Sierra Records is a small label dedicated to preserving and enhancing the memory of legendary guitarist Clarence White. Through agreements with his estate Sierra has managed to produce several outstanding and historically important CDs. 33 Acoustic Guitar Instrumentals came from a cassette tape discovered in Clarence's personal tape archives after his untimely death. These home recordings feature Clarence playing lead guitar accompanied by Roger Bush on rhythm for a number of bluegrass standards. All the songs are tantalizingly brief. The longest, "In the Pines" runs a mere 2:11. The format is simple, Clarence plays the solos a couple or three times and then the song ends, but in each tune there are enough musical ideas to keep you busy dissecting them for a lifetime.
33 Acoustic Guitar Instrumentals was recorded in 1962 on a pre-Dolby noise reduction Wollensak machine. While these units were known for reliability (you could find them in most high school language labs) they were not exactly ultra high fidelity. Their high frequency limit was around 8 kHz, and they had a consistent amount of wow and flutter. Given the Wollensak's technical limitations, this recording is astonishingly good. Even with the occasional volume drops, and slight pitch variations, the sound of Clarence White's 1957 D-18 comes through with remarkable fidelity. Surprisingly Clarence preferred to play solos with the D-18 rather than his fabled 1937 D-28, now owned by Tony Rice. The D-18 was stolen in 1967 while Clarence was recording in Los Angeles. It has never resurfaced.
The Kentucky Colonels Living in the Past: Legendary Live Recordings is made up of tapes from seven different shows in 1961, 1963, 1964, and 1965. Material is from performances at the Comedia Theater in Palo Alto, the Ash Grove in L.A., UCLA folk festival in L.A., the Cabale in Berkley, Gerdes Folk City in N.Y.C., and the Cobblestone Club in North Hollywood. Most of the CD is from a 1965 Performance at the Ashgrove, and was originally recorded on a mono tape recorder. Along with a classic version of Clarence's instrumental tour de force "Julius Finkbine's Rag," this CD has a chilling rendition of "Dark Hollow" featuring Roland and Clarence White in a lead duet.
Along with the music, Living in the Past: Legendary Live Recordings includes between song patter by the band along with some very corny jokes. There's even an introduction by Jerry Garcia from their Comedia Theater gig.
While the original tapes are not, even for their time, the ultimate in high fidelity, Producer John Delgatto has done a fantastic job eking out every last bit of sound. Bruce Leek and Bob Katz are also to be commended for their work translating these recordings to CD. Except for a few minor tape glitches, the sound is surprisingly consistent and it's easy to delineate each musical part.
Many "historical" recordings are important without being musically compelling. Both these two CD's however contain outstanding musical performances that are as fresh and exciting today as when they were when created. Do yourself a favor, buy both.