An exclusive chat with Rodney Dillard about maintaining an American legacy
The Dillards play bluegrass, and their debut album, 1963’s Back Porch Bluegrass, showed off their quality chops with a set of standards and originals performed at supersonic speed.
“We were young and excited and had a passion for the music,” said Rodney Dillard, the original band’s last surviving member. “Jim Dickson produced by setting up the mics and pushing ‘record.’ There was a big competition with bluegrass players, so we played fast. We had a sense of humor and thought we’d do better in California, so we moved to LA, from our home in Missouri. We wanted to play bluegrass for people who didn’t know about the high, lonesome sound. We found a new audience in LA and fell in with the people who were in the process of inventing folk rock.”
The original lineup – Rodney on guitar and Dobro; Doug Dillard on banjo; Dean Webb on mandolin and Mitch Jayne on stand up bass – got signed to Elektra and cut Back Porch Bluegrass shortly after arriving in California. A scout for The Andy Griffith Show saw one of their early gigs and hired them to play The Darlings, a bluegrass band based in Mayberry. They played The Darlings for four years and became the most famous bluegrass band in the country, if not the world.
After three traditional albums, The Dillards moved into new territory with Wheatstraw Suite, an album featuring electric guitars, drums, overdubbed vocals, and a full orchestra. In retrospect, many critics hail it as the first folk/rock album and, with a few more decades of hindsight, it might be called the first Americana album. “It was also called the first country rock album,” Dillard said. “We used pedal steel too, but we weren’t thinking about breaking boundaries. We were just playing the music we liked.”
Forty years, and countless changes in personnel later, Dillard took his current band into the studio to cut Old Road New Again, an album he considers the long overdue compliment to Wheatstraw Suite. It’s the band’s first record of new material since 1992’s Take Me Along for the Ride. Not unexpectedly, it shows another shift in direction, this time back toward a primarily acoustic sound.
AUDIO: The Dillards Wheatstraw Suite (full album)
“I thought, let’s make it like the old times,” Dillard said. “I moved to Branson a few years ago and the music got gentle again. I recorded in Nashville with my wife Beverly on banjo, producer Bil VornDick and the guys I use when I go out on the road – Gary Smith (acoustic bass), Tony Wray (guitar and banjo) and George Giddens (fiddle).”
There’s some cello and synthesizer in evidence, but most of the album was played live in the studio, without any polish. “I’ve known Bil since the early 70s. When I called up and said I had the idea for this album, he said he’d do it on one condition – that we have fun. I invited some friends to contribute – Don Henley and Bernie Leadon from The Eagles, Ricky Skaggs, a long time friend who was instrumental in our wedding, Sharon and Cheryl White and Herb Pedersen, who was with me in the Wheatstraw days. Everyone was great. They all contributed to the arrangements, with Tony Ray bringing his jazzy feel to the session. As usual, I surrounded myself with people more talented than I am.”
The album is balanced between Dillard originals, some of them chestnuts, and newer pieces. “My Last Sunset” features lead and harmony vocals by Don Henley and includes a cheeky quote from The Eagles’ “Take It Easy” in the backing vocals. “Common Man” is a folky ballad that pays tribute to the country’s workingmen and women. “Save the Last Dance For Me” reinvents The Drifters’ hit as a bluegrass rave up and the title track is a folk rock retelling of Dillard’s history that incorporates lyrics from the folk hits of the 60s and references to The Eagles, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and other iconic acts. “There was no grand plan to the record,” Dillard said. “I just wanted to record some of the songs I’m enjoying right now, which is what I’ve always done.”
The sessions for Old Road New Again went so well, that Dillard will be heading back into the studio to cut another album as soon as possible. “We’re calling it The Songs That Made Charlene Cry. If you watched us play The Darlings on The Andy Griffith Show, you’ll know what that title means. Before we went into a song, someone would ask us what we were going to play. One of us would say ‘Dirty Me, I’m Disgusted with Myself’ or ‘Don’t Hit Your Grandma with a Great Big Stick.’ Charlene would say, ‘Don’t play that one. It makes me cry.’ Then we’d play ‘Dooley’ or ‘Salty Dog.’ Recently, I sat down with Beverly and we wrote songs based on those old jokey titles. We’re gonna record ‘em and get ‘em out as soon as we can.”
AUDIO: The Dillards featuring Don Henley, Herb Pedersen and Bernie Leadon “Old Road New Again”