With their landmark 1968 release, Wheatstraw Suite, The Dillards opened the doors for the progressive bluegrass and country-rock movements. In August, Rodney Dillard, the band’s sole surviving original member, released a new album by the Dillards, Old Road New Again, that he describes being a “bookend” to Wheatstraw. Although not as artistically groundbreaking as its predecessor, Old Road still features non-traditional bluegrass instrumentation and, probably more importantly, it finds the 78-year-old musician in a reflective mood about how he sees the world today as well as the Dillards’ legacy.
Talking from his home outside of Branson, Missouri, Dillard shares that “before I was just trying to reflect what rural life was like, but I grew up in it. This one, more or less, is more reflecting an old person’s perspective on life.” It’s a point-of-view that can be heard on “Tearing Our Liberty Down” and “Take Me Along for the Ride,” which offer non-partisan statements on the state of the world, while “Earthlink,” “Common Man,” and “My Last Sunset” find a man taking stock of his life.
“My Last Sunset,” with its vocal nod to the Eagles’ “Already Gone,” also represents the album’s full-circle theme; however, the theme is best epitomized on the title track, a rousing telling of the Dillards’ story. The tune also features several guest artists pertinent to that era: Don Henley (a friend and neighbor from Rodney’s L.A. days), Bernie Leadon (who played in Dillard & Clark with Rodney’s brother Doug), and Herb Pedersen (who joined the Dillards on Wheatstraw and has played with Rodney on and off since).
Adding to Old Roads’ ties to the past are appearances by Sam Bush (founder of the game-changing New Grass Revival) and Ricky Skaggs (who went from bluegrass traditionalist to progressive during the ‘70s) as well as Sharon and Cheryl White. In the past, Rodney had been hesitant about having an album feature lots of big-name guests. “I didn’t want to make it like I was trying to make an event out of it,” he explains. “I did it because I was able to have Henley, Ricky, Herb and Sam Bush with me… people who I truly respected before they were stars.”
Rodney offers some especially kind words for Skaggs for appearing on “Tearing Our Liberty Down,” which makes some pointed statements about America without pointing out particular political parties. “He took a big risk, I think, standing his ground with ‘Liberty Down,’” Rodney relates. “I’m just overwhelmed that he would consider doing it. He could have refused to do it, but he didn’t because he stands his ground.”
He also credits Pederson, who plays on most of Old Road’s tracks, with being a key factor in the Dillards’ breakout sound on Wheatstraw, which was Pedersen’s first album with the band. “When Herb came in, he added his harmonies.” Rodney reveals, “It became a different thing. It became Wheatstraw Suite.”
Featuring full orchestration, drums, and electric instruments, Wheatstraw Suite shook up bluegrass traditions while also being an important touchstone in the burgeoning country-rock scene. The album’s innovative sound was a creative decision, not a commercial one.
“It wasn’t about selling toothpaste. It was music,” Rodney shares. “We were selling what we believed in. It was what we thought was fun, creative and maybe had something to say that no one had said (before).” Don Henley, who covered the Dillards’ “She Sang Hymns Out of Tune” on his Cass County album in 2015, and Elton John, who picked the Dillards as his opening act in 1972, have cited Wheatstraw as a highly influential album. In considering the impact of the album and his band, Rodney says, “I’m just very grateful and thankful that I could play just a small part in the history of what music was in the ‘60s.”
One curious thing about Wheatstraw Suite is that it marked the Dillards’ return to Elektra Records, who released their first three albums, after an abbreviated stint at Capitol Records. The band had left Elektra originally because the label didn’t understand the direction that they wanted to pursue on a single entitled “Hey Mr. Five-Strings.” A cover of a ‘50s hit called “Hey Mr. Banjo,” the Dillards’ interpretation, as Rodney described it, “added knitting needles for rhythm played on a fiddle.”
Capitol was supposed to be greener pastures for the group; however, the label proved to be a worse fit for the Dillards than Elektra. “They assigned us this producer Ken Nelson, who was doing country, but he didn’t understand what we were doing. Then they gave us this guy who produced ‘Danke Schoen’ for Wayne Newton. That’s when Mitch and I looked at each other in a conference with this guy and said we wanted out. And we walked out.”
Rodney readily admits that the band should have never left Elektra. He also is very thankful for the help that Elektra’s founder Jac Holzman provided then and ever since. “If it hadn’t been for Elektra I don’t know what would have happened [with the Dillards]. I’m just grateful to have had that label,” Rodney proclaims, adding Jac “has been instrumental in getting [Old Road] off the ground,” as well as contributing to the album’s liner notes.
Los Angeles in the ‘60s was home to a vibrant, highly synergistic music scene, which Rodney remembers as being spearheaded by people with a passion for what they were doing. Peers like Linda Ronstadt, Leadon, and Henley, he mentions, were “all these guys who just loved music.” One popular musician hangout was the Troubadour’s foyer, which was just a folk room with instruments on the wall and people drinking tea.
