During a decade when everything was a changin', The Dillards were supreme musical innovators in the progressive bluegrass field. Featuring Dean Webb on mandolin, resident emcee Mitch Jayne on stand-up bass, Doug Dillard on lightning speed banjo (later replaced by underrated tenor Herb Pedersen), and younger brother Rodney on guitar and lead vocals, the band confounded audiences and critics alike when they first arrived in California in November 1962.
Always proud to wear their Ozark Mountain influences on their sleeve, folks initially assumed the talented musicians were strange, slightly goofy hillbillies. But Jac Holzman and Jim Dickson of Elektra Records knew otherwise, signing the group to a recording contract after seeing them at the Ash Grove, a heralded folk joint on Melrose Ave. Incredibly, this momentous moment occurred exactly one day after their L.A. arrival.
The multi-album record deal was subsequently advertised in Variety. Richard O. Linke, Andy Griffith’s longtime manager, spotted the announcement and arranged an audition for a musically inclined mountain family on the influential Andy Griffith Show.
Not surprisingly, they won hands down. In a move that proved extremely shrewd in hindsight, The Dillards accepted a recurring role as the lovable Darling Family and were beamed into nearly 30 million homes for six well-remembered episodes over a three-year period.
Back Porch Bluegrass, the group’s debut record, made it pretty clear the band was seriously devoted to their craft. As the '60s progressed, they infiltrated the L.A. folk rock scene, becoming the first bluegrass group to go electric. Tours with The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and Elton John plus gigs all over the Sunset Strip, including the famed Troubadour, were regular happenings.
Subsequent albums embraced the burgeoning country rock movement, including Wheatstraw Suite  and Copperfields . Both garnered four-star reviews from such prestigious publications as Billboard and Rolling Stone but inexplicably weren't significant sellers. Within a few short years, The Eagles made country rock a ubiquitous commercial entity.
Nonstop reruns of The Andy Griffith Show 50 years later have solidified the band’s reputation as bluegrass darlings. Unfortunately, the televised Darling Family homespun image negates their revolutionary country rock influence.
Indeed, Rolling Stone coined Rodney the “father of country rock.” A master storyteller and songwriter who finds humor in everyday situations, the musician portrayed the buffoon during Dillards concerts, but in the recording studio it was a different story. His production sensibilities seamlessly melded bluegrass with jazz, pop, country, rock, or classical on numerous songs, including “Nobody Knows”, “Touch Her If You Can”, and “Redbone Hound.”
In perhaps his most extensive interview, the unabashed music connoisseur covers nearly every facet of his amazing career, leaving no stone unturned. The free-wheeling trip down memory lane begins now.
The Rodney Dillard Interview
How did The Dillards become part of The Andy Griffith Show?
I was finishing up high school when Andy Griffith first came on the air in September 1960. We lived out in the country in Salem, so the TV reception was always very snowy. That’s how I first saw the show.
We went to California in the summer of 1962 in a ’55 Cadillac. I was just 19 then. We had $9.50 in our pockets. We weren’t used to large sums of money like that, so we ran through it in about two months [laughs]. We were performing shows on our way out there.
Anyway, once we arrived, we checked into this real cheap hotel and decided to go down to a club called The Ash Grove. It later became The Comedy Store. That was where everybody went to hang out and play. We got out our instruments and started playing in the lobby. The owner approached us and said, “You can’t play here. Do it up there.” He pointed to the stage. So we went up there and did what we did.
It so happened that Andy Griffith’s talent agency was there. William Morris is still the largest agency in the world. Jac Holzman [founder of Elektra Records] and Jim Dickson [our first producer] were present. When we came offstage, they all drifted our way and asked us if we wanted a record deal with Elektra.
Being kids, we were like, “Yeah, sure, what’s it gonna cost us?” We signed with Elektra. About a week later they placed an ad in Variety proclaiming, “Elektra Records signs these weird looking guys from the Ozarks who play this really funny kind of music.” Hollywood didn’t know anything about bluegrass music.
Andy had a script in front of him called “The Darlings Are Coming.” It called for weird-looking guys from the mountains who played bluegrass music. He saw the Variety ad and got in touch with us.
So we went to Desilu Studios, a huge studio complex [now titled CBS Television Studios]. I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Untouchables, Star Trek – all these classic shows were filmed there.
As we walked into the soundstage, we saw all these people gathering around to meet us. They had heard the hillbillies were coming. Andy was shooting “Barney and The Choir.” You know, the one where they can’t figure out who is singing off-key [it’s Barney].
I’ll never forget this – they stopped the episode in mid-shoot and pulled up chairs [Andy and director Bob Sweeney] and said, “Show us what you’ve got.” So we started playing, and then Andy slapped his knees and got up, exclaiming, “That’s it!” I turned to Doug and whispered, “They’re throwing us out.”
We started to pack up our instruments but Andy quickly stopped us, saying “Where are you going? You’ve got the job.” When we appeared on our first Andy Griffith Show in 1963, Salem let out the National Guard that night to watch it. True story.
We were supposed to only do one episode, but because it happened to catch on, we did a total of six. We couldn’t do more, because we were constantly on the road touring all over the world.
One time our son came running into the room and exclaimed, “Daddy’s on another one of those gray shows!” The Andy Griffith Show will always be timeless. It was an honor to be part of something that’s been on the air for 50 years.
How would you describe Andy’s skills as a singer-guitarist?
He had this funny, kinda strange hand-style when he would play. We used to sit around and jam. I did some of the guitar playing for Andy on our episodes. He loved music, especially bluegrass music. Andy also collected instruments.
Andy was a good singer, too. He surprised me with his bass vocal on “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” That was also unusual to do a real gospel song on a TV show back then. It would often be something innocuous like “Oh, Happy Day.”
Which actor on the show was completely opposite his character in real life?
Hal Smith, who portrayed “Otis, the town drunk,” was truly the most different. He never had a drop of booze in his life. He was the sweetest, kindest man on the planet. Just a wonderful person. Did you know he was an accomplished voice-over artist who performed in hundreds of cartoons and commercials? Off the top of my head, Hal originally voiced “Owl” and then later “Winnie The Pooh.”
