THE WHITES – Bluegrass Music Band
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“There’s nothing like playing music to bring a family together,” says Sharon White, but that’s not exactly right; almost 30 years have shown that the music of The Whites – Sharon, sister Cheryl and father Buck -has just as much power to bring audiences together in a feeling that resembles that of one giant, extended family.
The story of The Whites begins in Texas, when a young Buck White started his musical career not long after the end of World War II, working the dance halls and radio shows in a succession of bands. Honky-tonk music called for the piano and bluegrass the mandolin, and so he became proficient on both, absorbing the many varieties of Texas country and blues to fashion his own, distinctive style – one that kept him in steady demand as a sideman throughout the 1950s. In 1961, tired of the rough-and-tumble life of a honky-tonk musician and wanting to raise his family in a more wholesome environment, White moved to Arkansas. Yet within a matter of months, he and wife Pat were once again making music, forming a band with another couple that eventually was called the Down Home Folks. As Sharon and Cheryl grew, they too were drawn to music (“Mama said I could carry a tune before I could talk,” Sharon recalls) at first forming the Down Home Kids with the children of other Down Home Folks members in the mid-1960s, then moving up to join their parents in a growing number of bluegrass festival appearances.
The first big turning point for the Whites came in 1971, when a successful trip to Bill Monroe’s Bean Blossom festival convinced the family that the time was right to move to Nashville and pursue a more serious career in music. Though Pat retired from the band in 1973, the move paid off as Buck White and the Down Home Folks began their recording career, featuring the striking family harmonies and top-notch instrumental work that has characterized their music ever since. The remainder of the decade saw them make a steady ascent in the world of bluegrass, recording five acclaimed albums for various labels and working a busy touring schedule, even as they gained a toehold in the country music field thanks to their powerful vocals and broad repertoire. The former, in particular, attracted the attention of Emmylou Harris, who brought them in to sing on her Blue Kentucky Girl album of 1979 and then took them on the road with her as an opening act.
The early part of the 1980s brought The Whites – by then renamed to reflect their family ties – to national prominence as their simple, traditionally-rooted yet dynamic sound put them on Billboard’s country charts with a succession of Top 20 hits. Favorites like their first Top 10, “You Put The Blue In Me,” as well as “Hangin’ Around,” “Give Me Back That Old Familiar Feeling” and “Pins And Needles,” – the latter all produced by Sharon’s husband Ricky Skaggs (the two married in 1982) – introduced them to new audiences, culminating in their induction as members of the Grand Ole Opry in 1984.
Since then, The Whites have entertained and inspired literally millions of listeners at thousands of personal appearances with their unique sound. Time has also brought renewed attention to Buck White’s mandolin playing; as bluegrass historian Neil V. Rosenberg recently said, “insiders have long known of his prowess,” and with his appearance on the recent Bluegrass Mandolin Extravaganza, a wider audience has been introduced to his masterful style and compositions.
Now, with a new album on the way (produced by one of their former sidemen, the legendary Jerry Douglas) on Ricky Skaggs’ Ceili Music label, the Whites are moving once again to the top ranks of artists able to combine a respect for – and mastery of – traditional country and bluegrass with a refreshing performance style that is at once dynamic and intimate, and always professional. “I feel good about this album,” Buck says, while Sharon adds “we’re always falling between the cracks when it comes to styles, but that’s just the way our music is. We have dobro, fiddle, and mandolin on this album, as well as some piano. It has the same kind of feel as those singles we made back in the early 1980s, but it’s as bluegrass as anything The Whites ever did.”
For those who have heard The Whites before, that’s good news indeed – and for those who haven’t, it will be an exciting introduction to a rich, yet comfortable musical world. They may not use the name any more, but Buck, Sharon and Cheryl White are still creating music that’s as good and as real as everything conjured up by the phrase “down home folks.”
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