“We would sit around, and we would just sing. We had a wonderful time… (people) would come up to the house that Doug, Dean (Webb, the Dillards’ mandolin player) and I had together in Topanga, where we’d pick and played music… Gosh, Herb and I would sit in with Clarence White and the guys down in the King’s Lounge,” he says, remembering a venue in Palmdale, outside of L.A.
The Dillards — Rodney and Doug Dillard, Dean Webb and upright bassist Mitch Jayne — left Salem, Missouri, and headed west to Los Angeles in 1962. Rodney says they chose L.A. because they felt Nashville didn’t respect bluegrass music and country music had a sameness to it back then. They also thought people might be more open-minded in Los Angeles. The drive took three months because they had to stop along the way to make money to continue on.
Once in L.A., however, their story resembled a Hollywood movie. They went to the legendary club, The Ash Grove, which Rodney humorously describes as the “petri dish for folk culture.” Setting up in the club’s lobby, the group started an impromptu performance. When club owner Ed Pearl came over, Rodney thought he was going to kick them out. Instead, they were invited to play that night. In the audience at that show were Jim Dickson, who later produced the Byrds, and an agent from William Morris Agency, which represented Andy Griffith and his TV show.
Within a week or so, the band had secured a deal with Elektra Records as well as an audition for The Andy Griffith Show. When Griffith stopped their audition short, Rodney says he told his brother, “They’re kicking us out.” So he was surprised when Griffith said, “You got the job!” They were hired to portray a hillbilly band, The Darlings, for an episode, but proved so popular that they wound up appearing on the show several more times over the years.
Because Andy Griffith was such a hit TV show then (and has remained in reruns ever since), the Dillards — as the Darlings — became quite well-known and brought bluegrass into millions of homes. Rodney praises Griffith not only for having given the group this big opportunity but also for letting them play their own music on the show.
The Darlings’ fame also got the Dillards booked on network TV programs like The Judy Garland Show and The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show. During a Playboy After Dark appearance, the band intentionally played fast to see if the dancers could keep up, according to Rodney: “So you’ll see those people are busting their chops just trying to look like professional dancers, and they just look people eradicating cockroaches.”
Although they played comical hillbillies on The Andy Griffith Show, the Dillards resisted perpetrating Hollywood’s country bumpkins on TV shows. “If they had haybales and painted freckles on the dancers and everybody looked like Daisy Duke,” Rodney states, “we said, ‘Nope, we’re not standing in front of that.’” The band, particularly in their early days, were known for their humor, but it was more sophisticated than typical hayseed variety. Their Live!!! Almost!!! provides a good example of their comedy style, and it’s referenced a bit on Old Road with Beverly Cotton-Dillard’s comical banjo ditty “Funky Ole Hen.”
While Rodney has always pushed the boundaries of bluegrass, he has great reverence for its traditions too. In 2009, the Dillards were inducted into the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame. “I love that music,” he states. “I don’t want to see bluegrass die.” But he also says that the music can’t live in the past. “As far as Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, the Blue Sky Boys — all those folks — they did what they did. Any of us who imitate them are just being pastels of what they did.”
Rodney talks excitedly about seeing two kids on YouTube playing old-time music with a contemporary feel. He is happy that younger musicians are interested in bluegrass and roots music and happy, too, that they don’t seem rigid over how to play it. “People now have their own free will over their creativity,” he exclaims.
He references an old Dillards’ tune, “Music Is Music” before talking about how he loves all sorts of music — “if it’s real…if it’s not manufactured.” He mentions how Earl Scruggs, a man he greatly admired, “had no rules. He loved good music; he was not judgmental at all.” Keeping it real and making it good is the type of approach Rodney brought to Wheatstraw Suite back in the day and Old Road now.
Rodney admits that the Dillards have had a rather bizarre career, with people familiar with them from The Andy Griffith Show and those who know them from the band’s work, particularly their trailblazing music on Wheatstraw Suite, along with Copperfields and Roots and Branches. Although the Dillards didn’t have the commercial success achieved by acts like the Eagles, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and New Grass Revival that followed after them, Rodney is quick to note, “I didn’t miss out on being on television and being in somebody’s room every day for 60 years.”
Old Road New Again, which is the Dillard’s first album of new material since 1991, represents Rodney’s long-desired bookend to the Wheatstraw album. And while the title can be interpreted as taking a look back into the past, he also sees a positive, forward-looking sentiment — “I’m an old road but I can still be new again” — in the title’s meaning. The road he’s taken has given him an interesting ride, Rodney says, and he is grateful that Old Road has been attracting some attention because the album “may be my swan song.”
“I’m not trying to be pathetic,” he confides with a spry sense of humor, “but I am 78 years old.”