Were you friendly with “Aunt Bee”, portrayed by Frances Bavier?
A lot of people talk about “Aunt Bee” not caring very much for Andy. Never believe anything you read in books or newspapers [laughs]. She was great to us for some reason. She loved The Dillards because we hadn’t gotten into the Hollywood thing. We were still what you might call “real.” There’s a chemical change that occurs the longer you stay there [laughs].
After the first show we did, I had become very lonely for my pets [i.e. dogs and horses] left back home. So I wanted an animal, and I decided to buy an Alaskan Malamute. They are sled dogs and are really territorial animals. He weighed 115 pounds.
Anyway, I took the dog down to a veterinary clinic in Hollywood. Here I was, this hillbilly with this big dog named Wenatchee [named after the mountains where I loved to camp back in Oregon]. Most of the folks there had poodles, all kinds of things shaved up and dyed lavender.
As I’m standing there with my dog, in comes Frances Bavier with her dog, a little Dachshund. She came right up to me and said hello and started a conversation. Being a kid at that time, I felt really embarrassed because I didn’t know what to say to a star.
All of a sudden, she looked me dead in the eye, and she went, “Oh, ohh, ohh…” I didn’t know what was happening. Maybe she was having a stroke. Again, she uttered those sounds. I finally followed her gaze down, and Wenatchee was marking his territory on Aunt Bee’s leg. It’s absolutely a true story, I’m not smart enough to make that up [laughs].
Later when we had filmed our second episode and knew her a bit more, she baked us a lot of brownies, gave us a basket of fruit, and gave me some great words of wisdom. She said, “I have some advice for you. This is a terrible business, and you should just go home.” And that was my relationship with Frances.
Why did The Dillards rarely speak on the series?
Because they would have to pay us. That’s really true [laughs]. Whatever they told me to do, I would do. I always kept my mouth open because the producers wanted us to look like we didn’t know anything. They wanted us to be stoic and non-communicative. You could call that a form of improvisation.
When we first started the show, Andy told us we would not get paid as actors. First of all, there were no residuals then. But he said he would try to get every one of our songs on the show that we wrote. And he did that.
We averaged five songs per show, six shows [“The Darlings Are Coming,” “Mountain Wedding,” “Briscoe Declares For Aunt Bee,” “Divorce, Mountain Style,” “The Darling Baby,” and “The Darling Fortune”] in total between 1963 and 1966. And the show’s never been off the air in 50 years.
Andy could have taken real advantage of us. We could have been told to only perform public domain songs and never gotten a penny. Collectively, I think we made $375 for each show. That’s the kind of man Andy Griffith is.
Did any of your suggestions make it to the show?
The one time, believe it or not, was when Charlene [portrayed by Maggie Peterson]’s husband, Dud Walsh [Hoke Howell], was twisting his face in a scene where he was saying how he would use guerilla warfare to take care of Ernest T. Bass [the “Mountain Wedding” episode, 1963].
I remarked to someone on the set, “My mama had a saying that she would say to me all the time if I was whining or crying – ‘Do you want your face to freeze that way?’” So Denver Pyle [who portrayed “Briscoe Darling”] used my suggestion, and it’s featured in the episode.
The only improvisation scene we ever did was the snoring scene in that same episode. That was total improv. Beverly, my wife, hears that every night [laughs].
What exactly is a Mayberry Minute?
Mayberry Minute was a radio show that I narrated which ran nationally for three years beginning around the year 2001. The show consisted of 60-second stories written by Rene Ray and myself about different episodes.
We would present a short summary of a particular episode and then present a positive thought from that show to live by. “There’s always something to be learned from Mayberry” was the tagline, and that is certainly true all these years later. My last two albums [I Wish Life Was Like Mayberry and Don’t Wait For The Hearse To Take You To Church] included a handful of show samples as bonus material.
Beginning with “There Is a Time”, how would you characterize the following classic bluegrass tunes in The Dillards’ repertoire?
Mitch Jayne wrote “There Is a Time” in 1963, and I helped. Even though I wasn’t a Christian at the time, we based it on the book of Ecclesiastes, since I was raised in a church. Andy Griffith liked it a lot. He ultimately sang it on the show, Charlene [aka Maggie Peterson Mancuso] sang it, and then The Dillards performed it, too.
“The Old Home Place”
Written by Mitch and Dean Webb, this song describes what happens when you leave home and then return after a long spell, and the home isn’t there anymore.
It’s about an old boy from Salem who made moonshine whiskey for 25 consecutive years. He would come into town in his pickup truck every Saturday and load five 100-pound sacks of sugar in the back of his truck.
He never got caught, never went to jail, but everybody in town knew he was making whiskey. They knew he wasn’t making fudge up there on that ridge [laughs]. Written by Mitch and myself in 1963, “Dooley” has been very, very good to us over the years.
We filmed The Andy Griffith Show like a movie, using a single camera. Since it would take hours to set up one shot, we would go to Andy’s dressing room and pick. He absolutely loved bluegrass music.
Anyway, one day Doug was noodlin’ around with a tune. Andy became curious and inquired, “Doug, what is that?” Doug looked him dead in the eye and sheepishly admitted, “I don’t know" [you would have to know my brother’s disposition to understand the full weight of his statement].
But Andy just replied, “Well, why don’t we call it “Doug’s Tune?” Shortly thereafter, Andy graciously included a segment of us performing it on the show.
“Walkin’ Down the Line”
I still remember the first significant place they sent us after we made our first appearance on Andy Griffith. It was the 1963 Newport Folk Festival. I heard Bob Dylan perform for the first time there. We were the first bluegrass group to cover Dylan. He’s a great songwriter, but he’s got a voice very much like a dog caught with his leg in a car door [laughs].
