie, though—for bluegrass fans and guitar pickers of all persuasions, this is still an essential CD.

List of Metroland Stories by Glenn Weiser                          ©2006 by Glenn Weiser. All rights reserved. 

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