I’ve been in a kind of funny place lately — musically, I mean. I keep running across pictures or films of rural folk from years ago, many of the men in bib overalls and playing banjos, fiddles, or harmonicas, and I flash back to my own early childhood. But here’s the catch — although the circumstances are familiar, I can’t seem to zero in on specific musical memories.
I guess I just have to chalk it up to advancing age, but I still keep thinking about hearing that kind of music years ago. I suppose that’s what set me to thinking about how some of my antecedents originally came from the Kentucky hills, an area rich in bluegrass and other traditional country music, and that in turn led me to the Kentucky Colonels. (The musical group, not the honorary title the state sometimes hands out to big shots.)
Known as the Three Little Country Boys when it was formed in the 1950s, the group began when California brothers Roland, Eric, and Clarence White began to make appearances in area shows and festivals. (You can see the brothers in the rare home movie below, which is very evocative of the era.) Later joined by Billy Ray Lathum and Leroy Mack, the group — now just called the Country Boys — started to find some success in the recording studio and also began to show up in some unusual places, in one case backing up Andy Griffith on his popular TV show.
In the early 1960s occasional shifts in personnel accompanied a name change, and the Kentucky Colonels — a name suggested by the music, not the members’ origin — began to sell a lot of records. The group’s folk/country approach, with its strong bluegrass influence, proved very popular in an era that saw the rise of many folk music acts, but by the latter years of the decade they’d pretty much dissolved. Clarence found work backing up acts like the Monkees and Ry Cooder, and also spent some time with the Byrds, but even though he reunited with his old group a few years later, his death in a 1973 auto accident marked the end of the original Kentucky Colonels.