“The Whole World Round”
What happens when you can hear your neighbor’s car start up or the low end wolfer on somebody’s jeep who’s two miles away? A lonesome song [written by Mitch and Joe Stuart in 1964], you could classify “Whole World Round” as sort of an early precursor to “There Goes The Neighborhood [the title cut of a 2001 album by Dillard].
I liken this song to the lyrical counterpoint of “Dooley.” It is the other, tragic end of the tale. Written by Mitch and myself in 1964, it’s about a man who died from drinking tractor radiator alcohol. He was our town drunk in Salem. By the way, there is a real Ebo Walker, but he’s not the town drunk – he was a stand-up bass player for New Grass Revival.
My favorite musical period was between 1965 and about 1974. Would you concur?
You know, that’s when music really had dimension or teeth to it. Everybody was searching for good stuff. I can remember in the early ‘60s when we all used to hang out at The Troubadour. Instead of a bar, the front of the club was a guitar/folk den.
Everybody would sit around and play and pick together. People like Gram Parsons (when he was young and innocent), The Byrds and Roger McGuinn (who was Jim McGuinn until he joined a religion called Subud and decided to change his name), Linda Ronstadt, and members of The Eagles (Glenn Frey was trying to make it with a group called Longbranch Pennywhistle with songwriter J.D. Souther). Then we would go to where they were staying and party all night.
Out of that started coming some really interesting things. I think I was the first one to start adding orchestra, steel guitar, drums, and electric bass to what we were doing with the bluegrass triad harmonies [first evidenced on Wheatstraw Suite].
Not just plugging in grass instruments, turning them up, and playing, but actually finding out production so everything worked together. Most of the song arrangements were also my idea.
Fans are well aware of The Dillards’ critically acclaimed albums on Elektra between 1963 and 1970. However, they might be surprised to learn about some largely forgotten tracks that the group recorded with producer Jim Dickson.
First of all, we were trying to find a producer when we landed in L.A., and Jim Dickson [he also put The Byrds together and had a hand in getting The Eagles together] fit that bill. He began producing us in 1963 with Back Porch Bluegrass. Jim and his partner, Eddie Tickner, were also our managers for awhile.
Since Elektra wasn’t initially receptive to our efforts to expand our musical palette, we did some demo sessions in 1964 at Columbia Studios in L.A. Chris Hillman of The Byrds played bass and Jim brought in Tom Ray from The Leaves [a ‘60s garage rock band who released the first popular version of “Hey Joe” before Jimi Hendrix] to be the drummer.
The demos were later sold. There’s a rare compilation album called Early L.A. that was released in 1969 on Together Records.
[Author's Note: Featuring sessions produced by Dickson, the album was expanded with an additional unreleased track in 2007 and released as Sixties Transition on Sierra Records].
It’s got us performing The Osborne Brothers’ “Each Season Changes You” as rock, “Don’t You Cry” (re-recorded for Wheatstraw Suite, 1968), and “Someday You’ll Find.” Other artists including The Byrds, Dino Valenti of Quicksilver Messenger Service, Glen Campbell, and Leon Russell contributed songs on there.
Because we had gotten a lot of criticism from folkies and different people about authenticity, we wanted our next album to be something straight down the line – academic if you will. It was as traditional as we wanted to go without being old-timey. Byron Berline’s fiddle playing was especially traditional and beautiful. Pickin’ & Fiddlin’  became our last obligated record on our first Elektra contract.
The Dillards then exited Elektra for a time and landed on Capitol Records.
After the fiddle record, we signed with Capitol and did an album later in 1965, but it was never released. Two singles did appear – “Nobody Knows” b/w “Ebo Walker” and “Last Thing On My Mind” b/w “Lemon Chimes.” All of those, except “Last Thing,” were re-recorded on Wheatstraw Suite and Copperfields (1970), respectively.
Dewey Martin of later Buffalo Springfield fame was our drummer then. By the way, some other great drummers who worked with us during the ‘60s included fantastic jazz player Earl Palmer, who played on Wheatstraw Suite and Jim Gordon [Derek and the Dominos], who played on Copperfields. Jim really was such a great guy. I don’t know why he later killed his mother.
[Author's Note: Most discographies, including the Collectors' Choice Music 2002 reissue, list Jim Gordon and Toxey French as handling drumming duties on Wheatstraw Suite, not Earl Palmer].
Capitol didn’t know what to do with us, they didn’t have any idea what we were about. They assigned several producers to us, but nothing seemed to click. One had produced Wayne Newton, so he was a big deal. He brought out a song that his brother-in-law had written.
It was the worst song ever. I wouldn’t have sung the song if somebody had held a gun to my head. It was called “The Gunslinger’s Union.” It was a stupid, dumb song. We all just looked at each other at the table. The guy said, “You have gotta do this song.”
We simply got up and walked out. We asked for a release from Capitol, and they agreed. There are unreleased, albeit largely unfinished songs from our short stay on the label.
One was “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” by Bob Dylan [Dillard sings the verse “Lay down your weary tune, lay down…Lay down the song you strum and rest yourself ’neath the strength of strings”]. I don’t know, I didn’t think the performance captured what we were looking for.
We eventually resigned with Elektra and recorded Wheatstraw Suite and Copperfields. We waited nearly three years after recording the Capitol singles before we tackled Wheatstraw Suite. I just wanted to make sure I knew which direction and concept to take the band in. It took me that long to put the album together in my head.
The title “Wheatstraw Suite” was sort of a rural name that I liked. We added various strings and an orchestra to tracks, and nobody in bluegrass was doing that back then. It might be difficult to believe today, but bluegrass guys just hated me for doing that in 1968. But in the long run it was okay. Always do what your heart tells you.
Herb Pedersen’s beautiful tenor vocals are all over Wheatstraw Suite and Copperfields. Why did he leave the group?
Herb left in 1971 because he wanted to try his solo effort. There were absolutely no ill feelings. He later did quite well when he joined Chris Hillman and formed The Desert Rose Band in 1985 [they had a string of Top Ten country hits in the late ‘80s, including “He’s Back and I’m Blue” and “I Still Believe In You,” both number ones].
