By Richie Unterberger

On their 1968 album Wheatstraw Suite (also reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music), the Dillards surprised both the folk and rock worlds by mixing bluegrass, country, folk-rock, and pop into something new and unclassifiable. It wasn't too marketable, either, and Wheatstraw Suite was fated to be more of a cult album among listeners, and an influential recording among musicians, than it was a big seller. Nevertheless, Elektra Records -- which had already dropped the Dillards from its roster once previously, back in the mid-1960s after their third album -- gave the band another chance to continue moving into progressive directions on Copperfields, released at the beginning of 1970.

    Copperfields was less startling than Wheatstraw Suite, if only because Wheatstraw Suite had been so unexpected from a group that had started out as a bluegrass act with a traditional repertoire. If Copperfields was thus more of a continuation of Wheatstraw Suite's spirit and less of a groundbreaking landmark, it was still just as accomplished, eclectic, and enjoyable as its predecessor. Country-rock, crossover pop-folk-rock, a cappella bluegrass harmonizing, even near jazz-folk-rock with a tinge of psychedelia -- the Dillards could do it all, or touch upon several styles at once within many of the album's songs. But their bluegrass roots were always evident, particularly in their expansive harmonies, which could be uplifting or bittersweet as the material demanded.

    Although the sound of Copperfields was pretty much in the same mold as that of Wheatstraw Suite, there were a few changes within both the band and the studio crew. Paul York was now with the group on drums, which had been handled by session musicians on the prior album. Handling production was John Boylan, who'd begun to establish himself as a noted Los Angeles country-rock producer with Rick Nelson, and would in the early 1970s produce and manage Linda Ronstadt (and later produce mega-selling rock band Boston). The only session musician on the record was fiddler Byron Berline, who had played a big role on the Dillards' 1965 Elektra album Pickin' and Fiddlin' with Byron Berline. By the end of the 1960s, Berline himself was heavily crossing over from the folk world to the rock one, playing on sessions by the likes of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and even the Rolling Stones' "Country Honk" on Let It Bleed.

    The thirteen songs on Copperfields were mostly devoted to originals. One of those, "Ebo Walker," was actually a re-recording of a song that the band had originally released on a rare Capitol single back in 1966. But as on Wheatstraw Suite, the original material would be broken up by well-chosen covers, including the Beatles' "Yesterday," "Rainmaker" (co-written by Harry Nilsson and Bill Martin), and Eric Andersen's "Close the Door Lightly." "Yesterday" in particular was a too-short delight, standing out like a diamond on a coal pile in a sea of too-sentimental interpretations of the classic Lennon-McCartney ballad. Rather than pour on the syrup, the Dillards opted to strip it to its essentials, with an a cappella arrangement that brought out the song's forlorn spiritual yearnings.

    Copperfields was largely given over to quality country-rockers with joyous harmonies, such as "In Our Time," where the vocal blend takes on a bit of a California sunshine pop hue. "Old Man at the Mill" spun the wheel back toward their purer bluegrass roots, only separated from folk festival territory by the light electric rhythm section. The title track confirmed their unsurpassed skill at embellishing country-rock with orchestration that enhanced the material instead of diluting it. Less expected highlights included "Touch Her If You Can," which with its melancholy strings and Beatlesque harmonies might have had some genuine potential as a hit single. The biggest surprise was "Brother John," which strongly recalled the more adventurous and psychedelic outings of the 1966-67 Byrds with its jazzy rhythms, Byrdsian harmonies (though the Byrds had themselves been influenced by the Dillards' vocals), and electric guitar runs.

    "You try to define all this, you guys who write the books," remarks Rodney Dillard when asked what was driving unusual genre-benders like "Touch Her If You Can" and "Brother John." "It's very much like trying to put sunlight in a bottle. It's really hard to capture. We did it 'cause it was fun. That's it." As for "Brother John," "Herb had written this great song, and we just thought it was fun. We got to goofing around with it one day and decided to record it that way. Besides, I'd never been able to play jazz guitar before."

    As for the more serious "Touch Her If You Can," Dillard continues, "At that time, Mitch [Jayne] and I, we were in our bummer love song period, because we were both suffering divorces. That happened to be a song that was not structured. It was just done." As to whether there might have been any thought that the song might have had a shot as a left-field hit single, he responds, "I don't think we were trying at that time to write hits. I mean, that's a job for the song factories."

    Copperfields was the last of the five albums that the Dillards made on Elektra, and only the second the band had done for the label in their more contemporary guise after re-signing with the company (following a short break) in the late 1960s. And like Wheatstraw Suite, its commercial impact was modest, even if in hindsight the music actually sounds more accessible than much other country-rock to emerge from Southern California in the late 1960s and early 1970s. "Like all record companies, they never really knew how to market it," reflects Dillard on Elektra's success, or lack of it, with Wheatstraw Suite and Copperfields. "They didn't know what we were. They couldn't identify us. Nobody has really ever known how to market what we did."

    Actually, the Dillards would experience their greatest commercial success, such as it was, with their first post-Elektra album, 1972's Roots and Branches (boosted when they toured with emerging superstar Elton John). Taken together, however, Copperfields and Wheatstraw Suite are undeniably their finest and most creative albums, and indeed among the most significant mileposts in all of early country-rock. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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