Written by 8:28 pm Audiophile Music

Two Sierra Records Gems

“Historical Recordings” by their very nature are usually not audiophile sound spectaculars. These two Sierra Recordings are no exception. But if American roots music is your thing, these recordings should be in your library, sonic warts and all.


AR-sierra CD.jpgSierra 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.

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