Herb last played with us in 1990 on the Let It Fly record. We got a Grammy nomination for one of the songs on the album, “Darlin’ Boys.” I still get together with him just to pick. We did a concert together several years ago. He mainly stays busy playing with Chris Hillman and The Desert Rose Band.
I’ve thought about doing another project with Herb, but life kinda goes on. You just never get around to doing it until it’s too late. But I’ve entertained the notion – if somebody ever wanted us to do something, I’d be all up for it.
How did The Dillards get to tour with Elton John in 1972?
We were playing a club called The Troubadour in L.A., which is a good hangout. Everyone wanted to play there at least once a year. Elton came in one night to check out the club, and he came back and saw us. The English people were very aware of us in the late ‘60s.
[Author’s Note: The pianist first arrived in America on August 21, 1970. Immediately after checking in at the Continental Hyatt House on Sunset Boulevard, he attended the Troubadour (his first American concert would occur at the club four days later) and saw The Dillards, whom he was very excited to see. Their opening act was Longbranch Pennywhistle].
I knew who Elton was at that early stage of his career. I remember when he came out with Tumbleweed Connection . I loved his song, “Country Comfort,” featured on that great record. “Tiny Dancer,” the Honky Château album , all excellent music.
Elton’s reps called our manager and asked us to open for him, and we quickly replied, “Okay.” It was a perfect opportunity for us to gain additional rock fans, and we were readying our album, Roots and Branches, for release. We only toured with Elton that one time during his fourth American tour [April 27 – May 16], but it was a lot of fun. He came onstage and sang with us, too.
As a matter of fact, I’ve got a live album that somebody recently sent me that we recorded in the early ‘70s in San Diego during the Roots and Branches electric era. It was recorded the proper way, and I’m thinking about releasing it. It was wild. We rocked out pretty good.
The rock-influenced Roots and Branches  may be my favorite Dillards’ album.
Mine, too. Some of our bluegrass fans didn’t care for that album at all, probably. But the music fans loved it. In fact, Roots and Branches was one of our biggest sellers and highest charting – it broke the pop charts with a bullet [No. 79]. It was a lot of fun recording it.
You know, my music was always so eclectic from bluegrass. The record label [Anthem Records] found Richie Podolor, and he wanted to produce the album. They asked, “Do you want Richie Podolor?” I said, “I don’t know, I’ve never had anybody like that produce.” Richie produced Three Dog Night, Steppenwolf, Ringo Starr, and Blues Image.
I worked with him for nearly two years on that album. I would have to fly back and work on the album while we were out on the road. We would work and stay in the studio for three days at a time, and he never slept. He was one of those people who didn’t sleep. His mother said he’d always been that way.
I learned so much about production value from him. You can overproduce, add too much stuff. Just like you can over paint if you’re an artist. A lot of the stuff you hear on the radio today is over painted (laughs).
Anytime you change the sound of the original sound of the instrument, you mask it electronically. You add all these elements to it that makes it un-natural. That’s how you get your ears trashed. You can listen to music so long you get ear fatigue.
That’s why the acoustic is still organic enough that it’s soothing and doesn’t biologically start bifurcation in your body. I love the simplicity of going back to grass and acoustic music. I’ve always been a fan of John Prine and folks like that because of the fact their music was simple.
See, you can take a guitar when you record it, and if you record it right, it will sound so full and take the place of an orchestra. If you record an orchestra and don’t produce it right, it will sound like a cheesy organ. It’s all in how big of the waveform you want. It’s too technical…
You can take a mandolin and make it huge, make it fill everything you need and do the dynamics you need. You don’t have to plug in your amp and record a guitar three or four times and EQ/side chain it to make it sound that way.
Who were the musicians on the record?
Richie and I played guitar. I played rhythm and lead on many songs, sometimes on dobro. I had an old ‘50s Telly [Telecaster] that is all over the album. I played it for the first time on Copperfields two years earlier on a song called “Brother John.” When you hear the little jazz guitar break, that’s me on my Telly.
Richie had a Fender Broadcaster that was made even before the Telecaster. So we were both playing vintage instruments. Another guitar present on a few Roots and Branches tracks is my Gibson ES 335. One of the first songs it appeared on was “Sundown,” the instrumental that closes Copperfields.
Billy Ray Latham [misspelled “Lathum” on the sleeve credits] was on banjo and vocal harmonies, and Dean Webb on mandolin/vocals. Bill Cooper, Richie’s good friend and engineer, played electric bass.
Paul York was our consistent drummer [1969-1979], and he is on the record. A protégé of Richie’s also played drums with Paul on the album. I can’t remember his name, but he was a little skinny fella. He did some sessions for Three Dog Night. He wasn’t listed in the album credits, so there is still some confusion.
As for Mitch, he sang on occasion [definitely the bass part on “Man of Constant Sorrow”], but I don’t recall him playing stand-up bass on anything. Mitch was present at the sessions, especially the songs we wrote.
Really, the only time Mitch played a little electric bass was when we toured with The Byrds for one month in 1965. We rented our own airplane and everything. Mitch was still playing his stand-up bass when we toured with Elton. When he left, we went strictly to electric bass.
The only album where Mitch played bass throughout was Live!!!!Almost!!!, our 1964 live bluegrass/comedy LP on Elektra. To illustrate a bit further, our first album, Back Porch Bluegrass, had a black jazz bass player named Jimmy Bond, a great guy. I wanted that jazz, push the beat kinda feel for the music, because Doug and I both did that. That’s why it worked so well instrumentally – Jimmy fit right in.
See, that’s what I don’t understand about people saying, ‘Oh you can’t play this music, you can’t play that note, he’s a jazz player’…that just doesn’t mean anything to me.
Please share your memories about each track on Roots and Branches, beginning with “Redbone Hound.”
I was driving to a job – The Dillards had a show somewhere – and I wanted to express how you could write a rural country song from experience. So I wrote it in the car. The only way I could remember it was to sing the words to whoever was driving. By the time I got to where I was going, I wrote the words down. It took maybe 15 to 20 minutes for me to write it.
The wild electric soloing you hear as the song fades out is Billy Ray Latham’s [he replaced Herb Pedersen] banjo going through a fuzz tone. By the way, we did that first. The wah-wah pedal and the chorus effect are present, too.
“Forget Me Not”
Bill Martin wrote this beautiful ballad; he’s quite a writer. He composed “The Door Into Summer” with Chip Douglas for The Monkees' Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. album [Dillard then sings the opening line, “With his fool’s gold stacked up all around him, from a killing in the market on the war…”].
Sure, we could have cut “Door Into Summer,” but since The Monkees had already recorded it, we never did. Bill was living at my house when he wrote that one. Bill and I also wrote “The Biggest Whatever” together [on Wheatstraw Suite]. He later penned the screenplay for the popular 1987 comedy film Harry and the Hendersons.
It was probably the most commercially-sounding song on the album, along with “It’s About Time.” We designed it that way on purpose. Two of my daughter’s favorite songs recorded by The Dillards are “One A.M.” and “Close The Door Lightly” [on Copperfields]. Songwriter Paul Parrish did an admirable job on this one.
Written by Shel Silverstein, this tune was one I liked. I can’t remember who came up with it. We were always looking for songs – it didn’t matter if I wrote it, just as long as we liked it. I played a recorder (a woodwind instrument similar to a flute) on it.
It was easy for me to reach that high note at the end of the song [the line is “I’m going home”]. I went into a head tone. You have a chest tone, and then as you go up in the vocal register, that’s a head tone. Similar to when someone yodels. I have a real strong falsetto.
“Get Out on the Road”
Richie played it for me first, but I had heard it before somewhere. It was written by Keith Allison, a Paul McCartney look-alike who appeared numerous times on Dick Clark’s Where The Action Is TV show and later joined Paul Revere and the Raiders on bass [in 1968].
I really liked the song, so we did it. I came up with that little electric guitar lick that opens the song [Dillard goes “Deedle-di-dayahh…”], and I play lead throughout. We just built around it and worked out the arrangement. There’s mandolin and banjo breaks on that record, too.
Although Gib Guilbeau [Nashville West, Flying Burrito Brothers] wrote the song, I most likely first heard it on an album by my friend Larry Murray called Sweet Country Suite in 1971. I also sang on that album. Folks tell me it sounds like a song I could have written, and I wholeheartedly agree. Larry was a great writer in his own right.
He was born in Gram Parsons’ hometown of Waycross, Georgia. Larry went out to L.A. and had his own career as a writer. He was on Capitol for awhile with his band Hearts & Flowers, which also included future Eagle Bernie Leadon. Then he became the head writer for The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour and also wrote for awhile on The Johnny Cash Show.
“I’ve Been Hurt”
It was a good song written by Gary Itri [he played at times with Blues Image, Three Dog Night, and Roger Miller]. He later wrote “Smile For Me” on American Duck.
That’s actually Richie playing a B-3 Hammond Organ at the end of the song, not a synthesizer. There aren’t many keyboards on the album. I played keys on some of the later albums. You know, we played around a lot on Roots and Branches. I remember us being in the studio for hours just poppin’ corks out of jugs to see what kind of rhythm sound we could achieve.
It was about a kid leaving home and going to L.A. to try to make it. The second song I wrote for the project, part of it was autobiographical and part of it was observational – creative license. Kids would come into town and get hung up in that particular culture and lose their way. It became the only A-side released from the album. Richie is playing lead on classical guitar.
That was a tough one but very fun to do [laughs]. You have to remember, it was recorded in the days before you had the ability to hit a keyboard key and play the thing over and over – loop it. You had to do it for real. Those hypnotic “nah-nah-nah-nah-nah’s” you hear us singing on the track – I was just messin’ around doing that part, and Richie went, “Hey, let’s do that.”
So we harmonized – Dean, Billy Ray, and myself. You had to keep singing it, and it got unbelievably funny after awhile. We were looking at each other while we sang, and we could hardly get through it. You do “nah-nah-nah-nah-nah” for five minutes and see what happens [laughs]. Written by Jack Conrad and Gary Wilhelm, Richie was responsible for the classical guitar on it.
“Man of Constant Sorrow”
This traditional folk song was first recorded 100 years ago [by Dick Burnett, a partially blind fiddler from Kentucky], but it’s been around longer than that. Of course, we all got it from Ralph Stanley.
I was sitting in a booth putting vocals on a track. While I was waiting for engineer Bill Cooper to get the echo correct for the track, I started singing “Man of Constant Sorrow” A cappella. Just messin’ around, very impromptu. Richie exclaimed, “That’s going on the album!”
“It’s About Time”
Chip Douglas [a bassist and producer for both The Turtles and The Monkees] wrote it. Richie would pop his guitar and bend the neck to get that rwhuuurr sound. We did all kinds of weird stuff, but it was always a lot of fun.
I have no idea why we didn’t release it on the album. We released “It’s About Time” in advance of the album as a single [it became The Dillards' only song to break the Hot 100 at No. 92 in August 1971], so I guess we thought the fans would get more value for their money.
The only way you can hear it is on an mp3 ripped from the original vinyl single. It’s a terrible-sounding copy. If we could locate the master, it would be a different story. All I’ve got is the 45 – no wait, I don’t even have that anymore.
Did you have a good experience during your sojourn with Anthem Records?
Anthem was a subsidiary of United Artists. We signed with them because it was a small label, and it was founded by Ted Feigin and Lee Lassiff, who originally had White Whale Records. We had recorded two singles for White Whale in 1969, including “One Too Many Mornings.” After The Turtles disbanded [their biggest moneymaker], White Whale was phased out.
Being on Anthem wasn’t the best overall experience for us. When Roots and Branches started climbing the charts, Feigin and Lassiff got in legal trouble. Feigin got an offer to jump to Columbia Records, and he was in some hot water with his partner. Other personal problems, including drugs, caused a rift.
So Feigin and Lassiff had a parting of the ways, and Anthem was dissolved while the record was happening. The distributor then stopped pushing Anthem Records. My luck. It didn’t take very long before the album went out of print [nearly 25 years later, Beat Goes On Records in the UK finally re-released the album, paired with American Duck].
I don’t even know who owns the masters for Roots and Branches. I’ve talked to Richie about it, but he only has a few of the masters. Like everything else, they’re lost somewhere, floating around Hollywood. Who knows where it is. It would take awhile to track them down, but I would definitely be interested in locating, remastering, and making them available to the fans.
Regardless, I became exasperated and signed up with United Artists, the mother company. Tribute To The American Duck resulted in late 1973, along with a solo single I released the next year, “Stone’s Throw Away” / “In My Life” [written by Lennon/McCartney].
“Daddy Was a Mover” [American Duck] is one of Beverly’s favorite songs. I haven’t performed it since I virtually abandoned the electric band, but she wants me to do it. We haven’t figured out how to perform it acoustically yet, since drums are an integral component of it.
Did you guys actually have a connection to Cat Stevens?
Believe it or not, we recorded his song, “Wild World” [Dillard gently sings “Oh baby, baby, it’s a wide world, and I’ll always remember you…”]. It became his first hit single in America [No. 11 Pop] and basically launched his career.
Richie got the song and said he wanted to cut it with us. I loved it, so Richie put a hold on it. That means nobody else was going to record it. Consequently, we went in the studio and recorded it. Cat had not released it yet.
When A&M, Cat’s record label, found out that Richie thought it would be a hit record for The Dillards, they went ahead and released Cat’s version. Although they promised it would be ours first, that’s the business for you. Now you know the story. I think Ritchie has our version somewhere in his archives.
Do you play any songs off Roots and Branches in concert?
I haven’t done any of the songs from Roots recently. However, I am working up “Redbone Hound.” I am starting to perform some of the songs from Wheatstraw Suite [e.g. “Don’t You Cry” and “I’ve Just Seen a Face”] and Copperfields. I haven’t gotten around to Tribute to the American Duck yet.
I’m still doing the new stuff off my last two solo albums and the songs we did during our guest appearances on The Andy Griffith Show.
When I get requests for songs on Roots and Branches, sometimes it’s hard to do some of the songs because it requires a different sustain on an instrument. I would be doing Roots and Branches unplugged.
Now when we toured Roots and Branches back in the early ’70s, we stayed true to the record. If there was an electric-based song, that’s how we performed it live. Billy Ray learned Richie’s guitar parts on his Telly.
Just the other day I saw a rare video on YouTube of us performing “Daddy Was A Mover” in 1978 on Austin City Limits. It’s an example of The Dillards playing electric with our Telecasters.
[Author’s Note: During a soundcheck for Dillard's show at the Gram Parsons Guitar Pull and Tribute Festival in Waycross on September 23, 2011, he performed The Beatles’ “I’ve Just Seen A Face.” When this writer mentioned he first heard The Dillards’ cover on Wheatstraw Suite before the original Beatles version, Dillard seemed to be truly astounding, inquiring, “Really?”].
Why did you never record with Richard Podolor again?
I went through that phase of recording in Hollywood during the '60s and '70s, and it was simply time to move on and totally do my own thing. Besides, I spent nearly two years with Richie recording Roots and Branches.
I saw Richie a few years ago, and we had a good long conversation. Everybody just moves on. There’s a certain period of life where things happen. Things change, attitudes change, perspectives change. You keep moving. That’s not to say we couldn’t reunite someday and do another album.
Do you have any idea how many albums The Dillards have sold?
Not really; I do know that the direct-to-disc album we did called Mountain Rock  on Crystal Clear Records sold 80,000 records. It was the first digital recording before digital tape. You went in and cut directly to acetate, like the old days. You had to start the machine. It would begin carving the grooves in the record.
You didn’t stop recording until the album was done. They would hit you with a red light. You had to start again when you got the green light. You better be ready and in tune for the next song. And that was a lot of pressure.
Our publicist finally hired a lawyer and went after Elektra/Warner Bros./Asylum after many years, because we hadn’t received any royalties. They said, “Oh, we thought the group was dead.” We ultimately started getting our royalties, over 20 years after we recorded most of the music. Welcome to the record business.
The record industry is crooked. It destroyed itself, because they would never report all the sales to the artist. Since 1991, Nielsen SoundScan has been available. Every time you sell records, even if they’re sold at our shows, we report it on SoundScan. That’s how you get on the charts.
It’s real now. Used to, if you got on the Billboard Hot 100, somebody bought it onto the charts so it would get started. We’re on the Southern Gospel charts legitimately now with Don’t Let the Hearse Take You to Church.
How has the Internet affected the record industry?
Although I’m happy to have a brand-new record deal with Rural Rhythm Records, everything is changing, everything. There was a time when you had freeform radio, and everything had a chance to be heard.
Then the ‘80s rolled around, and that’s when I started to lose interest in music. You had formula music, where people came along and said, “Okay, you’ve got a lick here, now do this, dah dah dah…” After awhile, all the pop music started sounding the same.
Now if you were born in the Internet era, that’s a good thing. Madison Avenue and the big marketing people who controlled the taste of America and the world lost that ability when the Internet arrived.
You can throw stuff up on YouTube and see a lot of different things. I’m glad, because you can have a broader view of what people are doing music wise. Before, it was all how they hyped it and sold it to you, like soap.
The Internet has caused the record companies to go down the tubes. Albums won’t survive. Of course, there’s retro-minded people who will keep that format alive. Jac Holzman, the founder of Elektra, came to see me in June 2011 while we were playing a festival in California. He said, “Rodney, we’re re-releasing all The Dillards’ Elektra records on vinyl.” I remarked, “Okay, alright” (laughs).
See, what those albums are is distortion. If you get too clear, it gets so clear it hurts the ears. They tire easily listening to digital music. The resident frequency of the human ear is between 3 and 4 k. People used to try to get better mics to take away that distortion that tape created. When digital came in, they all went back to find the old mics, so they could get that sound again.
Downloading is the thing everybody’s doing now. In fact, that’s how we released our last two singles. Everybody’s searching to find the best way to market their wares. But it will always come down to content. Like a good book – if it’s a good book, people will buy it. If it’s not, they won’t.
Music all started when the first caveman hit the other one in the head with a bone and got a sound. Then he lined up eight other cavemen…thwoop, thwoop, thwoop! [laughs]. Anyway, I don’t know where music’s gonna go from here. There’ll come a time I guess when you’ll be able to think your music and the other person will be able to receive it.
Do you have much say-so in the reissues of The Dillards’ catalogue?
Companies re-release our albums or put out compilations, and we’re rarely interviewed or put in the loop [Author’s Note: Critic Richie Unterberger and Collectors Choice Records did an excellent job on the Elektra reissues about 10 years ago].
They usually think, ‘Oh wait, we’re make some money off of this.’ They’re trying to do something to boost their sales by thinking going back might help because they can’t find anything new. Somebody reported to me recently about maybe reissuing Roots and Branches in Surround Sound. I don’t know.
Raven Records in Australia put out one in 2005 called Let the Music Flow: The Best of 1963-1979. Bob Dylan’s “One Too Many Mornings,” which we recorded as a single for White Whale Records in 1969, is on there.
[Dillard sings the lyric “Down the street the dogs are barkin,’ and the day is a-gettin’ dark, as the night comes in a-fallin,’ the dogs’ll lose their bark…for I’m one too many mornings and a thousand miles behind”]. Chip Douglas, a friend of mine, produced that single for us in 1969 on White Whale Records.
What is the status of The Dillards today?
It’s what it’s always been. When you think about it, the original Dillards weren’t together that long – five years from 1962 to 1967. That’s when Doug left. I later received a Grammy nomination for my production work on Doug’s Heartbreak Hotel album in 1988. I hadn't played with him in a few years. But we played together for a long time.
Doug had a different approach to what he wanted to do. I’m not sure he knew what his approach was [laughs]. He became semi-retired and got to really enjoy life until health problems, exacerbated by a collapsed lung, ultimately took their toll on May 16, 2012. I miss him terribly.
Dean has always been an outstanding mandolin player. On our records, he would sing the parts that Herb Pedersen and I didn’t sing. Having Dean’s voice kept the band’s identity intact.
Dean has his own bluegrass group called Missouri Boatride. I saw him last summer at a festival where both our groups were playing. He just wants to do his own thing – we both do. We spent so much time together, you know, we needed a break [Author's Note: While there were various personnel changes over the years, Dean and Rodney were the only consistent members].
Mitch was having trouble hearing, and he began to plot his exit from the band during the Roots and Branches sessions. However, for the follow-up album, Tribute to the American Duck, he returned with a vengeance, co-writing over half of that record.
He moved back to our hometown in Salem, Missouri, after his mother died. She was a Dole of Dole Pineapple and left him a whole bunch of money. So Mitch built a log cabin and retired in the woods for the most part. The band continued for many years after his departure.
Billy Ray Latham [who replaced Pedersen on banjo in 1971] was in a terrible car accident [November 2004]. The cops were chasing an illegal Mexican in Nashville, and his car hit Billy head-on at 90 mph. Billy almost died, as both his legs, right knee and femur, arms, and left hip were badly broken. He also received a significant head injury.
It really messed him up, but after being in a coma for a week and remaining in the hospital for six months, Billy Ray is on the mend. He had to learn how to play all over again. It’s still tough going for him, but he hasn’t given up.
Once in awhile the original Dillards would get together for reunion tours. Unfortunately, Mitch and Doug are permanently out of the picture now.
Even if someone offered us an incentive, I doubt it would happen. It’s over, that’s past, that’s done. It wouldn’t be the same, it wouldn’t possess the right quality or energy it should have. It simply wouldn’t be productive.
I was the youngest one in The Dillards and the one who was doing all the singing and arranging of the tunes. I decided to keep on going as long as people would let me [laughs], because that’s what I do.
Isn’t it mind-boggling how The Dillards’ music continues to transcend time?
You know, John McEuen of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, who was really influenced by our music, did a wonderful job on A Night in the Ozarks [a 1989 independent documentary featuring interviews and live performances]. He’s got such insight, and he’s really talented at being able to pull things like that together. That video really illustrates our legacy.
Rolling Stone always gave me credit for being the father of country rock, and that kinda stuck. It’s great, I never had a hit-hit, but I would rather do what I’ve done over the years than be a one-hit wonder. You know, you get one song, it’s the pick flower of the day, then it’s over.
Our publisher tells me every day an artist is requesting a song from one of my albums to record. I’m very thankful for that. I’m just thankful to be alive (laughs).
Do you sit around and jam any?
Not so much anymore, because we’re always out on the road. When we’re out at the farm, we’ll sit and pick. I’ll get up out of bed and start pickin’ away if I get a song idea or melody going. Beverly has been woken up on more than one occasion by my plunking [laughs]. I mainly like to just sit down with my guitar and see if I can come up with new stuff as opposed to jamming with friends.
We don’t do very much rehearsal before we play a show. But it’s always fun to get together with the guys. It’s like a football player going out and throwing the ball around a bunch of times. It gets your blood going.
Our banjo player, Jim Glaspy, lives in Branson, but George Giddens [fiddle, mandolin] and Shane Lail [bass] all reside in the Asheville area [North Carolina]. They’re capable of playing anything.
How many instruments can you play?
I dabble at everything, I’m not a master of none. There are no rules in recording when you make rules. Anything you try, if it succeeds, then you’ve set a precedence. That was absolutely the philosophy of The Beatles. Their producer, George Martin, was a genius. He managed to merge all that orchestration with what they were doing at the time. That’s real innovation.
I did get an opportunity to meet The Beatles’ press officer, Derek Taylor. Doug was friends with John Lennon and Ringo while they were in L.A. during the early ‘70s. My brother was a bachelor at the time, while I was married to my first wife [Linda Carey] with a new toddler [Brian].
Do you still play any electric guitar?
I gave my last electric guitar, a really pretty purple Blade, away to a friend who’s a really good jazz player. I don’t have an electric guitar anymore; all mine are acoustic. My daughter, Rachel, has one.
I haven’t played an electric onstage since Beverly, Dean Webb, and I had our show at the Silver Dollar City Amphitheatre in Branson [1982-1988]. Beverly would perform on banjo and sing her own songs during the show.
I’m coming full circle today – I’m back to acoustic again. Electric finally got to me after awhile, too many frequencies clashing. A bluegrass ensemble is very much like a string quartet, almost the perfect vibe of frequencies. That’s what a string quartet is – a perfect frequency convergence. I just got into the real finessing of real, non-disguisable finessing.
Is it important to connect with your audience?
Absolutely; live performances are becoming a rarity where you have actual entertaining at the same time you’re playing music. Entertainment is very important and how you relate to an audience.
Back in the mid-‘70s rock and roll became rock theater with lighting, smoke, guys wrapping snakes around themselves, doing all these tricks…because they could not actually communicate with an audience. So rock became a circus, and then Cirque du Soleil became rock (laughs).
Now we’re trying to make a show out of our concerts, not just get up there and say, “Thank you very much. A great big howdy and a couple doody’s to you. Kick her off there, Wichita!” [laughs].
Our setlists are never written down in stone. I love to see and hear what a crowd wants to hear. Spontaneity is essential to my live shows. Beverly has to be on her toes because I’ll always bring her out at different times [laughs].
Plus, I love to be right in the middle of the crowd. That’s why I like indoor theatres, because every nuance, every movement, and every subtlety (if you’re doing comedy), they get. It’s hard when you have a show set up like a rock concert – the audience is far away from the stage.
We’re gonna tour around the country as much as we can. Last summer we were gone for three months. This past summer we were only home for maybe two weeks. As long as guys like you keep writing about us, we’re keep doing it. You’re keeping us alive.
Are you currently writing?
I haven’t written a new song lately, but I’ve just started working on a book. It’s called Nuggets from the Horse I Rode in On: Reflections of a Road Scholar. You could say it’s sort of a little heavier than a Mayberry Minute moment.
It’s not really about my career, just life observations about events and people I’ve encountered. I’m hoping the stories will offer a little advice or lesson to the reader. I’ve written about a half-dozen short stories so far, so it may not be completed until next year at the earliest.
I have written extensively regarding actor Steve McQueen in a column entitled "Jeremy's Steve McQueen Files." I am curious...did you ever run into the King of Cool?
Funny that you should ask that. I was driving down a Hollywood street sometime in the ‘60s, going out toward the ocean, in an old van. Oil was just pouring out of it. And this guy pulled up beside me in a car and yelled, “You’re throwing oil out of your truck!” It was Steve McQueen. I responded, “Yeah, I know!” and I kept on going [laughs].
DON'T GO ANYWHERE YET! Did you know that Rodney is now a highly sought after Christian speaker? In "The Christian Walk: Rodney's Life-Changing Experience", the conclusion of his free-wheeling interview, the singer recalls his long and winding path to becoming a born-again Christian. Rodney originally grew up in a Baptist church in Salem, Mo. But the bright lights of show biz beckoned, and he lived a heady rock and roll existence in Los Angeles for decades. In essence, he followed the example of the prodigal son who attempted to run away from God.
Twitter: To interact directly with Jeremy Roberts, follow @jeremylr
Further Reading: Like their alter egos, Andy Griffith and Don Knotts were seemingly joined at the hip. Lost for nearly 50 years, a video clip has recently been unearthed from a CBS variety special entitled The Andy Griffith, Don Knotts, and Jim Nabors Show. It features the actors in living color reprising Sheriff Andy Taylor and Barney Fife on a soundstage. Released in October 1965, mere months after Knotts controversially departed The Andy Griffith Show for a short-lived career on the big screen, the video proves that the actors were masters of comedic timing and relished performing together in front of live audiences.
Exclusive Interview: James Burton, the Master of Telecaster, has enhanced a veritable who's who of icons, including Elvis Presley, John Denver, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Glen Campbell and The Monkees. Perhaps his closest musical compadre was Rick Nelson, as the "Poor Little Fool" singer slyly lured an 18-year-old Burton away from rockabilly artist Bob Luman in 1957, ultimately creating an 11-year partnership in the recording studio. To read a comprehensive feature with the guitarist marking the anniversary of Nelson's incomprehensible death ["Six String Brothers: James Burton Champions the Timeless Allure of Rick Nelson"], simply click on the highlighted link.
Further Reading No. 2: An esteemed member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's sophomore induction class, "Garden Party" singer Rick Nelson was on the verge of a mini comeback when his plane tragically caught on fire en route to a New Year's Eve gig on December 31, 1985. A rockabilly-themed album was in the final recording stages, and Nelson had found a new record label in Nashville named Curb Records. Unfortunately, the project was promptly placed in the dustbin whilst various figureheads argued over rights, whether the singer's vocals were satisfactory, and if the project deserved to see the light of day. Wrangling beyond the so-called myths revolving around the project, an in-depth feature ["True Love Ways: A Glimpse Inside the Tangled Web of Rick Nelson's Final Album"] sheds light on the ill-fated Curb sessions nearly 30 years later.
*****CLICK HERE to get your free email subscription to Jeremy Roberts’ regular column. Authentic interviews, original commentary, news, and reviews from the wide world of pop culture will be delivered directly to your inbox. And whether you enjoyed or disliked this article, don't hesitate to leave a comment below to join the discussion. Thanks!
© Jeremy L. Roberts, 2014. All rights reserved. An earlier version of the above interview was condensed into multiple installments beginning on Feb. 11, 2012. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed in full without first contacting the author. Headlines with links are fine. In addition, posting any links to Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, or Google Plus is sincerely appreciated.